Your foolish brain – understanding prejudgementOn October 8, 2017 by neurotravels
Our brain is great- I love it. I like the complex mechanisms behind it, it fascinates me how it can control just everything that happens in your body and at the same time adapt to the stimuli it constantly gets from the environment.
It does amazingly well, when it comes to controlling our bodies, our body temperature for example, how it makes sure you are balanced, how your movement is precise without you consciously thinking about it, or how it deals with the pieces of information that our senses smash at it constantly – just think about your vision and how much information is coming into your brain just while you are reading this. At the same time, you probably are holding something with your hands, your phone or your laptop and you also breath, think, digest, exist. Fascinating!
But there is one area where our brain cannot consider itself being an expert: it is not very good in providing us with a judgmental-free environment and therefore does perceive and decide with quite some deviation from the ideal. Thus, our mind can be very foolish sometimes, like in the following example of the famous Müller-Lyer optical illusion:
Looking at the two lines in the picture in the book – which one is the longer one, the first or the second line?
Both lines are equally long. But we do not perceive them as such. Even after I tell you, that these lines are of exactly the same length- they still seem not to be, do they?
This is a typical optical illusion, that probably comes from your brain processing the visual input in a very quick way, and because your brain is used to 3-dimentional space and has learned, that “angles out” most likely means a prolonged direction –> it misjudges the length of the two lines.
Forming groups and categories
Importantly, what our brain also likes a lot, is putting things or people into groups. It helps to quickly recognise similarities and make sense of an object with that it already knows about the world (This is also why you see faces in objects or trees or the moon 🙂 ). But this also has some dangerous consequences: we cannot really judge new inputs independently of what we have learned in the past or what groups our mind has set up for us. This will create stereotypes and will lead us to categorise things, and also people! It makes sense for our brain to do that, because it helps to understand new input and process it quicker- but it also fools us into prejudging and creating misconceptions.
A zucchini and cauliflower- they do not seem very similar in appearance, but we know them both as “vegetables” so it is obvious that we put them into the same category.
There is a whole field in both, neuroscience and psychology, that looks at how the human mind makes its decisions and why it acts with such a deviation from a “perfect” decision-making machine, that weighs evidence in favour of the economically ideal benefit. Our brain does often not compute like this optimal, mathematical model would predict it.
Focusing on similar features
Do you think, that 100 is somehow like 103?
What, if I ask you if 103 is like 100?
If you answered differently to the two questions above (I would say yes first and no in the second – how weird!?), this is something that your brain does to you as well. It works with known attributes when it compares two things, but not necessarily in both directions. This does not make sense in a simple model, that would predict the following:
if A (chocolate ice cream) is better than B (strawberry ice cream) and
B (strawberry ice cream) better than C (hazelnut ice cream),
then A (chocolate ice cream) is automatically also better than C (hazelnut ice cream).
This is the theory – but not what the human mind does, when it comes to picking ice cream flavours, in an imaginary experimental set up (with lots of ice cream – hmmm I would do that!).
If you are interested in reading more about this topic, how this field emerged and get more of an insight in when our brain does not make sense- I can absolutely recommend this book – it’s fascinating!
And maybe for the future: think about how your brain uses stereotypes to help itself categorise new things and, importantly, people – be smart and don’t let it fool you! If you find yourself prejudging, try to get rid of categories set up in your mind and re-think.