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  • Why do smart people make dumb decisions?

  • Why do conspiracy theorists think that we didn’t land on the moon or that Hillary

  • Clinton is a space alien?

  • And why won’t Bernice admit that the new Superman movie just isn’t very good?

  • Weve talked about cognition before. We usually refer to it as the process that we

  • use to think and solve crossword puzzles and stuff. But really, cognition involves knowing,

  • remembering, understanding, communicating, and to a certain extent, learning.

  • And as truly wonderful as our brains are, we can be spectacularly bad at ALL of these

  • things.

  • We used to think our cognition worked like a computer -- logically processing information.

  • But that cabbage-sized chunk of pink, wet brain matter in your skull can do a lot more

  • than math, and the things that it does are certainly not always logical.

  • Many experts argue that it’s cognition that makes us truly human, and that everything

  • that comes with it -- our preferences, prejudices, fears, and intuitions -- are what make us

  • the individuals that we are.

  • Were not the only animals that show some evidence of cognition, of course: Chimps and

  • gorillas exhibit insight and planning; crows use tools; elephants teach each other.

  • But our capacity as humans to figure stuff out is matched only by our ability to totally

  • misjudge stuff. As prone as we are to brilliance and insight, were equally likely to succumb

  • to irrational thinking and false intuition.

  • So, to borrow a riff from Rene Descartes, you think, therefore you are.

  • Which means youre brilliant a lot of the time. And sometimes, youre just going to

  • look stupid.

  • [INTRO]

  • We all want to make sense of the world. And one of the major ways our cognition allows

  • us do that is by forming concepts -- mental groupings of similar objects, people, ideas,

  • or events. We like to lump things together.

  • Concepts simplify our thinking in such a fundamental way that we usually don’t have to stop and

  • think about using them, theyre just there.

  • And yet without concepts, we’d need a unique name for everything. You couldn’t just ask

  • me to shake the anglerfish -- because there’d be no concept of shake or fish, let alone

  • stuffed, blue anglerfish.

  • And if I told you I was devastated that I lost my anglerfish -- which I probably would

  • be -- I’d also have to explain my emotions, their intensities, even the words themselves

  • that I had to use.

  • So basically, without concepts, no one would ever get anything done. We’d all be like

  • a bunch of ents taking all morning to sayHey, what’s up?”

  • We often organize our concepts by forming prototypes--mental images or pinnacle examples

  • of a certain thing.

  • For example, if I saybird”--the general shape of a songbird probably pops into your

  • head before like, a penguin or chicken or emu, because robins and cardinals more closely

  • resemble our bird prototype. Still, if I show you a picture of some crazy

  • creature youve never seen before, and you note that it has feathers and a beak, youll

  • probably file it under the bird category because it more closely resembles your concept of

  • bird than your concept of rodent or overcoat or footstool.

  • Concepts and prototypes speed up our thinking, but they also can box in our thinking, and

  • lead to prejudice if we see something that doesn’t fit our prototypes.

  • A hundred years ago the sight of a female doctor might have caused some heads to explode,

  • because in peoplestiny minds, the prototypes ofdoctorandwomandidn’t have

  • any overlap. And actually some people today still feel that way. Haters gonna hate.

  • So it’s important to actively keep your mind open mind to make room for evolving concepts,

  • and remember that concepts may sometimes hurt as much as they help.

  • One of the biggest ways our cognition works to our benefit, though, is through our ability

  • to solve problems. We use our problem-solving skills all the

  • time: How to assemble Scandinavian furniture, bake muffins with a missing ingredient, or

  • handle the crushing disappointment of the new Superman movie.

  • And we approach problem-solving in different ways -- sometimes we value speed; other times,

  • accuracy.

  • Some problems we figure out using trial and error--you know, you try something and if

  • it doesn’t work, try it a different way, and keep at it until something works. Trial

  • and error is slow and deliberate--which may be good or bad, depending on the problem.

  • We can also use algorithms and heuristics to come up with solutions.

  • Algorithms are logical, methodical, step-by-step procedures that guarantee an eventual solution,

  • though they may be slow to work through. Heuristics, on the other hand, are more like

  • mental shortcuts -- simple strategies that allow us to solve problems faster, although

  • theyre more error-prone than algorithms. Say youre at the store, looking for a family-sized

  • bottle of Sriracha. You could use an algorithm and methodically check every shelf and aisle

  • in the store. Or you could use heuristics and first search the Asian or condiment sections--the

  • places that make the most sense based on what you already know.

  • Heuristics may be way faster, but the algorithmic approach guarantees you won’t overlook the

  • sauce along the way, because they stuck it in the deli or whatever dumb thing they did

  • this week.

  • So algorithms, heuristics, and trial-and-error are problem-solving strategies that involve

  • a plan of attack. But sometimes we get lucky while puzzling

  • out a problem, and Aha!, out of nowhere a sudden flash of insight that solves our problem.

  • I’ll use orange in the muffin recipe instead of lemon! Or, Sriracha lives in the Mexican

  • section! For some reason! Neuroscientists have actually watched that

  • kind of sudden, happy brain flash on neuroimaging screens.

  • In one experiment, they gave subjects a problem to solve:

  • What word can be added to the three words CRAB, PINE, and SAUCE to create a new compound

  • word? Then they asked the subjects to press a button

  • when they had the answer.

