Tom Lombardo, author and friend, has written a brilliant book, Future Consciousness: the Path to Purposeful Evolution. In it, he proposes that we can consciously participate in the evolution of our species.
If human consciousness can evolve, there are two separate paths along which this could happen. The first is via genetic evolution of the physical structures of he brain — the hardware. The second is through development of ideas or culture — the software that is our mental programming. Genetic evolution is slow. Advantageous mutations get passed on gradually over many generations, changing a species over the course of thousands of years. However mutations in ideas and culture can travel swiftly from brain to brain. Thanks to the Internet, a new idea can spread around the world in a single day or less.
Philosopher Richard Dawkins was the first to identify these units of culture as a second driver of human evolution. In his book The Selfish Gene he coined the term “meme” to mean a gene-like idea that spreads from brain to brain like a mind virus. Memetic evolution is how our mental software evolves and helps us better adapt to our environment.
Think of it like this: a tiger’s claws evolved over millions of years of mutations. But the first human to sharpen a stick as a hunting tool was able to spread the idea of a sharp stick to the other members of the tribe very quickly. The idea continued to spread and evolve — sharp sticks, arrows, bullets, canons, missiles, nuclear weapons…For better or worse, our ideas have swiftly outpaced the physical evolution of the naked ape. (For more on memes, see chapter one of my book, The Master Communicator’s Handbook).
For futurists and philosophers like Lombardo, the real challenge is to develop psychological memes: mental tools that help the mind become wiser — especially as we race to develop not just weapons, but technologies that are reshaping all life on our planet. Tom’s book inspired me to devise a project of my own following a slightly different direction. Namely, so see if we can develop mental tools to keep us from making the kinds of errors that are commonly referred to as unconscious cognitive biases.
A lot has been written about unconscious cognitive biases, especially in the wake of behavioral psychologist Daniel Kanheman’s bestseller, Thinking Fast and Slow. Kanheman’s many experiments revealed the mind as riddled with hidden biases that lead to poor decision-making. His work won him the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002.
Here are few of the most well known unconscious cognitive biases:
Anchoring: the tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the “anchor”) and then to use that initial piece of information to make subsequent judgments.
Sunk Cost Fallacy: the tendency to make decisions tainted by the investments you have already made in a certain outcome. The more you invest in something the harder it becomes to abandon it.
Neglect of probability: the tendency to ignore probability when making a decision in which one is uncertain of the facts.
Congruence bias: the tendency to rely too heavily on directly testing one’s own explanation of certain events; this leads one to “seize and freeze” on that explanation and fail to consider other possible explanations that might be more accurate.
Kanheman’s work, and indeed many of the other excellent other books written about our unconscious biases, tend to focus on describing the biases. They don’t offer much practical advice for retraining our brains to overcome them. There’s a good reason for that. These biases are wired into our brains. They are part of the hardware, not the software. They filter our reality in certain ways. “Unconscious” means that we aren’t aware of them. So how can we circumvent what we cannot perceive? Most of the advice I’ve read in these books, including Kanheman’s, boils down to simply becoming aware of how prone to error we really are, and that’s it.
I think we can do better. I think we can invent new mental tools to help us work around our unconscious cognitive biases, the flaws of our hardware. You could think of these as “cognitive bias hacks.”
I have one simple example from daily life. Everyone who drives a car learns in driver’s ed. that there’s a blindspot between the side-view mirror and the rear-view mirror. There could be a car close behind in the lane next to you, but you can’t see it in the mirrors. So you learn to never trust your mirrors when changing lanes. You shoulder-check to compensate.
That’s what I want to search for and develop: mental shoulder checks. Hacks to help us work around our unconscious cognitive biases. I invite my readers to join me on this quest, and share with me any hacks you have discovered on you own. What works for you to help you outsmart your blindspots?
I’ll share what I learn with you here, on Medium.