The journey in search of wisdom begins with our brain, its physiology and the mechanisms of reaction to the experiences to which we are subjected.
Mistakes of judgment, which all human beings tend to make, can be kept under control by knowledge.
Likewise, acquiring analytical skills and abilities protects us from being misled by numbers. Ultimately, our brain is a muscle to train to make it work better and better: there are simple techniques and gimmicks that we can learn to master for this purpose and that we could discover in this article.
How our brain is made
Let’s start by remembering that our anatomy affects our behavior: the classic example is represented by the story of Phineas Gage, a worker who worked on the construction of the railway. It survived an explosion but its prefrontal cortex was damaged, radically changing its character and becoming arrogant and impulsive.
Another often cited example is that of Charles Whitman, who killed 14 people in 1966 and wounded 38 by shooting from the clock tower of the University of Austin, Texas. The autopsy showed that he had a tumor that pressed on the amygdala, the region of the brain connected to emotional states and social behaviors.
The human brain is made up of at least 100 billion nerve cells or neurons, connected to each other by dendrites that allow each neuron to interact with others. Connections are the cause of our mental abilities, the number of cells is not important, but the number of potential relationships between them.
Evolution selects the connections that produce behaviors useful for survival and reproduction.
The brain physically changes because of our experiences, because the neural connections that are created change.
Experiences are the reason why every human being is unique. If we encounter a stressful condition, our response is due to how we have lived, to what we have experienced up to that moment, not only to the specific situation we are dealing with.
According to Margareth Thatcher, society does not exist; there are individuals who act according to their interest, to protect their close “family” and themselves, according to a behavior useful for survival.
Since cooperation is in our interest, people, while not being altruistic by nature, are cooperatives.
The prejudices explained by psychology
What drives our mind to err on its judgment?
There are 28 main biases, that is “inclinations, prejudices, self-deception”, perfectly coded. Knowing them, we can turn them into a kind of self-check list that can help us avoid them.
One of the most common biases keeps us hooked on ideas or information from the past, which we use as starting points for future decisions. In the same way, we tend to give us explanations that agree with the opinions we have already formed.
We have difficulty memorizing, and tend to remember selectively. All these psychological inclinations have been ascertained and studied by Charles Munger and experts of the caliber of Daniel Kahneman, and it is proven that all of us are exposed to these 28 harmful behaviors.
However, as Munger explains: we can learn to recognize them, learn from our mistakes and from those that are committed by other people. There is no way to live without making mistakes, the important thing is to learn to manage them.
The prejudices seen through mathematics
Mathematician Jerry King wrote: “There will come a day when ignorance of mathematics will be considered socially despicable behavior like smoking in public.”
In fact, knowing the laws of physics and mathematics allows us to understand the errors of judgment due to the deceptions caused by our “psychological response” to numbers.
What are these mistakes? Often, we are unable to consider that actions have two types of consequences: expected and unanticipated. In particular, we tend not to think systemically. Yet, the interaction between the parties is fundamental.
Let’s think about this situation: on a campus there are mice, students are encouraged to kill them because a dollar will be paid for each dead mouse they deliver. At some point, students start raising mice in order to kill and earn them.
Good intentions cannot eliminate bad consequences, so before acting we must try to consider the picture in the most systemic way possible.
The more complex the system, the more parts are related to each other, the more risky it is, also because the causes are not always sized for the effect: in 1988, in London, the tiredness of a mechanic who had worked for more 12 hours, it led him to forget to remove a small cable from an old exchange while he was installing a new railway signaling system. His mistake caused the collision of two trains and the death of 35 people.
The Mars Climate Orbiter $ 125 million robotic space probe literally disappeared on September 23, 1999. What had happened? There had been an error in the conversion from pounds to Newton (decimal metric system). The navigation team of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory used the metric system in its calculations, while Lockheed Martin Astronautics of Denver, Colorado, who had designed and built the spacecraft, provided crucial acceleration data expressed in the English system, i.e. in pounds.
This mistake sent the 56-mile spacecraft too close to Mars, sending it to destroy itself in the Martian atmosphere. In other words, the probe has been lost in translation.
Context, coincidence, probability: how do we perceive them?
One of the things we don’t pay enough attention to when it comes to numbers is considering the context. Talking about “big” or “small” doesn’t make sense if you don’t place value in its context.
In the same way, we underestimate the fact that time is money. Earning a dollar today has more value than earning it tomorrow, because in the past time the dollar will have produced interest, that is, increased its value.
We are often amazed at coincidences that seem amazing to us, to the point that there are those who cloak them in mystery.
If Mary is thinking about Jill and the phone rings and it’s Jill, Mary will think it is a truly extraordinary fact, because her brain does not consider and keep track of non-events, i.e. the many times she has thought about Jill and the phone didn’t ring.
The same mistake is not considering that if a thing has a one in a million chance of happening, in a country of 280 million people like the United States, this can happen 280 times a day.
Again: if we flip a coin and get an uninterrupted series of 7 heads, we think it is extraordinary, instead of considering that the probability has no memory, every time we throw the coin in the air the past is reset and the odds that the head comes out are always 50%. What came out in the previous launch does not in the least influence the possibility of getting her head for the eighth time.
The same applies to so-called average values. What is the point of saying “the average house price is a million dollars” if castles have been added to the sum? The median is much more instructive and rational: the median is the midpoint of distribution where half of the values are above and half below this value.
If 9 people have 1 million and 1 person has a billion, the average is around 101 million, very far from reality, while the median is 1 million.
The brain is a muscle and like all muscles it can be trained
There are activities, tools, which we can use to think better. Here are a few.