Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Illusion of Imperfection

People are flawed, right?

Maybe not.

Flaws and imperfections are measures of things that aren't there. Realizing this is an important step in problem solving.

Human brains are pretty slow. Enough so, that in most of the complex things we do in life we must rely upon anticipation.

EXAMPLE: I can run down this flight of stairs, but only because my memory continuously sifts previous similar experiences to build a moving predictive "window" of what balance adjustments I might need to make, and when I might need to make them, with enough lead time for me to do something about it.

A COUNTEREXAMPLE: Imagine the consequences of trying to consciously micro-manage each and every muscle movement, in real time, in perfect sequence, while staying purely in the moment...

Memory-driven expectations are a fact of life.

They do, however, come with a significant TRADE-OFF:

Our human talent for anticipation makes for a fantastic end run around our built-in attentional limits, which are far more stringent then most of us realize. Unfortunately, that talent also leads to certain specific pitfalls in thinking.

SOME OF THESE are obvious...

Embarrassing, stupid mistakes are common while operating on fuzzy autopilot (I left the coffee on top of the car again!), or when a change in routine hasn't finished settling in, or when the rules for a new social situation aren't quite (!) what we expect them to be.

...WHILE OTHERS are much less obvious—at least, that is, until you look right at them:

As seen in this remarkable demonstration, having a set of pre-formed expectations can actually prevent us from seeing what is right in front of our faces. And, as the video also shows, most of us will never even know that we have missed seeing something important, and will even vigorously deny that such a thing could have happened.

Think on that for a moment.

The effect is more pronounced when strong emotion is involved. You can see for yourself by carrying out the following experiment:

Find a short article written by someone whose political positions you find upsetting, and read it through as closely as you can tolerate. Then, from memory, make a rough list of the arguments the author used in the piece. If you like, write a rebuttal. After you have finished, go back through the article and check explicitly to see whether the author argued exactly what you think he or she argued.

As in the attentional blindness video, most of us will find our initial comprehension has been sharply skewed by our existing expectations.

PLEASE NOTE! I am not saying the arguments in the upsetting piece cannot be rebutted; I am only saying that their true substance is easily missed in the heat of the moment. ALSO NOTE that the emotional blindness effect is in force whether you are for or against the sentiments displayed in the piece! As a general rule, the stronger and more emotionally charged your preconceptions are, the more likely you are to have misread what the author has actually written.

This, of course, is why politicians, performers, and advertisers work so hard to establish brand loyalty.

* * * * * * * * * *

So, if we are all condemned to navigate the world through a haze of memory-driven expectations, and if many of those expectations are limited, biased, or even flat-out wrong, then how can I possibly argue that human beings are not seriously flawed?

The answer turns out to be unexpectedly simple, and it lies in the direction of the comparison.

From a cognitive standpoint, we have a tendency to evaluate the real world's imperfect performance against our expectations, rather than the other way around. This is a critical distinction.

An action, an outcome, an object, or anything else in the real world is only said to be "flawed" or "imperfect" when it fails to live up to our expectations or desires.

We measure the degree of imperfection—"nearly perfect" versus "deeply flawed"—as a function of the size of the gap between reality and expectation, not as a measure of any intrinsic qualities possessed by the item in question.

Flaws and imperfections describe things that aren't there.

Why does it matter? Because reality doesn't care, and reality always wins out. Maintaining the comfort of our expectations may be easier than measuring what is really there, but in the long run that tends to lead to trouble. We create for ourselves a dangerous cultural blind spot, and an inability to find workable solutions, when we dismiss human nature as flawed or imperfect.

On the flip side, learning to look directly at ourselves may reveal hopeful solutions that have been sitting right under our noses all along, if we could but learn to see them.

People aren't as stupid as they (we) often look. We aren't imperfect, or even unintelligent, we are just emotionally driven, incredibly myopic creatures of habit. And on that count, we're certainly all stuck in the same boat.

I find this to be an oddly encouraging thought.