Disarmament Insight

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Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Gut Feelings


On the long flight back from New Zealand last week following the Wellington Conference on cluster munitions, I read Gerd Gigerenzer's recent book, Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious.

The popular science and pop psychology shelves of book shops are packed with titles purporting to explain the mysteries of decision making, or how to get a leg up in business, love or just making friends and influencing people. Gigerenzer is notable, though, in the sense that he's Director of the Centre for Adaptive Behaviour and Cognition at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, and was formerly a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. He has academic credibility on these issues and, rather than offering advice, his book seeks to explain how human gut feeling operates and also describes some recent empirical research into how the human mind actually solves problems.

Gigerenzer has a knack (no doubt thanks in part to a good editor) for explaining constraints on how human beings see the world in cognitive terms in a way that's easy to follow and punctuated by entertaining examples.

Some of my colleagues - particularly social scientists for some reason - sniff at 'popular' science books or lectures. This mystifies me. Of course, one can't expect a book aimed at a general audience to always be as precise or technically nuanced as a scientific journal article or a volume of research - although the best writers often manage it. But in an increasingly specialised age, in which knowledge is often highly compartmentalized, it's unreasonable to expect readers to have a deep background or advanced education in all domains of research. As long as the writing is accurate, and not just interesting, books like Gigerenzer's are a means for literate people to keep themselves abreast of developments outside their domains of expertise in more depth than can be achieved by a newspaper article or television documentary. Otherwise, we end up as people knowing a lot about very little.

And good popular writing on scientific research often encourages useful cross-fertilization of ideas, even among so-called experts. Many developments have occurred as serendipitous connections in the web of knowledge. Cross-fertilization of ideas is so important we made it a mantra of our Disarmament Insight workshops in 2007, bringing in outside experts from fields like economics and economic modelling, physics and even primatology to work with disarmament diplomats and prompt them to make new connections.

Gigerenzer's book is a neat introduction to a field of research that strongly suggests we need a new way of seeing the way the mind works that recognizes we are often not rational optimizers. As he said in a recent interview for Edge (The Third Culture):

"Human rationality cannot be understood, I argue, by the ideals of omniscience and optimization. In an uncertain world, there is no optimal solution known for most interesting and urgent problems. When human behavior fails to meet these Olympian expectations, many psychologists conclude that the mind is doomed to irrationality. These are the two dominant views today, and neither extreme of hyper-rationality or irrationality captures the essence of human reasoning. My aim is not so much to criticize the status quo, but rather to provide a viable alternative."
Gigerenzer's book should be of interest to multilateral disarmament practitioners because it's a light introduction to problems of intuition and decision-making they face in the complex environments in which they operate.

For instance, many of the heuristics or cognitive rules-of-thumb we use in everyday life are "fast-and-frugal" - depending on very simple unconscious rules that are often products of our adapted minds. We use these in the way we frame problems (and their solutions) and in our social interactions, usually without thinking about it.

Acknowledging and mapping these rules-of-thumb has led, for example, to improvements in medical diagnostics for coronary care unit allocation - by devising protocols that leverage the intuition of doctors and specialist nurses, rather than baffling them with complex calculations that, empirically, are no more effective.

Gigerenzer also notes that in some institutional settings, when our intuitive rules-of-thumb are at cross-purposes with due process (he draws on various studies to look at magistrates' rulings in the English legal bail system as an example) a gap can emerge between what practitioners do, and what they think they're doing.

Similar arguments could be made in looking at some multilateral disarmament and arms control processes - something we described as "cognitive ergonomics" in our third volume of research. It's hard to achieve good outcomes in dysfunctional environments, especially if those working in such environments don't know any different. Which just proves the value of cross-fertilization of the kind Gigerenzer's short book offers.

John Borrie

Photo of Gerd Gigerenzer courtesy of Edge.org.

See Gerd Gigerenzer,
Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious, London: Allen Lane: 2007.

2 comments:

Piers said...

I couldn't agree more. As far as I am concerned this is one of the major attractions of this blog. I spend most of my day learning more and more about ever more detailed aspects of what was a very narrow speciality to begin with. Being able to find out about what is happening in other disarmament processes (a slightly broader area) is not only interesting but has provided opportunities for cross fertilisation. Being able to draw on even broader perspectives from diverse fields, such as economic, cognative psychology, evolutionary biology, etc (as some of the postings do) increases the value of this blog even further. Good work guys - keep it coming please.

JB said...

Thanks Piers, I'll pay you later ...