Cognitive Blind Spots and Misinterpreted Life Scripts

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*A couple quick editorial notes: I will be doing a short presentation on material related to this post at an upcoming barcamp style gathering organized by Venkat Rao of Ribbonfarm.  Last I heard he had only a few spots left so if you are interested in attending and you are in the SF Bay area, check out his announcement and reserve you spot asap.  [Update: it looks like the event filled up before I was able to complete this post.  If you are particularly enthusiastic about joining, feel free to contact me and I will let you know if Venkat opens up additional spots. ]

Secondly, for new readers who found their way here within the past week – I tend to weave through several related themes at any given time.  I will get back to the socioeconomic evolution thread soon enough.  In the mean time I hope you will enjoy this as well…

Misinterpreted Life Scripts

Last week I wrote a quick reaction to a post by Cal Newport, in which he implied that diligent focus trumps all other factors in the pursuit of career success, including the innate suitability of the chosen career.  Now Cal has written a new post qualifying that position, but again his conclusions are too reductive for my tastes.  I hate to pick on Cal again – I don’t want this to read like a personal attack – but his new post provides such an ideal entry-point for a discussion of broader themes that I can’t pass it up.  That said, I want to be clear up front that I have a lot of respect for Cal’s work (I have previously cited him in a positive context) and the criticisms introduced in this first section will be qualified later on.

Cal begins by describing the events that led Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (abbr: K&T) to initiate research into cognitive heuristics; research that would ultimately result in a Nobel Prize and the birth of behavioral economics:

“Our expert colleagues…greatly exaggerated the likelihood that the original result of an experiment would be successfully replicated,” Kahneman recalls of their results. “They also gave poor advice to a fictitious graduate student about the number of observations she needed to collect.”

“Even statisticians are not good intuitive statisticians,” he concluded

This small observation led to a bigger idea: perhaps humans are hardwired with cognitive shortcuts to help them make sense of an uncertain world, and perhaps these shortcuts, in certain situations, consistently lead to irrational conclusions.

This hypothesis was profound. At the time, social science believed that humans were fundamentally rational, and only emotion, like fear or anger, could lead us to irrational behavior. Kahneman and Tversky were proposing that humans, on the contrary, were wired for illogic. [emphasis original]

Cal proceeds to note the gap of five years between their first meeting and their now famous publication in the journal Science, concluding that though diligent focus was critical, it cannot fully explain the magnitude of their success.  His revised hypothesis:

The Directed Diligence Theory
It’s not enough to just focus relentlessly on a small number of things (though this is almost always necessary). You must also direct this diligence by simultaneously and systematically exposing yourself to the reality of what’s valuable in the relevant field.

Paraphrasing, Cal is arguing for diligent career planning in addition to diligent practice.  Diligent practice provides the means.  Diligent career planning determines the ends.

This seems like a reasonable inference.  The only problem is that it bears no resemblance whatsoever to what actually happened.  The directed diligence theory is entirely a product of Cal’s preference for instrumental principles.  It bears no relation to K&T’s actual intentions.

Cal’s own wording hints at this inconsistency when he states (above), “This small observation led to a bigger idea“.  The implied order of events is important.  K&T did not set out to leave their mark on the field of psychology.  They were not strategically pursuing “the reality of what [was] valuable in the relevant field“.  They were scratching an itch…exploring a small intrinsically interesting idea that naturally “led to a bigger idea“.  Kahneman’s Nobel Prize autobiography is quite explicit on this point:

I realized only recently how fortunate we were not to have aimed deliberately at the large target we happened to hit. If we had intended the article as a challenge to the rational model, we would have written it differently, and the challenge would have been less effective. [emphasis mine]

The only reasoning Cal offers to justify his conclusion reads as follows:

Kahneman and Tversky’s diligence, for example, was directed by their understanding, as psychology professors, that the model they were pursuing was a radical departure from an orthodoxy that had started to show strain. The field was looking for new models and they knew they were on to one possibility.

This explanation is a non-sequitor.   Sure, by 1974 K&T were familiar enough with their field to understand the zeitgeist.  But that wasn’t what motivated their research.  They had no intentions of rocking the boat for the sake of individual acclaim.

Kahneman’s personal history suggests that he had been unwittingly pulling on this thread throughout much of his early life.  His autobiography teems with anecdotes portraying a meandering a career path.  At one point he reflects on a research experience during a summer away from graduate school:

Fifteen years after that summer, I published a book entitled “Attention and Effort,” which contained a theory of attention as a limited resource.  I realized only while writing the acknowledgments for the book that I had revisited the terrain to which Rapaport had first led me. [emphasis mine]

In recounting his early teaching experience, nearly a decade before meeting Amos Tversky, Kahneman observes:

To teach effectively I did a lot of serious thinking about valid intuitions on which I could draw and erroneous intuitions that I should teach students to overcome.  I had no idea, of course, but I was laying the foundation for a program of research on judgment under uncertainty. [emphasis mine]

There is no indication in autobiographical evidence that Kahneman’s research interests were ever influenced by external standards of importance.  On the contrary, he consistently followed his intuitions in whatever directions proved intrinsically rewarding.

