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The Mechanism of Substitution Heuristic

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Kahneman-TverskyHuman thinking is complicated. I further find it ironic that we find it so difficult to think about our own thinking. The reason for this is that we are not aware of all of the processes that go into the workings of our own minds. When you think about it, that makes sense. If we had to monitor the mechanisms by which we process information, and then monitor that monitoring, we would use a lot of mental energy in a potentially endless loop of self inspection. This could easily become paralyzing.

So mostly we engage is automatic subconscious problem solving, which uses simplified algorithms to produce decisions which are fast and good enough, absent awareness of what those algorithms are. When we have the luxury for more introspection we can indulge in some analytical thinking as a check on our intuitions.

Added to this, we have made our own world incredibly complex. In a way we have overwhelmed our own intuitions (what psychologists call system 1 thinking). We are fumbling through complex technological and scientific questions involving a world-spanning civilization with a brain evolved for a much smaller and simpler world. This means we need to rely much more heavily on system 2 thinking – careful analytical thinking. This involves metacognition, or thinking about how we think.

Psychologists Kahneman and Tversky have arguably had the most dramatic effect on the study of decision making starting in 1979. They put forward the whole notion of cognitive biases and heuristics, or mental shortcuts we substitute for careful analytical thought. 

The Mechanism of Substitution

I have written about many such biases and heuristic here over the years, and here is a new one – the mechanism of substitution. Actually, it is not very new, but rather a different way of looking at existing biases. It is more of a mechanism for biases and heuristics rather than one itself. At it’s core the idea is simple, when confronted with a complex problem we substitute a simpler problem we can answer and then go with that answer.

A great example of this is the availability heuristic. The question – how common is this phenomenon, is complex to answer. We would have to survey a lot of objective information in order to really answer it, with proper controls and representative samples. This is too much work, so we intuitively substitute a far simpler question – how easy is it for me to think of an example of this phenomenon? If an example readily comes to mind, we conclude the phenomenon is common. If we can’t think of an example, we conclude it is rare.

This shortcut is reasonable in many circumstances and is an indicator of how common something is. You can also see how much more effective this heuristic would be if your entire world consisted of a tribe of 300 people who never traveled more than 20 miles from their village. In our modern world, not so much.

You can also see in this example how substituting a simpler question is a mechanism for a specific heuristic. Further, it demonstrates how our brains prioritize efficiency, which is primarily gained through simplifying processes.

You could go through many of the biases and heuristics and see this mechanism at work. We have a left-most digit bias. When estimating how large a number is, we focus on the left-most digit. That is why items are often priced at $19.95 – we really do look at the “1” and are partly fooled by this.

We see this mechanism at work in marketing and consumer thinking about complex technologies. For a time computers were marketed based largely on their processor speed, as if this one number was a good representation of overall power. Digital cameras are often marketed with megapixels as the one measure of quality.

When asked to predict how a person or system will behave in the future (including ourselves) we tend to substitute the complex problem of considering many possible variables with the simple question of – how do we feel, or how is the system behaving right now? We have a huge bias to extrapolate current trends into the future, because it is a far simpler question to answer than one in which we consider all the factors that can disrupt current trends.

Analogies often work by this mechanism. When asked a question about a complex phenomenon, we search for an analogy to a known phenomenon and then shift the question to the known analogy, even if it doesn’t quite work.

The problem isn’t that we use analogies or heuristics to inform our decision making. That is perfectly reasonable and likely effective. The problem comes from substituting our analogies and heuristics for analytical thinking about the actual question we are confronting.

Substituting easy questions for hard ones is also just one part of a more general phenomenon of oversimplification. Again – I think vertebrate brains are fundamentally organized to prioritize efficiency, making quick judgments that are mostly true. What matters is the resulting behavior and how adaptive it is, and it’s easy to see how the trade-off between accuracy and speed would be optimized. Simplifying problems to manageable analogies is not a bad strategy overall, as long as we don’t confuse our simplistic analogies for reality.

Another example of oversimplification is reliance on simple narratives to explain the world. We not only substitute simple question for more difficult ones, we substitute simple answers for more complex ones. We tend to develop narratives that have apparent explanatory power, and then overuse those few simple narrative to explain a complex messy world.

