How We Make Decisions and How We Should

Dov Michaeli

First published 6/15/11 on The Doctor Weighs In

Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard Psychology professor had a piece in today’s online edition of Nature (6/15/2011) titled “Buried by bad decisions”. In his thought–provoking article he poses the dilemma: we worry more about shoe-bombers than influenza, despite the fact that one kills roughly none and the other kills roughly 400,000 people per year. We worry more about our children being kidnapped by strangers than about becoming obese, despite the fact that abduction is rare and diabetes is not.

How to explain this manifestly irrational behavior?

It’s all in our head

Imagine our favorite scenario: you live in the African savannah and are faced with an unfamiliar band wielding sticks and…smiling broadly. Are you going to analyze the situation and weigh the odds of being attacked? If that’s how your brain worked, you’d literally be dead meat before you arrived at a rational answer. But that’s not how the brain is programmed –it is geared to arrive at ‘’gut feeling” reactions in lightning speed. We possess a system that is distributed throughout the far flung regions of the brain, from the visual cortex to areas designated for face recognition, to the motor areas that coordinate movements –all designed to detect the body language, to read facial expressions and to simulate in our own brain the  actions of the approaching danger –and quickly formulate a response. It gives a new meaning to getting into one’s head. The response itself is not purely “rational” either. It is largely regulated by the limbic system that includes the amygdala, and these almond-shaped centers command a fight or a flight, literally before we “know” it consciously.

The world is more complex nowadays

If things were that simple today as they were in the African savannah I wouldn’t be writing this article. In fact, there would be no computer to type it on. There would be no philosophical dilemmas, no politics (how boring), not even a glass of wine for dinner. We simply outraced our evolutionary heritage. Our brains did not evolve to accommodate the new reality of tribes and nations and the super-nations of Facebook and tweeter. These are direct consequences of the discovery of agriculture, the Industrial Revolution, urbanization, and the digital age. Our Paleolithic brain is woefully inadequate to deal with complex issues like global warming or abstract ideas like the concepts of zero and infinity. What is missing is analytical thinking; calculation of odds is not part of our brain’s DNA. As Prof. Gilbert points out, we see a shoe bomber as a great danger to ourselves although nobody got killed. But we are not galvanized into action to control diabetes, although thousands died, and millions more will. We are spending untold sums to fight a bunch of peasants in Afghanistan that we perceive as danger to our well-being, but we spend close to nothing on averting climate change although it could result in extinction of life as we know it.

Another consequence of our aggregation into larger and larger groups is the development of ground rules for living together. We developed morality because without it there will be no society. We developed laws to preserve and protect the connective tissue of our society. Is it any wonder that in some of the most densely populated countries, like China and Japan, consensus and “social harmony” are viewed as axioms of a functioning society?

The interesting thing is that the brain as well as the later development of laws are directed against agents, be it an approaching lion or a shoe bomber. We are programmed to view them as existential threats, and it arouses in us a primeval defensive reaction. But we are not programmed to react with the same degree of alarm to things. Our adrenaline doesn’t get flowing when we hear that the atmosphere will rise by 3 degrees in fifty years, despite the certain catastrophic consequences.

What’s to be done?

The long term solution is education. How many of us learned statistical analysis in elementary school? None of us. I am not talking about standard deviations and analysis of variance but about simple thinking in odds and probabilities. What is more probable: being struck by a lightning, or meeting your mom when you leave school? Any first grader can answer that. What are the odds that a lion will try to bite you if you stick your hand through the fence for one second? How about a full minute? As the students mature, so can the problems become more complex. Are Scandinavians on averagetaller than Japanese? But are all Scandinavians taller? And finally, students could tackle great social issues in an analytical fashion. A few years ago a Belgian missionary doctor from the Congo stayed in my lab for a training period. In one of our long conversations he told me that the Belgian missionaries banned polygamy there in the 19th century. Wonderful, I thought. Not so fast, he retorted. Africa was, and still is, afflicted with tribal warfare, resulting in a dearth of males. Polygamy allowed their society to compensate for that and maintain equilibrium for hundreds of years; the church’s moral edict disturbed this societal adaptive response. So what did the newly liberated women do, now that their social and economic support system disappeared? They became prostitutes. And wouldn’t you guess it: venereal diseases killed even more men than the tribal wars. The moral of the story? What sounds right ain’t necessarily so. High school students could analyze such a problem as a quantitative problem: what causes more deaths: warfare or spread of disease? What causes more social harm? What would have been a more effective policy for the Belgian colonialists: ban polygamy, or reduce tribal conflict (which they actually encouraged; the old divide and rule policy).

This is just one example of critical thinking about complex issues, which is so vital to the functioning of a modern democratic society. The alternative is what we have now.

Dov Michaeli MD, PhD is a basic researcher who writes about everything at The Doctor Weighs In.

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