Home » Archive » Set up your mind for better decisions

, written by Jeremy. Read the commentary.

My wife and I just got back from a week’s vacation in Cuba. Long days on the beach, hiding in the shade of a thatched roof hut gave plenty of opportunity for reading. I rolled through three books and intend to write reviews of each.

The first book was New World, New Mind: Moving Toward Conscious Evolution by Robert Ornstein and Paul Ehrlich, 1989.

Next was Edward De Bono’s book Po: Beyond Yes and No, 1972.

Finally, On Art and Life by John Ruskin, 1853.

What follows is a review of New World, New Mind. The other reviews will come out in the next few posts.

Early in the book the authors create an interesting timeline. They compress all of evolutionary time into the equivalent of one year. On January 1 is the origin of the Earth. On December 31 is the present. Each day represents 12 million years.

Bacteria emerge in February. Fish appear around November 20. Dinosaurs show up December 10 and disappear at Christmas. Our first ancestors stand up on the afternoon of December 31. Homo sapiens, our species, emerge around quarter to midnight. And everything in recorded history occurs in the final minute of the year.

In evolutionary time, humanity is mere moments from the days of swinging around in trees and dodging panthers. Our minds are still sharply tuned to that world. This book mainly focuses on the consequence of that tuning and the path the human mind followed in its evolution.

The authors suggest we haven’t had the time needed to evolve minds for the kind of world we face now. When we ought to pay more attention to long-term issues we continue to focus on sensational, startling, and momentary events. We fixate on oil spills and are generally indifferenent to environmental degradation. Terrorist strikes divert world trade but we rarely ever mention the starvation and AIDS ravaging much of the planet. We cancel year-long vacation plans over SARS or Avian bird flu and completely ignore the overwhelming personal and economic cost of unhealthy lifestyles.

Without some quick transformation, we’re destined to a certain catastrophic end. Quite simply, we’re wired to kill ourselves.

Fortunately, through cultural evolution, we are changing at a blinding pace. Before 35,000 years ago culture remained relatively static. Then in the Stone Age (about an hour ago) culture started to grow in spurts every few thousand years. Cultural change moved us from the forest to the plains, from gatherers into harvesters, and from line-workers to internet surfers. No significant change occured in our mental structure during that time. We’re still using the original hardware, just replacing the software at an increasingly rapid rate.

So, our ability to understand issues is increasing exponentially but our mental hardwiring isn’t being upgraded. We understand more every day but instinctively respond to events like monkeys. Basically, we know better but dark bedrooms still scare us and slithering snakes still give us shivers.

Since evolutionary change is taking so long and our global impact is continuing to increase and cultural evolution is our only option – we need to consider a more intentional pursuit of cultural evolution. The trick to using cultural change effectively is hacking our hardwired instincts to focus on the right issues.

To illustrate the challenge, the authors pose an interesting problem:

“Imagine that the government is preparing for an outbreak of a rare disease that is expected to kill six hundred people. Two programs are available. If program A is adopted, then two hundred people will be saved. If program B is adopted, then there is a one-third chance that six hundred people will be saved and a two-thirds chance that nobody will be saved. Which program would you choose?”

Most choose program A. They want to save two hundred people.

Now posed another way, here is the same question:

“If program C is adopted, then four hundred people will die. If program D is adopted, then there is a one-third chance that six hundred people will be saved, and a two-thirds chance that nobody will be saved. Which program would you choose?”

Most choose program D (which is the same as program B). The decision changes because the problem statement has changed. But changing the format didn’t change the meaning.

Though the authors don’t mention it, this suggests that cultural change is as much driven by hacking our hardware as it is by framing our problems correctly. Before we can make decisions, we need to ensure we’ve got the right package of information. We might not be able to control our responses but we can control what we use to inform our decisions.

The authors give another example of a city mayor attending a budget meeting where they are deciding whether to replace the barriers on the edge of a steep ravine along which runs a high-traffic causeway. One in every 500 cars that hits the current barrier goes over the edge. Replacing the barrier would cost each citizen several hundred dollars in taxes. The cost seems high and the benefits seem low, after all several thousand cars use the highway and only a few hit the barriers each month. They pass on the renovation.