For example, “natural is better” is one such narrative.  Navigating all the complex and shifting scientific evidence, government regulations, and marketing claims in order to figure out what is best for our health can be overwhelming. It is far simpler to go with an easy narrative – anything natural is better.

Conspiracy thinking also serves this role – all the complex details of reality can be explained by invoking a grand conspiracy, which can accommodate any evidence.

Political parties are essentially institutionalized strategies for oversimplifying the world. Political parties have ideologies, which are a limited set of principles that guide decision-making and priorities. If you are a libertarian, than liberty is everything.  If you are a progressive liberal than egality is everything. Applying this one filter to all political questions is clarifying. Forget about balancing various legitimate principles that are at odds with each other, that results in the “mushy middle” or “accommodationist” thinking. Stay true to your one principle.

Of course, even that is an oversimplification of human behavior. People are multifarious beings with a host of complex motivations and beliefs. But there is a clear tendency to oversimplify, and this tendency leads to biased thinking that diverges from reality.

This is why people can so vehemently disagree about what should be factual questions. They are applying different filters, heuristics, and narratives.




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13 days ago
This substitution mechanism is more than a foundation for our biases. I think it is a foundational concept for understanding knowledge in general. All of our knowledge and understanding of the world consists of substituting a simpler thing that can give us a reliable result in place of the too-complicated-to-really-understand universe. Every idea, theory, rule of thumb, bias, or model that you have is really just a heuristic way of substituting the simple thing in place of the complicated one. We just have to hope in any particular circumstance that it is 'good enough' to work...
13 days ago
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Romney Voters

Pursuing Romney voters (who?) isn't a winning electoral strategy, it's a decision about who you want your coalition to be.
Thus, former Hillary Clinton adviser Jesse Ferguson writes at Politico, Democrats should pursue Romney voters — that is, comfortable suburban professionals, mostly white, who are supposedly appalled by President Trump's antics — to win elections in the future.

The dirty little secret about "nice, polite republicans" is that they are neither nice, nor polite. Discuss. White suburbanites went for Trump. Bigly. You can argue that Hillary Clinton was, in their eyes, so horrible that they couldn't vote for her, or you have to accept that they just weren't appalled by Trump. Maybe some mix of the two. I'm not making that case, I'm just saying that Democrats have been chasing affluent suburban voters for a long time, basically because of class affinity. They're educated! They're professional! They're people like "us!" (affluent DC election professionals). They can't possibly vote for those evil racist assholes!

Yes. Yes they can. And they do. Why the fuck do you think they live in the suburbs? (#notallpeoplewholiveinthesuburbs)

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19 days ago
Pursuing 'gettable' voters from the other side likely doesn't help much with electability. You will likely win eventually regardless. It is at that moment when you turn around and ask yourself what you really want to do with that new power that it matters.

In that moment, having more moderate people will make your policy more incremental (and thus less likely to do large-scale harm), and more achievable. If you want to see what purity-focused electoral success looks like, just look at the Republican party today. And ask yourself if you want the Democrats to emulate it.
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19 days ago
What Atrios Said. "Nice, polite Republicans" are neither nice nor polite, and Dems are wasting their time if they pursue those votes.

Repost: 25 Questions for Theists

Almost five years ago, I published my “20+ Questions for Theists.” They say hindsight is 20/20. After reading the numerous comments in the combox, I can see that I was not as clear as I would have liked to have been. So I’d like to offer a clarification before reposting the list of questions, which [Read More...]
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19 days ago
This is an interesting list of questions, but I can also see why it isn't likely to persuade many theists to change their minds.

The questions are almost all convertible to the form 'X is true. How can theism explain it?'. Confusingly, it seems like sometimes X is something the author really believes (like the vastness of the universe) and other times X is something the author doesn't believe (like the mechanics of soul attachment).

The trouble is that none of these questions directly relates to the existence of God or lack thereof. Because the mere existence or absence of a divine agency doesn't really predict much. If you were to ask me whether a large universe makes it more likely that there is a divine being, I wouldn't know one way or the other. And asking for either a divine or secular explanation boils down to either 'That is how God made things' or 'That is how things are'.

