Saturday, May 03, 2003

Simple Heuristics: Simply Smart or Simply Stupid?

It has become fashionable in some circles to assert that because of the complexity of the world -- let us call that world the "human environment" or just the "environment" -- and because of the consequent inability of conscious thought, of conscious or explicit analysis or propositions, to capture, or correctly describe, all important features of that complex environment, human beings both do and should use "simple heuristics" -- simplifying strategies that disregard some features of the environment --, human beings both do and should use simple heuristics and strategies to deal with complex problems in their environment that (by hypothesis) outrun the power of human thought.

I dissent.

This argument for such "simple heuristics" rests on a confusion between (i) the rules and principles that govern the behavior of complex organisms (such as cows, birds, and human beings) and (ii) explicit, or conscious, deliberation by complex organisms about their environment.

The mere fact that complex organisms are sometimes (indeed, probably almost always) incapable of explicitly formulating combinations of rules, principles, propositions, expressions, functions, and operators that describe how such complex organisms best adapt themselves (their behavior) to the world that those organisms inhabit does not demonstrate that complex organisms (such as human beings) are most apt to behave well in their environment if they deliberately decide to follow explicitly-formulated principles that ignore much complexity in the world.

This is a good guess: organisms such as human beings should rarely deliberately choose principles that render their cognitive processes -- their internal operating systems -- less sensitive to detail than those cognitive processes, or operating systems, presently are. Self-conscious organisms such as human beings should instead simply keep in mind that the principles that they manage to explicitly enumerate or formulate ordinarily do not remotely approach the complexity and sensitivity of the tacit cognitive processes that regulate and influence human behavior. The fact that explicit analysis ordinarily must play such a subordinate and deliberate role certainly does not demonstrate that human beings should decide to follow some set of crude explicit regulative principles that human beings happen to be able to formulate explicitly.

There is a better alternative: human beings should try to gain some conscious insight into their tacit cognitive processes in the hope that such insight may somehow enable tacit cognitive processes to work a bit better.

Consider birds. Some recent studies suggest that birds manage to migrate long distances only because their little bird brains do very complex calculations that take into account subtle differences in a wide variety variables such as the earth's magnetic field, the time of day, the time of year, wind speed, and altitude. To tell the bird to use a simpler heuristic -- e.g., pay attention only to sunlight, or sunlight and wind speed alone, dear bird! --, to tell the bird to use simpler proceures, heuristics, for finding its way around the globe will almost certainly doom the bird.

It is time to erase the trait theory of cognition (as well as the trait theory of human personality). Neither human personality nor human thought consists of a trait or some bundle of traits. The behavior of bees, birds, and human beings is the upshot of complex and nuanced operating systems that are remarkably attentive to remarkably fine environmental detail.

That's what I think! Does my view make sense? Or is my point of view for the birds?

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