Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Ethics: The tricks our brains play on us

In shourt, doctors, judges, consultants and vice presidents strive for truth more often than we realize, and miss that mark more often than they realize. Because the brain cannot see itself fooling itself, the only reliable method for avoiding bias is to avoid the situations that produce it.

When doctors refuse to accept gifts from those who supply drugs to their patients, when justices refuse to hear cases involving those with whom they share familial ties and when chief executives refuse to let their compensation be determined by those beholden to them, then everyone sleeps well.

From this excellent NYTimes column on the kind of tricks our brains are capable of playing on us. They deceive us into thinking that we are more fair and balanced than the average and that the others are less so than the average!

Here's a key sentence:

The human brain knows many tricks that allow it to consider evidence, weigh facts and still reach precisely the conclusion it favors.

The column, by Daniel Gilbert, a professor of 'hedonistic psychology' at Harvard, also tells us that while people's behaviours exhibit quite a bit of 'self-interest', there are other (redeeming?) things as well:

Studies such as these suggest that people act in their own interests, but that their interests include ideals of fairness, prudence and generosity.

The role of these other "counter-intuitive" traits in human actions (in particular, economic actions) is a hot field of research, apparently. For example, we saw (here and here) two other articles about this hot field in behavioral sciences.


  1. Anonymous said...

    I wonder why NYT articles about "self-interest," "tricks brain plays" etc should be new to us Indians...while I understand the behavioral science angle and interest...yet, such basic insights have been with us, for like, a 1000 years right? :-)
    "The human brain knows many tricks that allow it to consider evidence, weigh facts and still reach precisely the conclusion it favors."

    Isn't that what our guys having been calling the delusory, monkey mind?


  2. Abi said...

    Hmmm... Yes, the basic insights have been with us all -- not just Indians, but everyone. However, what is new (I think) is our ability to measure it and analyze all the different ways in which the mind plays its tricks.

  3. Anonymous said...


    an excelent book (on cognitive biases) in case you haven't read it is "Choices, Values and Frames" edited by Daniel Kahnemann and Amos Tversky. The field has moved far ahead since then, with the latest hot area being that of emotion affecting cognition and behavior .


  4. Abi said...

    Thanks, Neela. While I am aware of Kahnemann and Tversky's work in general terms (through others' writing), I haven't read them yet. I will look for the book you have recommended.