Post No.: 0631
Philosophers believe that there’s sentience (being receptive to one’s surroundings and acting in an intelligent way), wakefulness (being neither asleep nor incapacitated), access consciousness (having thoughts that guide our actions), and phenomenal consciousness (having subjective feelings).
Being conscious of something means being directly aware of it e.g. responding to a loud bang. Something that’s subconscious occurs just below our conscious awareness or isn’t currently in our focal awareness but can be called into our conscious awareness if desired e.g. when mindlessly munching on popcorn whilst watching a movie. Meanwhile, unconscious activities are automatic processes that are beyond being able to be called into conscious awareness even if desired, at least directly e.g. answering why one happened to fancy one cuisine at the time over another. Here, we may produce rationalisations why we made our choice but these may not be the true reasons why.
We can consider the level of one’s consciousness (or wakefulness) and the content of one’s consciousness (or awareness when we think, feel or perceive in the moment). These two don’t always correlate, such as when we’re dreaming or in a vegetative state.
Awareness can be further broken down into external awareness (of things in the external environment) and internal awareness (of our own internal thoughts). These activities seem to be negatively correlated i.e. when thinking about the external environment, we don’t normally or can’t simultaneously think about our internal thoughts, and vice-versa.
We don’t have to be conscious of something to be aware of it or for it to affect us – we can subconsciously or unconsciously perceive things that prime us e.g. we might not pay conscious attention to all the adverts for hamburgers around us yet we might eventually feel a hankering for one!
We also know that attention is limited i.e. although many people think that nothing passes them by – most things in daily life in fact pass us by but we just fail to notice them. This can result in inattentional blindness; and magicians and pickpockets take advantage of this. Also, bi-stable images, like the Necker cube, show us that even though the awareness of something mightn’t change, our internal perceptions and interpretations of something can flip.
Our perceptions are affected by our individual expectations, where our attention is placed at a particular moment in time, our own past experiences, the perceived context, and our personal motivations.
Now the mind is neither born completely ‘tabula rasa’ (a ‘blank slate’) nor born to be able to absorb absolutely anything in the environment with equal capability. We can far easier learn about e.g. threats and fears than calculus or statistics. We’re born with predispositions as well as limitations. We’re born ‘pre-wired’ rather than blank. And then via environmental factors such as upbringing, culture and personal experiences, this ‘pre-wiring’ then adapts – the brain is malleable; although not without constraints.
Thus both a tabula rasa view and a purely nativist view in psychology are empirically unsupported – we’re not born as blank slates nor are we born with all skills effectively hard-wired at birth. And we arguably know this when recognising the ways that different cultures shape our shared cognitive predispositions.
‘Domain-general skills’ are transferable skills that can be applied to a wide range of domains e.g. teamwork or time management. ‘Domain-specific skills’ are those that are only used in certain domains e.g. typing or tying knots.
Whether our brains are wired for domain-specific learning (where we learn different types of information differently and have distinct neural structures that have distinct functions hence learning one thing won’t really help one to learn something that’s unrelated) or domain-general learning (the opposite) is currently debated. It may be a kind of hybrid?
Amongst the animal kingdom (as far as we know in the universe anyway), human brains conspicuously appear exceptionally malleable and adaptable. Yet as much as most people want to believe that humans are behaviourally unique (as a species and each as individuals) and fundamentally different to all other creatures in the animal kingdom, that humans are always free to choose their own choices, behaviours and destinies, and always behave rationally – the more we scientifically study human behaviour patterns, the more we discover predictable, apparently ‘pre-programmed’, behaviours and consistent irrationalities. It takes dedicated research and education in the field of human psychology to shine a true light on the human condition. And like a donkey does what a donkey does, or a parrot does what a parrot does – a human does what a human does. Biases are the mechanisms that lead people to fail to recognise this. And cognitive biases generally work below or beyond our conscious awareness.
Your biases may make you believe you’re uniquely special, but join the enormous queue if so; where if everything is special then nothing really is(!) The intuitive belief in one’s uniqueness and specialness is ironically an example of a trait that makes humans very similar to each other! People don’t behave randomly. Disproportionately more people, when asked to pick a random number between 1 and 10, will pick 7. And when told this – won’t subsequently pick 7 as much. And when told that – will! (You could contest not everyone though.) People may think they’re making unpredictable choices but they mostly end up making the same decisions and end up in the same situations anyway, especially if they face the same backgrounds and circumstances.
People think they’re completely free but they’re evolutionarily programmed as the Homo sapiens they are – with human senses, biases, heuristics, intuitions and cognition that limit and constrain all they are and possibly could be. The exact details at the micro level may be more idiosyncratic but the desires and outcomes at the macro level of humankind exhibits patterns such as war, vengeance and greed. From a macro perspective of humans as a species – people are somewhat akin to zombies who just want food, money, status and sex! Evolution continues as we speak, but if a group of individuals starts to deviate so much from the humans we recognise – will they still be regarded as human?
