Puzzles and Mysteries, or How We Think

Via Geomblog I found an interesting article by Malcolm Gladwell about intelligence gathering, the Enron scandal, and our human habits of thought. Gladwell frames the problem using the language of puzzles and mysteries. Puzzles depend on missing data. If only there was a bit more information then the puzzle could be solved. Mysteries depend on the interpretation of information. Getting more information is rarely enough to solve a mystery, too many ambiguities remain for tidy conclusions to be reached.

If things go wrong with a puzzle, identifying the culprit is easy: it’s the person who withheld information. Mysteries, though, are a lot murkier: sometimes the information we’ve been given is inadequate, and sometimes we aren’t very smart about making sense of what we’ve been given, and sometimes the question itself cannot be answered. Puzzles come to satisfying conclusions. Mysteries often don’t.

Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon have another interesting article about the psychological biases that predispose leaders to believe hawks over doves when it comes to deciding on foreign policy.

Social and cognitive psychologists have identified a number of predictable errors (psychologists call them biases) in the ways that humans judge situations and evaluate risks. Biases have been documented both in the laboratory and in the real world, mostly in situations that have no connection to international politics. For example, people are prone to exaggerating their strengths: About 80 percent of us believe that our driving skills are better than average. In situations of potential conflict, the same optimistic bias makes politicians and generals receptive to advisors who offer highly favorable estimates of the outcomes of war. Such a predisposition, often shared by leaders on both sides of a conflict, is likely to produce a disaster. And this is not an isolated example.

In fact, when we constructed a list of the biases uncovered in 40 years of psychological research, we were startled by what we found: All the biases in our list favor hawks. These psychological impulses—only a few of which we discuss here—incline national leaders to exaggerate the evil intentions of adversaries, to misjudge how adversaries perceive them, to be overly sanguine when hostilities start, and overly reluctant to make necessary concessions in negotiations. In short, these biases have the effect of making wars more likely to begin and more difficult to end.

via Matthew Yglesias

The question I’m left with is whether we can build information tools that will help with these problems. Tools are useful but a lot of the things that really need to change are attitudes and realizations, things that go back even further into our earliest education and perhaps into our biology. Changing these things is hard.

Listening to The Whirling Dervish from the album “World Trio” by [Dave Holland, Mino Cinelu, Kevin Eubanks][4]

[4]: http://www.google.com/search?q=%22Dave Holland, Mino Cinelu, Kevin Eubanks%22