In search of "Common Sense"

Mar 17, 2009

Overcoming Cognitive Myopia

Since, earlier it was considered that it is the lack of data which resulted in poor decisions, it is now expected that more and more data would result in better and better decision making.

The cost of data acquisition and first level information processing has gone down drastically over the last few years. There are many fragmented IT initiatives across various functions in the organization resulting in information 'silos'. The combined effect is information overload. Most of us, individuals and organizations are actually drowning in data.

Several factors complicate data management. These include data scarcity, profusion, quality, relevance, limitations, accessibility, transparency and consistency. Experts estimate that 10-30% data flowing through corporate systems is bad i.e. inaccurate, inconsistent, incorrectly formatted, entered into wrong field out of value range.

To compound the fact that there is information overload and not all the data and information is accurate, is the way our mind deals with the available information to arrive at decisions and choices.

Paul Schoemaker, author of Profit from Uncertainty, describes what he calls "cognitive myopia" in terms of how we, as humans, deal with risk and uncertainty as characterized by the tendency to:

  • Anchor on readily available information
  • Let recent events that are vivid in our memory unduly influence our judgment
  • Overweigh information that supports our point of view
  • Fail to recognize implicit assumptions
  • Suffer from high sensitivity to the way facts are framed and presented
  • Underestimate rare events and their risks (being ill-prepared for their potential occurrence)
  • Overestimate dramatic events and overpay to mitigate their risks
  • Have extreme aversion toward risk
  • Suffer from context effects when choosing among risk options
  • Have excessive confidence in our ability to predict the future and fail to consider alternatives sufficiently
  • Exhibit an undue dislike for ambiguity

To deal with information overload and create value one needs to convert a huge amount of data into useful information that can be acted upon.

What we can realize from above that exclusive dependence on Intelligence for our decision making would result in lot of erroneous choices which can be thought of as the root cause of many a crisis that we see around us.

Is there an antidote to the above affliction?

In the last post we discussed about the difference between 'Intelligence and Intellect'. Intelligence is the mechanism by which our MIND gains / gathers information and knowledge from external sources. Intellect is the faculty that helps us make sense of things around us by helping to establish effect-cause-effect relationship of our observations around us.

The three habits of effective thinker as described in Goldratt's latest book 'The Choice' could be the starting point to build our defenses against the above root cause of many of the problems that we see around us.

Mar 4, 2009

Intellect v/s Intelligence – are we aware of the trap?

The fall of Human Intellect
A Parthasarathy

(My understanding of the message in the book)

Swami Parthasarathy is an acclaimed exponent of Vedanta and a tireless crusader for reviving the logical thinking capability amongst humans. This book is an important part of his body of work emanating out of his research of ancient philosophical teachings and wisdom of thinkers from the East and the West.

Unlike other creatures, humans need instructions or have to be told how to lead their life. Other creatures' life follows a fixed pattern which is already set at birth and they do not have a choice to exercise to change the pattern. E.g. a tiger will always be ferocious carnivore whereas a lamb will always be a timid herbivore no matter how different is its upbringing. Only the humans have the option as well as the necessity to exercise a choice of action between various alternatives. The choice could be as mundane as which set of clothes to wear on a particular day to as important as whether to marry or not and if yes, with who.

We exercise "CHOICE" under the influence of two very different and distinct faculties which we posses: Intellect and Intelligence.

The vital difference between the two approaches of making CHOICE is "thinking" and "non-thinking".

We, the human beings, each one of us of the six billions who populate the hospitable planet earth, are gifted with a faculty or a mechanism called 'Intellect'. The degree of usage of this faculty differentiates one individual from the other. Like muscles in the body, this faculty also needs to be used and exercised to increase its strength else it can become totally atrophied and render an individual useless. Use of intellect is an important skill which needs to be introduced at early age. It becomes very difficult for an individual to learn to use this faculty at later stages in life and then the knowledge comes after suffering many knocks.

