A Coursera Course Changed Everything

A new member of my MOST IMPORTANT BOOKS list.

As I have mentioned before, one of my favorite books is Thinking: Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (I’ve written about it enough that I now can spell that last name with double-checking). I love learning about cognitive biases and the mistakes we all make in decision making and thinking in general. But I also always wondered WHAT I WAS SUPPOSED TO DO ABOUT IT. I had the knowledge of the ways we make faulty decisions but never could figure out what to do with it other than trying to catch myself in the act. Same with other sources on decision making like one of my other favorite books, Anti-fragile or anything by Dan Ariely (he had a great Coursera course as well but I don’t see it in the catalog right now).

I had no idea that a Coursera class on Buddhism and Modern Psychology would answer this question for me. Or rather it would take everything I had already learned and flip it upside down. Because according to evolutionary psychology (the topic of the course), what we call cognitive biases aren’t mistakes in thinking but evidence of the real reasons why we do things (and not mistakes at all).

There are two ways to think about “reasons”: the underlying evolutionary reason and the proximate reason (the reasons we give when asked why we made a decision). An example of this given in the book The Rational Animal:

Consider the question of why birds migrate each year. The proximate reason is because days get shorter; day length is the immediate cue triggering the bird’s motivation to begin its journey. But the ultimate reason for the bird migration has nothing to do with day length. Instead, it has to do with the fact that the best food and mating sites change with the season.

Decision making in humans is informed by evolution, just like everything else. When you consider all of these errors and biases through the lens of evolution, they appear to make reasonable sense for a human animal designed to survive to reproductive age and then reproduce as successfully as possible. Traditional economics never considers these deeper reasons for behaviors, only the proximate reasons (the reasons we SAY we do things). They are missing the forest for the trees.

And not only that, cognitive biases are nothing more than an ever-increasing list of exceptions to a model of human behavior (traditional economics), suggesting that the MODEL IS WRONG. For me, it’s no longer a question of how to avoid cognitive biases or compensate for them. It’s all about understanding my brain through the lens of evolution. That means MANY of the decisions I make are made in parts of my brain (what this course calls modules) THAT I HAVE NO CONSCIOUS ACCESS TO. Yet when asked why I made those decisions my brain is DESIGNED TO MAKE STUFF UP that I am 100% convinced of!

The course details the principle theory of evolutionary psychology, which is that we do not have one true self in our brains but instead a number of modules that evolved to assist with certain evolutionary goals.  With the help of a great book, Why Everyone Else is a Hypocrite, the course does a great job of explaining how these modules work and detailing the evidence that our brains are designed to make some decisions without that information being available to us consciously or to other parts of the brain that would allow us to communicate our reasons accurately. Another way to describe the modules is “subselves”, of which the book book The Rational Animal lists the following seven:

  1. Self protection
  2. Disease Avoidance
  3. Affiliation
  4. Status
  5. Mate Acquisition
  6. Mate Retention
  7. Kincare

Depending on the situation, any of these subselves might be more highly activated than the others and calling the shots. You will make different decisions about similar situations depending on which subself is the most activated at any particular time. It’s all so amazing and makes so much sense to me. The difference between behavioral economics and evolutionary psychology is that the former believes that rational decision making means always doing what is in your economic best interest, while the latter believes rational decision making means doing what serves the subself that’s currently activated. The reason I am so blown away by all of this is because I finally have a model of behavior and decision making that MAKES SENSE to me. And that model is that we just make stuff up all the time while our brains do all the choosing and leave us out of it. I love it.