Religion itself consists almost entirely of the 'auxiliary hypotheses' that the author mentions. In a similar way, the actual meat of a secular worldview consists of an equal number of auxiliary hypotheses. And if two people had the same auxiliary hypotheses but differed over the single overarching narrative of theism vs secularism, it is unclear in what way they could resolve the matter.

Every worldview has mysteries. Perhaps this list functions best as a statement that 'I do not believe in God because I have not seen compelling evidence of His existence and my worldview does not require God as an organizing principle. Here is a list of irksome mysteries I find when I try to think about theology.' I'm not sure that this would be any more persuasive, but it might be more clearly stated.
19 days ago
Good list
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We Asked, You Answered: Does U.S. Foreign Aid Raise Living Standards?

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Illustration of hands giving money to the world.
Marcus Butt/Getty Images/Ikon Images

"Should America Keep Giving Billions Of Dollars To Countries In Need?"

That was the headline of a story NPR published in early May, looking into a former Trump campaign adviser's claim made during an interview on Morning Edition. Stephen Miller said there's "zero evidence" that U.S. foreign aid has had an effect on economic development.

The economists we interviewed said that Miller has a point: Attempts to connect the dots between aid and growth have had mixed results. But, the specialists said, there may be other ways to measure the impact of foreign aid.

We wanted to know what our audience had to say, so we invited them to submit their views as part of our #CuriousGoat series. We received over 100 responses over the past two weeks. Here's a sampling, edited for length and clarity.

Health is wealth

"I work on projects that aim to eliminate several diseases, like blindness-causing trachoma, as a public health threat. Generally, people in the developing world who have blindness can't work. Despite the complexity of measuring results, I have a hard time seeing that saving someone's sight and ability to work didn't affect their standard of living." -Gail Liebowitz

No evidence necessary

"For Selthare in Botswana [a beneficiary of an HIV/AIDS program], it raised his standard of living because without aid he would not be alive. We have so much in this country, do we really want to be responsible for just letting people die because there is no proof our aid is raising the standard of living country-wide? I can live without the $4 or $5 dollars a year from my income that goes to foreign aid to developing countries." -Kathy Hamel

Firsthand proof

"As a returned Peace Corps volunteer, I have seen firsthand how important foreign aid is. To say that foreign aid is only valuable if it leads to demonstrable economic growth is ridiculous. Foreign aid has brought HIV medications to people who would otherwise have no access to them, built schools for children who otherwise couldn't go, helped expecting mothers and their babies survive difficult pregnancies, led to farmers adopting smarter agricultural practices so more people are fed and so much more. Cutting foreign aid is cowardly because those politicians don't have to answer to foreigners who have thrived because of U.S. aid in their communities. Shame on them." -William Sullivan

The big picture

"Aid is about more than just dollars and cents. The United States has a moral responsibility as the richest country in the world to help. Our blessings are many and we are morally responsible to share those blessings to lift others up." -Lyn

Not really

"As a military person I was part of the U.S. foreign aid support to countries like Honduras in the 1980s. After all this time and money I don't think they are any better. I would like to believe our foreign aid is welcomed, but I do not believe programs without specific goals and realistic expectations should be funded." - Bobbie Carleton

Don't forget corruption

"I am surprised that the article does not mention corruption. I have spent my life in Africa and don't believe that much aid money ever does anything but buy property in London and villas in Switzerland. I do not think that Western countries should enrich corrupt despots and officials while their citizens live in poverty." -Dan Flehmen

Wrong question

"While the evidence based on the impact of foreign aid is mixed, I'm not sure the right answer is less foreign aid. Why aren't we asking how foreign aid can be more evidence-based and cost-effective? Alleviating poverty is the single greatest challenge facing humankind." -Erin Crossett

Thank you to everyone who participated in this month's #CuriousGoat.

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24 days ago
I wouldn't expect US foreign aid to have measurable impact on the economies of recipient countries. Partly this is because pouring X amount of money into a country each year will not yield economic growth year after year. We measure economic development in terms of growth. And so an additional national income will contribute to 'growth' at most once when it is first introduced. Even if it is effective at making people's lives better, it won't have a growing effect over time unless you make heroic assumptions.

