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The Fault in Our Brains

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Hello there.

Hanif here.

So, when was the last time you said “sorry”? Apologized to someone you’ve hurt unintentionally? More importantly, apologized to yourself?

To err is human. Faults, flaws, faux pas, fumbles, and fallacies are as much a part of who we are today as the stuff we’ve gotten right. I’m here to walk you through behind the reason why. Let’s first see the following examples to see how we humans reenact errors throughout history time and again.

The above photo is a 700-years-old prayer book. A monk scraped the ink off an older manuscript, cut the pages, rotated them, and then wrote all over them. Recent multi-spectral images of the prayer book have revealed that the old manuscript he erased was previously an unknown copy of a work by Archimedes. It was called “The Method” in which Archimedes laid out the heart 2,200 years before Newton and Leibniz.1

If that one monk hadn’t erased that older manuscript, would we be hundreds of years mathematically and technologically more advanced today than we currently are? It’s hard to say, but considering that probability, it was a big mistake on the monk’s part.

Next, we have the legendary Mars Climate Orbiter. The day was September 15, 1999, and this 327.6-million-dollar explorer was just about to enter Mars orbit. It did –though with a little too much enthusiasm, barbecuing itself upon entering the red planet’s atmosphere. The reason? Because back on Earth NASA used the agreed-upon metric measurements while the spacecraft designed by Lockheed Martin used the imperial one2. The literally best brains on earth made a basic engineering physics mistake. I mean, how come humans be simultaneously smart and dumb?

Ten years ago, a man got lost in the woods while hunting outside of San Diego then he lit a small fire to signal the rescuers. But that fire went haywire and became a starving fire devouring 300,000 acres of land, 2,322 homes, and killing 15 people in the process.3 Another grave mistake.

Lastly, at what age did you leave your card at the ATM for the first time? Your answer is also a part of our conversation here. Mine was 15.

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To err is human. But why is it? It’s got to be something in our heads, right?

Years ago, psychologists and neuroscientists had been trying to answer the question of how we can be so ingenious at some tasks and so clueless at others. Recently, they converged at a single approach that involves a distinction between two kinds of thinking to make sense of this salient contradiction.

In the psychology literature, these two systems are sometimes referred to as System 1 and System 2. Borrowing the term used in the book Nudge, you and I could agree to call them Automatic System and Reflective System respectively. As the name suggests, Automatic implies thinking that is intuitive and automatic, while Reflective implies the one which is reflective and rational.

Thinking using the Automatic System feels rapid and instinctive while thinking using the Reflective System requires meticulous and deliberate assessments of things, which is hard and uncomfortable for most people. By default, we use Automatic System all the time except at certain activities. Changing the default requires a lot of effort.

To be frank, I don’t want you to overthink this psychology thing, but it is integral in a way for you to make sense of the point I’m trying to make. So, I’m going to wrap this up with a question and a table for you so that you could quickly grasp the gist of this science of thinking.

The innate properties of the two thinking systems.
(Thaler and Sunstein, 2008)

Question: A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?__cents.

What was your initial answer? Most people say 10 cents. If you had taken more time and used a simple algebra –consulting the Reflective System in the process– you’d figure it out to be 5 cents.

Now, let’s tone things down a bit and go through a tiny everyday mistake with a low stake but –at times– highly agonizing results, namely, typos.

How long did it take for you to spot the typo in the above dialog box?

When we try to formulate thoughts or convey meanings and structure it in the desired way, we use the Reflective System. Unless we’re not daydreaming, we want to write them down so that we’d be able to record or communicate them to others. Turns out, this process of writing –translating abstraction into physical words– is run by the Automatic System.5

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In human communication, the process of thought fabrication and writing is as simultaneous as in verbal communication. Since our brains aren’t built to multitask, the fact that the two separate tasks are handled by two different systems in the brain is pretty convenient. But this scenario has a built-in drawback in which the use of Automatic System plays a significant role; typos are born every now and then.

Giving birth to typos is one thing, but identifying them is another. Spotting typos is an entirely standalone process –aside from abstraction and writing– we can do only after completing the earlier tasks, assuming we can do so. Which is not the case. Because in most cases, spotting typos is a blind spot we all have.

The bigger the question, the bigger the promise. So, why is it hard to spot our own typos?

The above passage speaks for itself

When we read, we look at the letters as a whole and conceive the meaning with the help of the combination of the letters acting as figurative cues.6 The orders of the letters, however, don’t really matter even though we do care a lot about splleing!

The above effect is amplified when we are reading our own work, henceforth rendering self-proofreading pointless. When our thoughts are laid out in it, rereading the writing is actually going through the inferred meaning and not the letters. Your brain already knows what you want to convey through the words. So, you expect the meaning to already be there. This setting is a perfect ground for typos to go stealth mode.

Proofreading our own work is literally a game of deception between the brain and the eyes. Our brains’ mechanism is by itself creating a blind spot for typos to thrive in. Outsourcing the proofreading task is a winning candidate among all possible solutions.

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“When someone else is proofreading your work, they are reading it for the first time. Their brains, therefore, pay more attention to what is written, as they do not have any preconceived notion in their heads of what is being written or what point is being made. As such, other people have a much better chance of catching your typos, as they are reading it for the first time and their brains are paying more attention to what has actually been written, rather than anticipating the final point being made.” -scienceabc.com

With the thing about typos concluded, it’s now time to scale things up about mistakes.

In life, generally speaking, why is it so hard easy to spot other’s mistakes and freakishly hard to spot our own? And once we spot them, it’s hard to dismiss their mistakes let alone not judging them. So, why?