Cognitive Biases

It is ironic that Cal chose to build his argument around a narrative about researchers who studied cognitive biases.  When read with a critical eye his post takes on a self-referential quality.  His cognitive dissonance is evident.  Case in point: Cal subtitles the first section of his post “The Five Year Eureka Moment”, despite his own admission that the eureka moment occurred up front – an intuitive insight drawn from a “small observation“.  He may have intended this as a play on words, but even so it misrepresents the reality.

Similarly, he downplays obvious contradictory evidence:

Here’s what caught my attention about this story. This paper — Kahneman and Tversky’s first publication on their theory — came out in 1974, a half decade after they first began pursuing the underlying ideas. In other words, it took them a full five years to refine a rough hunch, through systematic exploration and discussion, into an idea too good to be ignored. [emphasis original]

Here Cal refers to “a rough hunch”, again undermining his presumption of a deliberately directed course of research.  But there is a larger point worth noting:  though Kahneman and Tversky’s most famous paper was published in 1974, prior to that they had jointly published at least four other papers on the same themes.  The 1974 publication wasn’t the first publication of their theory, just the one that happened to attract notice.

This is a subtle but important distinction.  Cal’s portrayal of events reinforces the (intended) impression of a carefully scripted (“systematic exploration”) assault on the status quo.  The reality was exactly the opposite.

How does a thoughtful individual like Cal Newport manage such a skewed account of events?  In part, this is an example of confirmation bias, the tendency to selectively gather information and/or to selectively interpret information so as to confirm existing beliefs.  But I think there is more to it than that…

Divergent Modes of Cognition

This is where I will expose my own biases.  I will also do my best to contextualize the criticisms presented above.

The perspective I offer here is that Cal’s biases are not personal failings.  Rather, I suspect that Cal is largely incapable of seeing the world otherwise, and that we are all inclined towards similar biases (myself included of course ;)).

By way of analogy, Cal isn’t biased in the sense that a sports fan is biased about his favorite team.  Rather, he is biased in the way that a mother is biased about her newborn child.  In a mother’s perception of reality, her newborn truly is the most uniquely precious child in the world.  She is neurologically precluded from believing otherwise.  Similarly, I suspect that Cal is in a certain sense neurologically incapable of appreciating the role played by intuition and improvisation in the Kahneman & Tversky story.

The divergence between my interpretation and his, is less a matter of the factual record and is more a matter of perspective.  The differences between our perspectives correlate quite nicely with the divergent modes of cognition in the two hemispheres of the brain.

While there has been plenty of shallow psuedoscientific nonsense written about this topic, the empirical research is extensive and well validated.  In The Developing Mind, psychiatrist Daniel Siegel summarizes the role of the left hemisphere as follow:

The following findings…have been consistently obtained in investigations ranging from studies of “split brain” patients to studies involving brain function imaging.  When information is presented to only the left hemisphere, verbal output reflects an effort to create a story or make sense of what it sees or hears.  Michael Gazzaniga and colleagues have called this the “interpreter” function of the left hemisphere.  For the isolated left hemisphere, these words are confabulations – made-up stories that fit with the data, but are unrelated to the gist or context of the situation…The left hemisphere uses syllogistic reasoning, stating major and minor premises and deducing logical conclusion from a limited set of data in an attempt to clarify cause-effect relationships.

The left hemisphere tries to create explanations for the information it receives, but it lacks the ability to process the context of this information, and so its conclusions are based on selected details without relational meaning.  The left hemisphere’s interpreter deduces an explanation that is superficially logical but is often without contextual substance if this hemisphere is acting in isolation from information from the right hemisphere. [emphasis mine]

And the right:

In contrast to the left, the right hemisphere appears to be able to make sense of the essential meaning of the input it is able to perceive: Contextual information is perceived and processed, and the gist of a situation is sized up and understood.  The right hemisphere does not use syllogistic logic to deduce conclusions about cause-effect relationships, but rather represents information about the environment.  Such information includes the relationships of various components of experience, including elements of mental processes and spatial relationships.  Since the right hemisphere is nonverbal, the output of its processing must be expressed in non-word-based ways, such as drawing a picture or pointing to a pictorial set of options to make its output known to the external world.  [emphasis mine]

The left-hemisphere – being the primary seat of language – processes discretesymboliccategorical representations; in a straight-forward syllogistic manner that facilitates the sharing of instrumental meaning between individuals.

The right hemisphere processes information holistically and in parallel, preserving contextual relationships.  As a result it cannot externalize or communicate its representations with nearly the same precision.

In brief, the right hemisphere produces a comprehensive and nuanced mental model of the world, that is intrinsically bound to the subjective context.  The left hemisphere produces the precise (but reductive) representations that enable us to interact with, and manipulate the “objective” world in repeatable ways.