But even if these programs did yield increasing benefits over time with a fixed budget, the size of the programs compared with the size of the economy in which they are operating turns them into a rounding error in terms of growth. People assume that foreign aid is a flood of largesse which would have a huge impact if it weren't wasted by ineffective administration or corruption. But the reality is that it is the barest trickle of money. And even the small amount of foreign aid that does happen is often funneled towards military allies much more than it is towards poor nations.

It is simply not possible for foreign aid to have a large impact given the meager funds that are allocated to it.
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Two Board Games to Build Big Brains in Your Kids

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If my kids don’t grow up knowing how to pack an efficient and orderly truck and/or dishwasher, then I’m a failure as a father. Seriously, spatial awareness is a gift, my friends, and folks who just haphazardly toss luggage in the back seat are monsters of the highest CR.

So I’ve been having a good time playing a couple of board games with my kids, being that both of them pack a lot of fun even as they help build spatial skills.

Two Board Games to Build Big Brains in Your Kids: Ingenious

The first game is Ingenious. This is a game that is about 10 years old and was created by the famed Reiner Knizia and published by Fantasy Flight Games. You can trust the marketing tagline for Ingenious, which says its “An Amazing Game for 2-4 Brains!”

There are 6 colored symbols on the board as well as on players’ cardboard tiles. Players take turns placing the colored conjoined-hex “domino” tiles on the game board, matching the colored symbols.

Each player has a rack (punched into the game board) of six of the tiles. For each tile a player matches on the game board, one point is scored for that color that both lies adjacent to it as well as in a straight line from it. If a player brings the score of a color to 18, she immediately yells “Ingenious!” and takes another turn.

A hex is a near perfect shape, if you ask me. And Ingenious is a fun game. My 8-year-old and I can play a game in just 20 minutes. Not only do we enjoy ourselves, but I feel that our matching and spatial awareness get just a smidge better with each play. We also practice our silly voices when we yell “INGENIOUS!”

There isn’t much to Ingenious, which makes it really easy and quick to learn. The production isn’t perfect however. It’s nearly impossible not to have all the tiles slide around on the game board, which means the alignment is almost always just a smidgen off. That’ll make your spatial awareness radar start beeping.

That–coupled with the scoring cards being slick–means that little players who are apt to bump things (meaning all little players) will require that everything needs near constant realignment. I realize that making a grooved game board might make it cost prohibitive, but it feels like at least a textured non-slip coating would have been nice.

Still, that’s part of the fun and Ingenious is a nice little game for both having fun as well as building big brains in your kids.

Two Board Games to Build Big Brains in Your Kids: Patchwork

Next up is Patchwork. This is a newer 2-player game that was created by the famed Uwe Rosenberg and published by Mayfair Games. I never thought I’d be promoting a board game with a theme of quilt making, but here we go.

Players compete to create a patchwork quilt on a personal 9×9 game board. At the start of play all of the cardboard “patches” are randomly laid out in a circle. Cardboard “buttons” are the currency that is used to purchase the patches.

On a turn, a player can purchase (should they have enough buttons!) one of the three patches laying clockwise. The player then places the patch on their board, fitting everything together highly like a it’s Tetris.

The “timer” is a central game board where player markers are advanced according to a number on each patch. As the makers advance, there are opportunities to pick up more buttons.

At the end of the game, each player scores a point for every button in his possession, but loses two points for each empty square on his game board.

That might sound like a granny game, but it is wonderfully designed, a surprising amount of fun, and perfect for building spatial skills in little gamers. Patchwork gets tons of play in our house, as I both my wife and I play it with our kids, and they also play it with their granddad.


There are other good abstract board games out there, but Ingenious and Patchwork stand out for several reasons:

  1. They are both enjoyable to play.
  2. They are inexpensive.
  3. They are quick to learn and play.
  4. And they help build big brains in little gamers.

I can’t promise they will help you properly pack a trunk, but they sure won’t hurt.

The post Two Board Games to Build Big Brains in Your Kids appeared first on Nerds on Earth.

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29 days ago
I love Patchwork. It is also surprisingly good for playing with a child (6 years old) while also being interesting for an adult.
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You should’ve asked


Here is the english version of my now famous “Fallait demander” !

Thanks Una from unadtranslation.com for the translation 🙂

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33 days ago
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