Pattern #84

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Tackling Cognitive Limitations

Credits: Background: alphaspirit – Shutterstock / izustun – iStock

We didn’t evolve to individually comprehend the world we now live in. Neurological limits, psychological biases, situational complexity, all demand we transcend cognitive shortcomings. So use psychological insights, systems thinking, science, dialogue, artificial and multiple intelligences, and any other means to collectively embrace fuller realities than we can grasp individually.

  • What limits what we as individuals know or can know or tend to know correctly?
  • What kind of blind spots and biases are you aware of in yourself and people around you? Do you see them in politics? in economic activity? in the larger society and culture? What ways do you know or can you imagine to deal with those cognitive limitations?
  • What warps what we think and feel about what’s going on in and around us?
  • Is it possible to be totally objective? What’s involved with doing that, or at least trying to? What should we do when different people have different certainties about what’s going on – and we need to live or work with them?

Going Deeper …

This is an edited version of the video on this page.

My introduction to this concept came when I read a book about a decade and a half ago called NEW WORLD NEW MIND by Robert Ornstein and Paul Ehrlich. In that book they talk about our cognitive systems – our senses and our brains – the ways we come to know things, to learn about things, to decide things, to solve problems, to respond appropriately to the challenges that we meet.

At an individual level our cognitive systems are basically the same as they were 10,000 years ago. But as societies we have created new environments, challenges and opportunities never before seen.  The whole human world we live in – and even much of the natural world – is not remotely what it was back in the ancient empires and in our hunter gatherer days. So there is this big mismatch between our environment and the ways we understand and respond to our environment. That’s largely what this “Cognitive Limitations” pattern is all about.

If we want to take into account what needs to be taken into account for long-term broad benefit – our definition of wise – then we need to be able to understand and be mindful of our own cognitive limitations, as well as those of the people around us, and of the groups who are making decisions or shaping the contexts in which we live, within which our decisions are made, within which we tell ourselves stories about what’s going on, or within which we are trying to respond individually and collectively.

The people and the cultures and the processes that we use for all those things are shaped by certain limitations. If we’re not aware of those limitations we will miss important factors. One of the resources I offer with this pattern is the book I just mentioned which is truly profound. The solution it focuses on, if I remember correctly, is education about systems thinking because systems thinking is a way to get beyond the limits of our ancient ways of seeing and thinking.

This is important because one of the biggest problems with our inherited individual cognitive capacity is that we instinctively respond to situations that are visible, immediate, urgent, and obviously tied to our survival. Unfortunately, nowadays the really important challenges we need to respond to involve systemic complexity.  They are usually more subtle – even invisible – and longterm or distant.

We can’t easily see – or see through – systemic complexity. We don’t know that when we buy certain kinds of chocolate, we are participating in the enslavement of children in Africa. We don’t know necessarily that when we’re driving our cars or eating our meat we are affecting the future of our grandchildren in terms of climate change. We may have financial troubles but we don’t know that the difference between the money we have and the money that other people have – the vast inequality in wealth – is shaping what’s happening in the society through power dynamics that distort economics, politics, governance and everything else.

These are systemic barriers that get in the way of our understanding and responding.  They’re barriers of scale, too: We can’t individually see what’s happening at the nanoscale or the planetary scale. We know weather, but we don’t know climate. These scales involve phenomena that are going on way beyond the kind of cognition we needed to survive 10,000 years ago. Our biological evolution did not prepare us for this.

To compensate for that lack, we have developed collective cognitive resources like the international collaborative practice of science. We have sensors all over the world.  We have computers, microscopes, telescopes, and all sorts of other devices that extend our senses.  Some cultural analysts suggest that computers and vast databases give us what they call “macroscopes“.  Where microscopes look down at the small and telescopes see across vast distances, computers with adequate data to process can help us to understand and see through complexity, to make sense of complexity in ways that our individual human minds can’t. We are now developing this computer-generated artificial intelligence that has its blessings and curses, but does have the possibility of helping us understand complexity – including the complex messes we have made and are making in the world.

We also have highly developed forms of dialogue and deliberation where diverse people can bring their different pieces of the puzzle together to see the whole picture more clearly. All of that is a big part of what’s needed in order to tackle our cognitive limitations. Wikipedia has a fabulous summary of what’s going on with cognitive bias, a psychological term that describes distortions in our cognitive capacity. Cognitive bias is not just one thing. There are around 100 different cognitive biases listed in various places. Examples include groupthink and things like confirmation bias, in which you look for information that will confirm what you already believe – which is something we all do. To filter information so we can think in an orderly way, we need to figure out what’s relevant, and part of deciding what’s relevant is finding things that make sense to us given what we already know, what we already believe. And we reject things that don’t fit what we already know or already believe.

That can be very dangerous if that’s all that’s going on in our decision-making – especially if we’re trying to be wise together. We need to have more than just our own perspective included. That’s not necessarily easy. So if we take the easy road, we will reject ideas and information that challenge our exiting beliefs.  And by doing that, we will always have a partial partisan fragmented view of what’s going on, which cripples our ability to take into account what needs to be taken into account.

We need all the different tools that we can use to get beyond the limits on what we should consider. We can’t of course do this perfectly, so we ARE going to miss stuff, every time.  We’re going to be biased no matter what we do. But admitting that is the first step in doing what we can to minimize our bias and our misses. The next step is being open and responsive, to let other people and reality tell us what we’ve missed so we can then take it into account and learn how to be more humble and wise about the challenges that we face.

So that’s the essence of this card and this pattern.