All humans have genetic instincts that are shared with other humans (except in cases of disorders or disease), and are shaped by environments that are shared with at least many other humans too. Possibly like how we should study a machine learning AI’s initial programming (analogous to its genetics), training data (analogous to its upbringing) and subsequent testing and retraining experiences (analogous to its later life experiences) to try to infer how it thinks and comes to its decisions – we can do the equivalent with humans to try to understand them too i.e. study a human’s initial genome and epigenome, upbringing and subsequent life experiences. Both human learning and machine learning involve making Bayesian inferences (see Post No.: 0526), are only as good as what they’ve been taught or experienced (hence biases in judgement if one hasn’t been exposed to enough diversity), and are never going to be perfect at making guesses or decisions in a messy world.
People are often surprised at how common the problems, insecurities, joys and even quirks they assumed are unique to them are, once they talk about them in the open. If you think the entire world is focused on you and that blemish on your face then understand that everyone else is worried about their own insecurities, which means that the world’s attention cannot all be on your self-perceived imperfections. People from different cultures say things like ‘family is important in our culture’ as if it’s unique to their own culture! There’d be more peace in the world if only everyone did realise and accept everybody’s shared commonalities, but we tend to think our own ingroup is above other groups, or think we as individuals are above other individuals.
So there’s no blank slate, and strict or pure freedom of choice is an illusion because humans will predictably behave as humans. Consciousness is only the tip of the iceberg. Consequently, people most of the time are operating on automatic human instincts and intuition. These instincts save lots of effort and thus energy, and are extremely efficient for survival, but have been shown to not be optimally fit for many aspects of the modern environment – hence problems that include over-consumption, too much sedentariness, or chronic stress despite few modern daily events that genuinely involve the risk of instant life or death.
But with the human brain’s adaptability, people can learn to combat any instincts that aren’t optimal for this modern world. But it requires enormous dedicated conscious effort to override them because they’re so strong and seductive.
Businesses have progressively learnt to exploit these human patterns of behaviour. A person with a relaxed mind who claims that they’re not affected by any marketing tricks is likely to be the most affected by them because many of these tricks precisely play on one’s subconscious and unconscious. It’s like laughing along with a canned laughter track when you wouldn’t have laughed at all if that track wasn’t there – if you pay conscious attention to the artificial laughter track then you’ll realise the trick it’s playing on you but most of the time you won’t and it’ll be working on you subconsciously and therefore below your awareness. (Laughter, like yawning, is socially contagious so we tend to laugh far more when we hear others laughing.) Yet a mind cannot keep alert non-stop thus vigilant people are affected too.
We’re generally highly predictable that companies can reasonably confidently infer and predict our personality types and preferences just from the content of our social media posts and likes even when we don’t explicitly reveal these details about ourselves. They can predict our political views, religion, ethnicity, age, gender, sexuality and drug usage. And because they gather data and use a scientific approach, they can know some aspects of ourselves better than we (think we) do!
So, many of us like to think we’re all unique and that no person or machine can predict our thoughts and decisions – but with enough personal data gathered about us, psychometric tests and AI are able to reasonably accurately predict our beliefs and behaviours, and in turn figure out how to best manipulate us – for our own benefit if it’s to nudge us into making healthier choices, or for someone else’s benefit if it’s to sell us things we don’t really need. Psychometric tests are (over)simplified tests but, in business, they don’t need to correctly predict everyone’s behaviours all of the time but enough of them enough of the time.
A retailer can reasonably predict if you or your partner is pregnant based on your recent purchases, for instance. Perfectly anonymising our private data is extremely difficult when datasets are comprehensive (like on social media platforms) or can be cross-combined – your own individual identity can be predicted via what data firms gather and may sell to third parties about you. Knowing just four data points of the times and/or places when and/or where a credit card has been used can be sufficient to narrow the user down to uniquely you. And once you’ve been identified, a thief could work out your home address from where you’re most frequently located when you make social media posts, and therefore when you’re not at home e.g. when you post about your holiday when abroad. A de-identified dataset can be linked with an identified dataset to re-identify individuals in the first dataset too. Via ‘big data’ analyses – firms and governments can predict our future behaviours way better than we can predict ourselves.
…We’re especially no greater than other life if we rely on instinct over education. It’s really the ability to pass on and learn knowledge that gives humans a compounding advantage over other species.
Woof. An organism is most predictable when it just follows its innate instincts, and less so when it takes manual conscious control and acts on what it learns.