Renner Larson believes that our brains have evolved to perceive the world in a way that is not always fair. Understanding ourselves allows us be more responsible in our thinking.
Charles Darwin once said, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” It is a familiar experience. Sometimes we feel certainty without any evidence. Our gut is all the proof we need. There are other times when the more we know, the more questions arise. With evidence comes complexity, which fuels indecision.
It may seem counter-logical that more information hinders judgment but imagine the environment in which our brains evolved: long before cave paintings or even oral histories, experience was our primary source of knowledge. This limited the quantity and quality of evidence available for making decisions. Since hesitation could be fatal, evolution favored decisiveness over careful reasoning.
The less information we have the easier it is to see consistent patterns and draw conclusions. This reductive way of thinking saves our lives in emergencies. In daily life it narrows our minds. By educating ourselves about how our brains streamline judgment, we can learn to make more equitable deductions.
For our brains, judgment begins at perception. As a graphic designer I use my understanding of perception to guide readers. When designing, I use pattern to establish visual language. Repeating elements like color, font, and structure, creates a consistent “dialect,” helping viewers know what to expect and easing communication.
As a designer, I have learned that breaking a pattern stands out as an anomaly. Making a title big differentiates it from an established pattern of small text, guiding the reader’s attention, and signifying importance.
Seeing pattern and anomaly together in context we make generalizations. Italicized blocks of text stand out as anomalies. Italicized blocks of texts repeatedly appear under images. We therefore conclude that all italicized blocks of text are captions. This type of generalization enables decisive judgment. Looking for an image’s caption on a page, we know to skip roman type and look for italics. A designer eases reader experience by ensuring that only captions are italicized. In real life however, no one designs reality to match our inferences.
Imagine the life of humanity’s ancestors. Without the protection of sophisticated shelters and dense populations, their ability to spot threats was all that kept them safe. Anomalies stand out to us because early humans who quickly identified breaks in pattern survived more often than those who did not. There was not time to analyze each individual thing: rock, rock, tree, grass, rock, lion. Brains evolved to automatically spot the lion when movement or color variation made it an anomaly.
Piecing together a pattern to characterize lions, our brains do not consider all evidence equally. Anomalies draw attention. Traumatic events, like being attacked by a lion, stand out in memory more prominently than non-traumatic events, like seeing a lion in the distance. This means that in many cases prominent evidence holds more weight than abundant evidence. Even if most encounters resulted in a lion simply ignoring us, our brains will make a generalization based on lions that attack us.
General inferences made by our ancestors were essential for survival. Many generalizations we make today are also for our safety. By design they have been incorporated into our society: Red means stop. Yellow means caution. They influence our behavior on a personal level: Don’t walk down dark alleys. Always wear a helmet. But for too long we have let this thinking run wild: Muslims are suspicious. Republican/Democrats are at fault for all the world’s problems.
A study by Yale’s Dan Kahan went viral a few months ago. Dubbed a “depressing new discovery,” Kahan’s study found that partisanship inhibited a subject’s ability make reasonable decisions even when presented with hard evidence. The new evidence contradicted answers central to their beliefs. It is far easier for brains to ignore evidence than uproot ideology, so more often than not, that’s what we do.
Absolutism might be appropriate when confronted by a lion. I am sure many will argue that Republicans, Communists, or whatever group they feel threatened by are on par with lions. That is exactly how our brains have evolved to think. We favor certainty. It is not a choice we have made and no one is immune. Millions of years of evolution has programmed us to draw lines in the sand. Now it is our responsibility to step over them.
By venturing outside our own perspective we expose ourselves to a wider sample of evidence. This allows us to make better patterns. It also forces us to be more fluid in our generalizations. The only fair judgment is one that evolves with each new discovery. For better conclusions we must take a page from Darwin; we must adapt within the full spectrum of the ideological ecosystem (or as much of it as we can grasp at any one time).
It takes courage to let go of what our brains tell us we “know,” and perseverance to commit to discovery over decisiveness. I hope you will challenge yourself to do so. We all want to be “right.” But much more important than an individual’s being “right” is finding a better answer for the collective good.
There is a saying in marketing, “Fail Hard.” It means don’t shy away from being wrong, because the best ideas haven’t been thought of yet. Let’s create a world where more ideas can flourish and evolve by questioning our familiar perspective. Those lines in the sand can mislead all of us, so we will certainly “fail hard” at times. Be forgiving. Better answers require the freedom to be wrong. Better answers also matter more than being “right.” Remember Darwin. Don’t get too confident.