Update Your (Mental) Hardware

Here’s a funny insight in to the way our brains our hardwired: if we don’t know what something is, we automatically substitute something else for it in our minds. We, as humans, have an innate need for things to make some amount of sense. Because we’re lazy too – we want it fast, and with minimal effort.

Have you ever mistaken a stick for a snake? That’s an example of this evolutionary pattern matching in action, and here’s the thing – it extends into every aspect of our lives.

While we are going to set the basic errors aside***, we are going to focus on the concepts of “framing” and “attribute substitution.” When we say “framing,” imagine a picture frame around a picture. Understand that the context for presentation matters as well as the content itself. When we say “attribute substitution,” imagine the description you would give to something you didn’t recognize. You would use those same adjectives to describe something else you did recognize.

Let’s use an example: Imagine you’re an environmental activist. You’ve just been asked, “To please donate to the McBean Foundation, which saves the endangered Star-Bellied Sneetches from extinction.” You have no idea what a Star-Bellied Sneetch is, but let’s focus on what is familiar about this request: donate, foundation, saves, endangered, from extinction. The “ask” has been framed in a recognizable way, and the attributes of a Star-Bellied Sneetch can pretty much be inferred. You simply must help! Never mind that both McBean and the Star-Bellied Sneetches are fictional Dr. Seuss characters, this is framing and attribute substitution in action.

Before we describe something to anyone that may or may not understand the topic in the way we do, we should ask ourselves about how best to frame it and provide attribution so that they can make an informed decision. We must do so with noble intentions, and we must be aware that not everyone has noble intentions in mind when they do the same to us.

Since we make choices between descriptions of things, and not the things themselves, we must be keenly aware of these surrounding clues that our brains will automatically use to make something make sense.

***By basic errors I mean Type I, Type II, etc., and the ideas related to the “costs” of these decisions. Kahneman’s work is the most comprehensive, but also see the more philosophical work by Nassim Taleb in Fooled By Randomness, The Black Swan, Antifragile, etc.

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