- Psychology & the public
- What we do
- Member networks
- Careers, education & training
Adding to the cognitive tool kit
The website Edge.org has posed its latest annual question to the world's intelligentsia. This year, not only did many psychologists provide answers, as typically happens, but a psychologist - Steven Pinker - also posed the question: What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive tool kit?
Positive-sum games was Pinker's own answer. This is the game theory concept in which everyone wins, such as when 'herders and farmers exchange wool and milk for grain and fruit.' The opposite, zero-sum games, is when each participant only gains at the expense of another party. Pinker thinks that good can come from people reframing their dealings with others into positive-sum games. He wonders if such a shift has happened on the international stage in recent decades, as wars have become rarer and free trade has increased.
Sadly, contributions from British psychologists were few and far between. Two exceptions were Nicholas Humphrey at LSE and Sue Blackmore, an Edge regular. Humphrey highlighted the 'multiverse' - the idea that every possible permutation of our own universe exists in parallel with this one. That includes a version in which we live for ever, dodging every bullet and evading every virus. Having got that far, Humphrey asked, should we mourn our alter-egos who fell by the wayside? '...no more than we do now,' he said. 'We are already, as individuals, statistically so improbable as to be a seeming miracle. Having made it so far, shouldn't we look forward to more of the same?'
Among the most high-profile psychologists to contribute were Nobel-winner Daniel Kahneman and Yale psychologist Paul Bloom. Kahneman chose the focusing illusion, the notion that 'nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it'. This cognitive habit explains why paraplegics are not as unhappy as many people expect them to be. 'When we think of what it is like to be a paraplegic, or blind, or a lottery winner, or a resident of California we focus on the distinctive aspects of each of these conditions,' Kahneman explained. 'The mismatch in the allocation of attention between thinking about a life condition and actually living it is the cause of the focusing illusion.'
Meanwhile Bloom chose reason, especially as practised by science. '[S]cience includes procedures,' Bloom said, 'such as replicable experiments and open debate - that cultivate the capacity for human reason.' In defiance of human irrationality and mindbugs, '[s]cientists can reject common wisdom, they can be persuaded by data and argument to change their mind'. In our struggle with moral, political and social problems it is science itself, therefore, that people need to add to their cognitive toolkit, Bloom argued.
This was a theme picked up by Mark Henderson, science editor of The Times, one of several non-psychologist British contributors (others included Richard Dawkins and Roger Highfield, editor of New Scientist). Science, Henderson explained, is more than an accumulation of knowledge and the technology that flows from that, it is also a way of thinking: 'the best approach yet devised (if still an imperfect one) to discovering progressively better approximations of how things really are.'
Politicians and civil servants could benefit from deploying the tools of science in the design of effective policies, Henderson argued. Educators, courts and probation services could improve their methods if they drew on that mainstay of science - the randomised controlled trial. 'The scientific method and the approach to critical thinking it promotes are too useful to be kept back for "science" alone,' Henderson said.
- Most Read
- Most Comments
- Register of Applied Psychology Practice Supervisors
- Raising awareness of adult autism