In fact, we can claim that we are factory-fitted with this faculty from birth. We demonstrate the presence of intellect from our early child-hood when we try to make sense of things around us by asking questions. This is the faculty in action when we are inquisitive; we enquire, investigate, explore, reason, and find logic. What we call 'making sense' is actually establishing effect-cause-effect relationship of our observations around us. This faculty is the force behind the scientific method of experiment and empirical observations which helps in seeking the causes behind physical principles through abstract reasoning. The scientific method involves creating a hypothesis to explain the various observations and then predicting more effects based on this hypothesis. If the observations support with presence of these effects then the hypothesis is proclaimed as a law of nature. This law holds till someone comes up with observations which run counter to the predicted effect or creates more evolved hypothesis which explains wider and contradictory set of observations. Over the ages, scientists have used their intellect to almost conquer the nature to make our lives easy and comfortable with their discoveries and inventions. On the one end of the spectrum, scientists have created understanding of sub-atomic particles and on the other end; they have created understanding of various occurrences in the distant parts of the universe. The quest more and more understanding still goes on.

The basic principle of usage of intellect is to not accept any explanation just on hear-say but to investigate and confirm the cause-effect relationship to our own satisfaction based on irrefutable facts and observations. Intellect helps us not to be a blind follower or a fanatic because it allows us to be always open to new facts which might influence what we consider as a done thing.

This is "Thinking".

Intelligence is the mechanism by which our MIND gains information and knowledge from external sources. Most of our education is focused on imparting information on wide variety of subjects throughout our formative years till we complete graduation and even post-graduation. The analogy of data fed into a computer could be apt for the mechanism of building intelligence. All the information stored in a computer does not enable it to function independently. It cannot use that knowledge on its own. We need the intellect to think, plan and programme our life with the available knowledge.

Intellect and intelligence do not share any cause and effect relationship between each other. Intelligence per se does not enrich intellect. Intelligence can be equated to the horse power in a car and the intellect, the steering wheel which can control and direct the vehicle. Ironically, the entire focus throughout the world is to gain intelligence while the intellect remains poor as ever, undeveloped.

The trap is created by our MIND when it forces us to believe that intelligence is the intellect. We could say that our Mind has a Mind of its own.

When intelligence masquerades as intellect, we function under a delusion that the cause and effect relationships that we have figured out are perfect and we need not re-examine, re-evaluate them even in the face of fresh and old evidences which might be contradicting our conclusions, beliefs, dogmas etc.

  • Our mind is the seat of emotions and feelings. It creates in us likes and dislikes. There is no logical reason behind the likes and dislikes; they are just there because our mind wants it. It takes the help of our intelligence to give us an illusion that the likes and dislikes are supported by sound reason and judgment where as the fact remains that these are rightly termed as whims and fancies.
  • Another disturbing attribute of the mind is worry and anxiety. The mind is worried over what has happened in the past and anxious as to what will happen in the future. Again the mind uses our intelligence to make us believe that the basis for the worries and anxieties are real and we need to take them seriously. This causes sustained mental agitation and sorrow.
  • Our mind creates in us a feeling of insufficiency which, we wrongly believe, can be completed by acquiring something external to us. This is the basic form of desire.
    Desire is defined as a stream of thoughts flowing from us to the object of our desire. Desires go through several modifications. When we feed the desire and the thought-flow thickens, we develop greed, avarice. And when our desire, greed is fulfilled and we gain what we want we are faced with fear. We become afraid of losing what we have gained. If however, our desire, thought-flow is interrupted, intercepted by an object or being, the thought-flow gets deflected. The deflected thought-flow is called anger. As desire, greed and anger well up we get into delusion. Our emotions mounting up to this stage develop into arrogance at those below our level of achievement and envy at those above our level. Thus the feeling of insufficiency results in host of emotions invading our personality. Desires, besides developing into their modifications also multiply in number like bacteria. They cause agitation and sorrow in the mind. All through life the human mind moves from desire to desire to find fulfillment. No sooner a desire is satisfied, many others spring forth. Our mind takes the help of intelligence in equating quest for happiness with blind pursuit of desire fulfillment.
  • Based on the support of intelligence, our mind throws us into two powerful motivations in life, actually manifestations of desire only: - acquisition and enjoyment. We want to acquire whatever we desire from the world. And after acquiring we long to enjoy what we have acquired. We look at people who have acquired a lot with awe and believe that their enjoyment quotient will also be proportionately high and get into a rat race.
  • Another deadly quality of mind is its attachments and possessiveness for the objects and beings of the world. Attachment is love polluted with selfishness. In this case it becomes difficult for even intelligence to come to any defense. Mind just has this quality.

This is "Non -Thinking".

We need to examine how we go about making our 'choices'.

Do we really 'think'?

Are we under the spell of our 'MIND'?

Are we trapped?

Go figure….Vedanta Treatise is another book by Swamiji