Friday, November 12, 2010

Reading This Post Will Make You Sneeze

Human beings are weird.

Just to review a couple more bits of evidence to this regard I've personally come across recently:

Working for food makes it taste better.

If a menu has healthy food on it, we're more likely to pick something unhealthy.

Along similar lines, triggering our "I've done something good" switch makes us more likely to do something not-so-good, like in this study where simply looking at an eco-friendly website leads to stealing.

Oh, and daydreaming makes us sad.

Our brains and bodies seem to want to make us act against every moral and common-sensical principle we like to think we adhere to. I imagine that it will eventually be demonstrated that being loved makes us hate ourselves, experience makes us dumb, sharing makes us selfish, chocolate makes us cynical and sleeping makes us dead.

It seems strange to me that so much of what we do is preprogrammed, predictable, messed up and unconscious. We all of us like to think of ourselves as thoughtful individuals who do everything we do for a reason, based on a personal system of morals and preferences. But we're totally wrong. We're not drivers taking our body-vehicles down whatever road we choose. We're sitting on the roof with a fake steering wheel, coming up with explanations for why we go where we go, how we totally meant to turn left there or right here or go off that cliff there - when really, the car is being driven by a mischeivious chimpanzee, or maybe a malfunctioning robot, or no one at all.

I think in the future (you regular readers didn't think I'd stray from that topic for long, did you?) we might achieve a complete understanding of how humans tend to work, including knowledge of all our counterintuitive intuitions. We might even achieve a holistic picture of the principles that drive human behavior - which won't make us perfectly predictable, of course, because we still have free will and individual differences and so forth, but will make it more like we are at least sitting on that roof of that car with some bananas on a fishing pole to entice the chimp one way or the other.

At such future time - or, heck, right now - we might all benefit from taking a class, in high school or earlier, on How to Be A Human Being. It would consist mainly in participating in experiments that demonstrate our own weirdnesses and subconscious processes to us, so we can be better decision-makers in the future. Wouldn't have to be anything as extreme as the Milgram experiment (although we should read about it), but simply having many of our own cognitive biases demonstrated to us by, for instance, playing simple gambling games to demonstrate the negative effects of the sunk cost fallacy, etc., would make all of us better people and so much less vulnerable to exploitative advertising, con artistry, groupthink, political trickery, and Internet trolls.

It's a pipe dream, but even if it makes me sad pondering it, I'll do it anyways.

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