  • While the subjects thought about it, scans showed activity in their frontal lobes, the

  • areas involved in the focused attention of typical problem-solving.

  • But right at the Aha! moment, just as they pushed the button, there was a clear burst

  • of activity just above the ear in the right temporal lobe, which, among many other things,

  • is involved with recognition.

  • The answer, by the way, we already gave you the hint earlier in the episode.

  • Where’s my fish? Those sudden bursts of insight are awesome,

  • but you can’t count on them to solve all your problems. And just because something

  • feels, doesn’t mean it’s truly correct. Because as inventive and smartypants as we

  • may be, our cognition often leads us astray in all kinds of ways.

  • For instance, we often look for, and favor, evidence that verifies our ideas, while were

  • more likely to avoid or ignore contradictory evidence -- a tendency known as confirmation

  • bias. This is really similar to the overconfidence weve talked about, when youre basically

  • more confident than you are correct. When this kind of cognitive bias takes hold,

  • you might cling to your initial conceptions in a kind of belief perseverance, even in

  • the face of clear proof to the contrary. This happens all the time, and it can be maddening

  • for people watching it happen. People still think that the earth is flat! It’s like...WHAT?

  • HOW? There’s space pictures! I probably don’t need to tell you -- people

  • can really get weird and defensive when they evade facts and choose to see only the information

  • that confirms their beliefs. They may even become functionally fixed, unable

  • to view a problem from a new perspective. Instead they just keep approaching a situation

  • with the same mental set, especially if it’s worked in the past.

  • Say youve got a nail sticking out from a board, and youre like “I need to take

  • care of that!” There’s rocks, and bricks all around you. But because of your functional

  • fixedness on the idea that only hammers work on nails, you don’t even consider hitting

  • it with the brick, and instead you waste a bunch of time in the garage looking for a

  • hammer, and youre angry and frustrated, and there’s still a nail sticking up from

  • the board. So, our mental set predisposes how we think,

  • just as youll remember that our perceptual set predisposes how we perceive.

  • This is what makes heuristics -- those super-convenient mental shortcuts that we all use -- so easily

  • fallible. In the 1970s, cognitive psychologists Amos

  • Tversky and Daniel Kahneman researched how we make snap judgments, and discovered one

  • way smart people make dumb decisions. They found that people believe an event will

  • be more likely to occur if they can conjure up examples or memories of it, especially

  • if those examples are particularly vivid, scary, or awesome.

  • So, say youre in a casino and you win two dollars at a slot machine. Suddenly every

  • flashing light and ringing bell in the place goes off. But when you lose -- which is the

  • vast majority of the time -- it’s just...crickets. With all their lights and noise-making, the

  • casino makes sure that wins are super vivid and memorable, while losses just go away unacknowledged.

  • That way, the next time youre standing there with 100 bucks in your pocket, youre

  • more likely to overestimate your chances of winning, because the memories of winning are

  • more striking. The more mentally available those memories

  • are, the more it seems that it’s going to happen again. This is known as the availability

  • heuristic. And it can warp our judgements of people,

  • too. If we keep remembering news footage that shows people of a given group shooting guns,

  • that can shape our impression of the entire group -- even if what we saw was only a tiny

  • minority within that group. Essentially, we are great at fearing the wrong

  • things. We worry about being killed in a plane crash or getting bitten in half by a shark

  • or accidentally choking on a dumpling. Thanks to our brain’s b-roll of horrific

  • images, we come to fear what’s actually very rare, instead of worrying about much

  • more common, but less memorable ends like car accidents, cancer, and heart failure.

  • Our thinking can also be swayed by framing, or how an issue is presented. Imagine youre

  • considering climbing Everest or getting a nose job or eating a bowl of raw blowfish.

  • I can frame the risks in different ways. Telling you that youve got a 95 percent chance

  • of survival sounds a lot different than saying five out of a hundred people die doing this

  • activity, though the information is the same. Our cognitive minds are capable of incredible

  • intellectual feats and tremendous failures. We can solve problems better than any organism

  • on the planet, but given the chance, we can also mess up a pretty simple judgment every

  • day of the week. But if were mindful of our capacity for

  • error -- and if we honor our ingenuity and intellect -- I think our ability to solve

  • any problem is nearly infinite. And that, gives me a lot of hope.

  • Seriously though where is my fish? Today you learned how we use concepts, prototypes,

  • and our mental sets to think and communicate, and how algorithms, heuristics, and insight

  • help us solve problems. You also learned about how fixation, the availability heuristic,

  • fear, overconfidence, and belief perseverance can get in the way of good decision-making

  • and thinking. Thank you for watching, especially to our

  • Subbable subscribers, who make this whole channel possible. If you’d like to sponsor

  • an episode of Crash Course, get a special Laptop Decal, or even be animated into an

  • upcoming episode, just go to Subbable.com/crashcourse. This episode was written by Kathleen Yale,

  • edited by Blake de Pastino, and our consultant is Dr. Ranjit Bhagwat. Our director and editor

  • is Nicholas Jenkins, the script supervisor is Michael Aranda, who is also our sound designer,

  • and the graphics team is Thought Café.

Why do smart people make dumb decisions?

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B2 H-INT US cognition mental solve problem error problem solving

Cognition: How Your Mind Can Amaze and Betray You - Crash Course Psychology #15

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    Ellen   posted on 2014/08/05
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