About memories, scripts and predictions
Prediction is difficult, especially about the future” – Niels Bohr (1885-1962) – Nobel Prize for Physics 1922
How reliable are the predictions of pundits? How reliable is history as a means for making forecasts about the future?
In the latest edition of “Time” magazine, Glenn Beck has chosen Mohamed Bouazizi, as his “Person of the Year”. The interesting part of the story is not the choice but rather the rationale behind it. Let me quote Mr. Beck: “I nominate the guy who set himself on fire in Tunisia. He is and will in time be remembered as this epoch’s Archduke Ferdinand. A man with a pushcart will be marked by historians as the starting point of cataclysmic global change. The world is on the eve of global war and perhaps civial war, and he was the match to the world’s kindling. As I said a year ago, once you start the fire of revolution, there is the chance the flames will engulf the entire world.” Mr. Beck claims on his website that he is capable to make “the fusion of Entertainment and Enlightenment” and, as such, is compelled to express not only opinions, but predictions. It would be easy to sneer at the capacity of Mr. Beck’s brain to predict the future, but my point is different: I believe that we are all like Mr. Beck. We are all very good at doing quick mental associations, to predict and create certainty.
Why we need to predict and how we do so are the subjects of two recent publications. The first one is an article in the New York Times titled “The Certainty of Memory Has Its Day in Court”. In discussing how unreliable witnesses can be, and ways in which memories can be inaccurate, the author discusses the functional purpose of memory from a neuro-evolutionary perspective and quotes Prof. Dan Schacter of Harvard University as follows: “Whether an event is real or imagined, many structures involved in the coding and retrieving are the same… […] Memory is designed not just to keep track of what has happened, but to offer a script for something that might. Evidence for this also comes from brain scans. Just as the “recall” of a bogus event lights up the brain’s memory centers, so does thinking about something that might occur. Because the brain uses memories for mental dress rehearsal, we are not wired to retain every facet of an event, scientists say. We don’t have to. A general framework is all that’s necessary to keep from getting lost, or find food, or know what to do when a storm is coming.”
The second publication is the latest book by Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and Nobel laureate specializing in judgment and decision-making processes. “Thinking, Fast and Slow” is about how we use two systems in our brain to think: System # 1 is fast, intuitive, consumes little energy and works primarily with associative memory while System #2 is slow, deliberate and a glutton in terms of its consumption of resources. In his book, Kahneman speaks at length about the prediction errors of experts, of the influence of emotions on our decisions, and especially what is called affect heuristic, when “judgments and decisions are guided directly by feelings of liking and disliking, with little deliberation and reasoning”. Like it or not, we are most of the times functioning with System 1, especially in social contexts, as the research of neuroscientist Matt Lieberman indicates. Lieberman has nicknamed System 1 the “X-system” by reference to the word “reflexive” and System 2 the “C-system”, by reference to the word “reflective”. Our brain is like a hybrid car: most of the time, it’s the electric engine which is working, because it uses fewer resources, but as soon as you need to increase brain speed or power, you switch on the combustion engine. Given that our brain has limited resources to begin with, this means that other areas of the brain become depleted of resources, which can further impair cognitive skills.
Our illusions about those systems are numerous: we believe that we always have enough fuel in our tank to be able to use System 2/our “reflective” system, we find it difficult to accept that System 1/our “reflexive” system is our default mode and we forget that our basic thinking is affected by our emotions and is biased. As a result, it is wise to take the opinions of Mr. Beck and other pundits with a large grain of salt.