Later that night the mayor is driving along that same road and spots the tell-tale signs of an accident. Dark tire marks lead to a gap in the barrier and far down in the ravine the mayor sees the tail-lights of a truck. The mayor leaps out of his car, rushes down the treacherously steep ravine and rescues the still living victim. Upon reaching the hospital it is discovered that the victim has no insurance.

The mayor, flushed with adrenaline, agrees to cover all of the medical costs if only the doctors can save the injured man’s life. Fortunately, they do.

As expected, newspapers herald the mayor as a hero. The mayor sweeps away, with a casual gesture, the thousands of dollars spent to save the victims life. And life carries on.

It seems inconceivable but the mayor’s decision to save the victim’s life violates all the logic used to inform the city’s decision to post-pone reconstruction of the barrier. If a a few hundred dollars was too expensive how could thousands, just a few hours later, possibly be justified?

It was the sight of a man bleeding at the bottom of the ravine that forced the mayor to recognize the nature of the decision taken earlier that evening. Until that moment, the mayor did not understand the concept package in which the decision was made. On the same evening the mayor was asked the same question two times, just in different forms. In response to one form, a few hundred dollars was too much. In response to the second form, money was no object.

This, I think, this is the most significant insight derived from the book (and isn’t actually one presented by the authors): If our minds are pre-conditioned to ignore the most important aspects of long-range decisions then a careful focus on the first stage of decision making is critical.

Overall I’d give the book a six out of ten. It’s too long and not very well written. The author’s don’t follow their own insights and often pose short-term solutions to complex, long-term issues. I think the De Bono’s book, Po: Beyond Yes and No, (the one we’ll review next) is better for most of the purposes this book was written.

Image posted by Mr. La Rue
Technorati Tags: , , ,
Site Search Tags: , , , ,


Isn’t it also about the intrinsic value we place or fail to place on human life? Perhaps this is the thesis unconsciously established by the author’s in that if you adopt a hard evolutionary position humanity has a very short history in terms of the overall picture and thus aren’t central in the equation. However, if we place humanity at the centre of the equation, then economics should play a lesser role in determining whether or not we make decisions which ultimately harm or help humanity. Ford Motor Co. made the same cost / benefits analysis with the Pinto years ago, when they were faced with a massive recall given the propensity for rear-installed gas tanks to explode on impact during accidents. They calculated that it would be cheaper in the long-run to pay families death settlements than it would to recall and service every car. Perhaps the Ford board members would have made a different decision if one or more of them had a family member killed because of an accident with a Pinto. In the end, our modern day North American capitalist approach to life usually sides with better returns to their shareholders which ultimately means that somewhere along the way, humanity suffers.

Poul, you’re right that human life, if not valued, doesn’t factor well in an economic model. Decisions based on such models invariably cause people to suffer. And perhaps this was a perspective unconsciously held by the authors. I doubt it though.

The mayor and city council told their brains to make a decision about numbers/statistics. The thinking process delivered an optimum outcome based on what it was fed.

If the council had understood they were deciding that 27 people will die next year instead of two, the outcome would have been different.
I don’t agree that North America suffers as a consequence of capitalism. Capitalism gives all kinds of power to every kind of demand. We just fail to ask that system for outcomes we actually need or must have.

We focus on short-term outcomes rather than long-run implications. That’s not a consequence of capitalism.

The Pinto story shows the success of capitalism in communicating the understanding of shareholders. The shareholders were willing to risk the cost of a settlement against the cost of a recall. That’s an easy decision and they did the right thing.

Shareholders were never asked if they would kill 911 people to save several million dollars. I doubt the CEO even understood that was the nature of the decision. If that had been the question, the cars would be recalled. And capitalism would have communicated the demand.

Capitalism is just a paradigm for acting in the world — we still make decisions that drive the system.