For the visual learners, a talk by Iain McGilchrist, adapted into an RSA animate presentation, can be found here.

Unbalanced Minds?

For many tasks we would ideally want to engage the active cooperation of both hemispheres.  For example, as I write this piece I am compressing imprecise impressions from my subjective mental model into discrete bits of language.  Those bits of language can then be externalized and conveyed to you via context-independent media.

Unfortunately, we are not particularly good at this balancing act…

I believe instead that we are each innately partial to one pole or the other.  This is educated speculation on my part.  Though I have not yet found research specifically addressing this point, there is plenty of evidence that lateral activation patterns can be uneven.  For example, left-handers are significantly more likely to exhibit language function in the right hemisphere.  It is also well known that the two hemispheres develop asymmetrically such that environmental factors may affect each uniquely.  Dan Siegel writes:

The right hemisphere is dominant in its activity and development during the first three years of life.  Children who experience severe emotional deprivation during this period may be at most risk of having losses in the structural components of their right hemispheres…These issues also raise the point that the time of experience, be it optimal or traumatic, may have the largest impact on those parts of the brain that are in the most active phase of development. [emphasis mine]

I don’t expect to convince you of this point in the space available here.  I only want introduce the pattern and point out how neatly it maps onto the (mis)interpretations outlined above, as well as my zealous reaction to the same.  In short, Cal Newport demonstrates all the signs of left-hemispheric dominance while I am heavily inclined towards the right.

Cal persistently seeks out universal principles that can be applied independent of context.  He attempts to distill literal cause-effect relationships from complex contextual information.  He is attracted to external/social motivators, as evidenced by his primary theme: “being so good they can’t ignore you“.

In contrast, several of my past posts demonstrate an almost pathological aversion to extrinsic motivators.  I am also highly allergic to formulaic thinking, tending instead to construct elaborate mental models even when I would be better served by simply following instructions.  In an IQ test I will easily ace all the spatial/pattern-recognition questions and struggle with the word associations.

The point here is not that one approach is better than the other.  If these patterns are neurologically fixed to any significant degree, it is more interesting to consider what they suggest about how we (can/should) make individual decisions:

  • how we define our life scripts – retrospectively and/or prospectively
  • how we perceive success and failure
  • how we evaluate advice from others
  • how we choose role models and mentors
  • what motivates/demotivates us
  • where progress is likely to come quickly/slowly

Cal writes:

Returning to my own example, it was only a few years ago that I began to internalize this lesson. Just because an idea was interesting to me, I now accepted, was not enough by itself to justify diligent pursuit.

That sounds like terrible advice to me…but perhaps it is just right for him.


photo courtesy of Rantz

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  • Casrose

    Stephen Covey said it Best : ” There is Unity in Diversity” !
    Life is based on the Polarity of Yin/Yang opposing forces neg/pos etc..
    This is the Spark that has been missing the past 100 yrs in the top < down world
    where everyone had to agree and think like everyone else..It made robots out of Human's and created a boring world…
    Innovation is finally returning via this source of communication where everyone
    can express their individual thinking, feeling , opinion etc and find others who resonate
    or disagree or add own insight to create great discussions as you are doing with your blog !

    Lets penetrate beneath the surface !! Finally !!
    Why is it one Man's treasure is another Man's garbage ? !
    This knowledge will allow acceptance of different rather then need to conform to 
    a ideology that is Not Real.. Just a concept of what suppose to be..

    A Friend who is in the ME-D-I- AM business goes around the world trying to educate this media world why Apple and Google are taking over….
    He is always amazed how they cannot comprehend the obvious nor the facts..
    In researching why this is… He came across this link.. which I think applies here.. 

    • GregoryJRader

      Thanks for the link.  I think “change blindness” definitely applies here.  If we accept that the two hemispheres of the brain process/store/integrate information differently (which is well validated empirically) and we presume that people may be biased to one mode of cognition or the other, then it follows that certain people will be blind to certain sorts of changes.  Their brains will tend not to regard certain types of information as relevant and therefore will be ignorant to changes in that type of information.  

      Of course I agree with you that we are trending towards a more open environment that is more respectful of individual perspectives, and I think this is a change for the better…but then I again I am labeling myself as a right-hemisphere dominant type so it is admittedly a self-serving conclusion ;)

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  • Jessica

    I really appreciate the way you have pointed out small, nuanced flaws in Newports arguments. This is not to say that he has bad insight, he has plenty of useful ideas worth noting and worth applying, BUT I’ve been reading Newport for two years now, and often times, I question certain suggestions he makes- of which I’ve a hard time pinpointing why they lack practical application in my own life- if that makes sense. So once, again, than you for your insight-

    • GregoryJRader

      Yeah, it’s not the *useful* ideas that he gets wrong, it’s everything else: the tone, emphasis, interpretation, motivation, and so on. His prescriptions are effective if you adhere to them. But for me – and I’m sure many other people as well – his approach is demotivating. I find the real story of Kahneman and Tversky far more motivating.

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