Cognitive Column - August 2016

Do you know, this is the first Summer in more years than I can remember that I have not spent time at an OU Residential School?  It seems a strange decision, to remove one of the few remaining aspects of OU life that distinguishes us from other distance learning institutions.  I'll have more to say about strange decision making a little later.  Two of the many things I liked about Summer School were the chance to meet lots of you, and also the opportunity to gather volunteers to be participants in any research that I was doing.

It feels as if the World is a completely different place from the one in which I was last writing; there have been so many changes.  We have home-grown political upheavals, a Turkish coup, Russians banned from the Olympics, horrendous Jihadi-inspired violence, a will-they-won't-they nuclear power station . . . the list of bombshells just goes on, and it's hard to know where to begin.  I ended my last Column by commenting on the In-Out Referendum, so I'd better continue where I left off.

It appears that the Brexit vote was yet another bombshell for the pundits; certainly it was for David Cameron and his cronies.  That, of course, is just one more piece of evidence that our leaders are out of touch with what Jo and Joe Public actually think.  I'm pretty sure the Europeans weren't expecting this either, or they would have tried to give Cameron something of substance when he made his wasted pre-vote tour of the other states.  Foreign governments can be excused for not knowing too well how our people will vote, but one wonders what has happened to the diplomats and analysts.  Time was when a significant role of an ambassador and his staff was to analyse the local political climate and feed back thoughts and predictions to the home country.  I have commented before on how grossly inaccurate the expectations of Russian behaviour have been; Putin seems to have outwitted the West at every move, yet as far as I could see his actions appeared to be reasonably predictable.  Our leaders seem to operate from within some kind of self-generated fog, clouding both vision and judgment.

If Baroness Warsi gives us a representative insight into politicians' capacity for rational decision making, then I suppose the shortcomings I have just mentioned are to be expected.  I have commented upon this woman's flaky reasoning before, but her switch from Leave to Remain in the referendum was without precedent on the bizarreness scale!  There is nothing wrong, of course, with a person changing her mind; it is the reason given that has to be judged.  One would have liked to think that a responsible woman, presenting herself as one of the leaders in a campaign of enormous, enduring consequence, would have weighed the pros, the cons and the relevant information with utmost care, before finally reaching a well-judged conclusion.  To have changed that conclusion mid-stream must surely have been prompted by the arrival of some major new piece of information relevant to our relationship with Europe?  Not so; she changed, she told us, because some of her fellow Brexiteers were displaying too much hate and xenophobia!  What on earth had that got to do with anything?  Dissociate herself from them of course, but did she think that remaining in Europe would miraculously convert xenophobes into xenophiles?

Decision making is a major research topic within Cognitive Psychology, so in principle it could have something to say about all this.  You will probably not be too surprised to learn that humans are not especially good at reasoning and decision making.  To research these abilities in the laboratory it has often been the case that rather artificial scenarios have been devised, simply because they can be set up to have right and wrong answers; so many of life's real issues do not have simple rights and wrongs, making it impossible for a researcher to judge whether a participant has performed well.  To some extent it is doubtless the artificiality of the experimental scenarios that leads people to perform rather poorly; after all, we have evolved very successfully, so we must have been getting it right quite a lot of the time.  Nevertheless, we are not very effective at being coolly logical, in fact we hear people saying things like, "It feels good to me," or alternatively, "I'm not happy about this one."  Those are more than just turns of phrase, because it turns out that people become especially bad at reaching decisions if they suffer damage to a region of the brain called the insula.  What does the insula do?  Well, it's a key part of the emotion processing system; in theory that would seem irrelevant to weighing up the factual pros and cons of a decision, but clearly the balance is often judged more by feeling than pure logic.  So, we may surmise that Sayeeda Warsi changed her decision, not because any relevant facts had changed, but because her feelings about the issue had changed.  Very human no doubt, but not the modus operandi one would have hoped for in a woman trained as a lawyer.

An interesting confirmation of the above, plus a little twist, concerns the impact of irrelevant facts.  Research has investigated binary decisions of the sort, "Should I choose A or B?" and established which way people tend to go.  A third option C is then introduced.  C is given characteristics that mean it can have no logical impact on the preference between A and B, but nevertheless its presence as an alternative can switch people's A-B selection.  However, it has been shown recently that people on the autistic spectrum are not influenced by the irrelevant information.

A major problem for the general public during the referendum campaigning was lack of believable information.  That, perhaps more than anything else that has gone before, damns the politicians.  Expenses scandals, cash for questions, all the things we have come to expect of our venal so-called representatives, while entirely execrable are at least fairly localised in their impact.  In contrast, the In-Out vote was likely to affect our whole population significantly and for many years to come.  So what did we get to help us in our deliberations?  The choice between being overrun by terrible Turks, or sliding inexorably into a third world war!

When we try to be rational our brains operate in serial mode, that is, they tend to process one piece of information at a time.  This is fine when there is a limited number of clear cut details, but in a complex situation there are too many variables for us to build into the picture we attempt to develop.  What is really needed in that sort of situation is parallel processing, where lots of material can be handled simultaneously.  As it happens, much of our brain does operate as a set of parallel processes; it is only the final tip of the iceberg leading to consciousness that has to be serial.  This distinction between serial conscious and parallel unconscious processing gives rise to some intriguing results.  Researchers have given participants complex situations to consider, with large amounts of difficult-to-juggle information.  Half the participants are then left for a few minutes to ponder their response, while the others are prevented from conscious thought about the problem, by giving them lots of anagrams to solve.  When the time is up, both groups make their responses.  It turns out that the 'thinkers' are at chance level with their responses: they might as well have stuck in a pin.  In contrast, those who worked on anagrams and then had to respond, not by reasoning but by snap decision,  performed significantly better!  I will leave you to decide whether the referendum outcome was indicative of an attempt at reasoning or a gut response.

Recently I was at a joint meeting between the Experimental Psychology Society and its Spanish equivalent, SEPEX (Sociedad Española de Psicología Experimental).  I met a PhD student who is researching time perception, something in which I have had an interest over the years.  We were discussing the notion of time slowing when we are frightened.  For example, during the unfolding of a car accident the on-coming car may seem to be moving in slow motion.  One explanation for this is to assume that we have a ticking 'clock' that not only gives us the ability to judge time intervals, but also determines the rate at which we grab samples of information about our environment.  With heightened arousal the clock would speed up, causing us to capture samples at a greater rate.  As a consequence, the change in position of an advancing car, between one sample and the next, would be smaller than we are accustomed to, so we would interpret the approach as being slower than usual.  As far as the student and I were both aware, there has never been an attempt to test this notion, so I have suggested to her that she might try some time perception tests on people riding a theme-park roller-coaster.  I hope her supervisor lets her; if he does she has promised to tell me the results.  Of course I'll pass them on!

Well, it's back to decision making again: do I draw this to a close and go in for a drink, or do I ramble on for a few more paragraphs?  ("God," I hear you say, "I hope he goes with plan A!")  I'm sitting in the garden to type, but after a lovely day the evening is growing cool.  My honey bees have ceased to fly and only a few bumble bees are still about; their larger bodies let them operate in lower temperatures.  Yes, I'm sure it's time to pour something nice!  I saw one of those jokey birthday cards recently; it carried a warning.  "Remember, too much alcohol is bad for the memory."  Unfortunately that's true and, as if to confirm it, further down the card was written, "And another thing, too much alcohol is bad for the memory!"

So there we are.  If I can remember I will write again in the Autumn.  In the mean time, have a lovely Summer and the very best of luck with any studies you have on-going.