In English, we have the luxury of detailed synonyms of the word mistake. Please, take a look at the following examples:

  • He made a procedural error.
  • He dialed the wrong number by mistake.
  • He committed a diplomatic blunder.
  • A slip of the tongue.
  • A lapse in judgment.

All of them mean a departure from what is true, right, or proper. But in fact, what is true, right, or proper for British English can’t also be true in American English spelling. Neither of them has the right to correct each other. In our day to-day life, Eating using the left hand is a grievous mistake for Muslims but a mundane occurrence for non-Muslim.

So, to accommodate the difference of what is true between you and me, let’s assume that there is only one truth the world believes in as a standard: scientifically sound science (whether it’s engineering, physics, economics, psychology, you name it).

The assumption I mentioned earlier is made on the singularity of truth, not on the idea of scientifically sound science as a standard of what is true or proper. Because in the real world, each of us have a different set of scientifically sound science as a standard; physicists have laws, civil engineers have ASCE, ASTM, etc., and psychologists have DSM-5.

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Agreeing upon the above assumption, we can now concoct a clear limit of when to declare somebody as guilty of a mistake. Because violating science has a real-world consequence, people are considered to have committed an error only when the error has a real-world consequence that puts him in between a discomfort-disarray spectrum.

After having defined a precise definition of a mistake, we may now revisit the question again before answering it.

So, why are we oblivious to our own mistakes but are highly effective when it comes to spotting others’ mistakes?

Scientifically speaking, the first four examples (yes, including your experience of forgetting your ATM card which is the best example of post-completion error) is a perfect scaled-up model of mistakes made in real life. Their stakes are sky-high unlike your teeny-weeny tiny typo. But the previously explained case of typos has provided me with a profound answer.

The case with typos is precisely analogous to those grave mistakes. Saying that typos are the mini models of huge mistakes isn’t too far-fetched either. (Likewise, engineers used to use mini-models to reduce the cost of iteration in the design process)

So, why is it hard to spot our own typos?

First, it’s because both our thinking systems are preoccupied with doing the action to a point where there isn’t enough room for debugging errors. Secondly, the expectation garnered by our preconceived notion of the meaning we are trying to convey hinders our sensory detectors in the brain. Our brains’ mechanism is by itself creating a blind spot for typos to thrive in. The fault is in our thinking vault. By default, it’s the fault in our brains. (The title of this article is indeed inspired by the famous book The Fault in Our Stars)

So, why are we oblivious to our own mistakes?

It’s because we’re preoccupied with the task at hand –often the one which uses both thinking systems– and while doing so we are by default reluctant to cross-check the results. Because the latter task is solely the work of the Reflective System. Thinking that we’ve used the right system to think is the blind spot. (Fallibility is the result of using the Automatic System for the tasks for which the Reflective System is better suited)

So, why are we highly effective when it comes to spotting others’ mistakes?

When we are proofreading a person’s life as it untangles, we are reading it for the first time. Our brains, therefore, pay more attention to how it’s being done, as we do not have any preconceived notion in our heads of what is being intended by the person. As such, we have a much better chance of catching others’ errors as we are observing it for the first time. Our brains are paying more attention to how it has actually been done rather than anticipating the final result being sought for.

Our thinking is more invested that way because we set our expectations at the procedure and not at the result.

By using the Reflective System, it’s also possible to spot our grand mistakes made earlier in our lives, but only long after we’ve suffered the consequences –whether it’d be just being put at a discomfort or crumbling in a state of disarray. What’s left in it for us is only the insidious feeling of regret.

There, we have found our answer. But wait. There is more to spotting people’s mistakes than meets the eye. Stay with me. I insist you persist.

In our past discussion on typos, do you remember about my suggestion of outsourcing the proofreading task as a brilliant solution?

Well, this solution also applies to the mistakes that mess up our life. If you think like an engineer, the most feasible and easiest-to-apply solution is a winning candidate. That’s why it is inherently easy to proofread others’ life.

What makes everything complicated is that not a lot of people ready to have their lives proofread by others. Yes, spotting the mistake of a person and yell it at them at the spot is truly the hallmark of being a jerk. But oftentimes, their way of proofreading your life has nothing to do with your aversion towards correction8. It is your hurt pride that leads you and the purportedly generous proofreader to engage in a bottomless argument.

Some days, we are the pigeon. Some days, we are the statue. And, most of us are ignorant about almost everything. The world is too big to not be ignorant. But miraculously finding the mental strength to say “Alright mate, you seem to have a point. Let’s talk about it” when someone pointed your dumbness, is always going to get a better result than “go away, mind your own business!”. Because admitting to ignorance is a rather rare and endearing virtue in this day and age.

Our ignorance and weakness as an infant could’ve killed us then and there, but the kindness and compassionate teachings of our parents enlighten us as we grow and keep us alive to reach adulthood. Somehow, our current culture –where being able to correct others is considered to be brilliant– has made that same kindness and compassion shrink as our knowledge expands.

Now, it’s about a perfect time for my final apologia.

If you’ve come this far with me reading this piece, I truly hope our time together in these strings of mouthful paragraphs could make us a better and a wiser version of ourselves. And, wise people tend to make the most out of gratis proofreading of our lives. It literally takes millions to hire McKinsey branded proofreaders, so why are we reluctant to be proofread gratis?

We may have invented proofreading apps and addressed human flaws in our design flows, but only a real human touch could recognize a genuine human error. Ambitious men are geeks of validation and seek no correction, but damned wise men reek the greed for advice.

We cannot, and never will be correct about everything all the time*. Ignorance is in our bones. But kindness in our DNA. And, if people tell you otherwise, just tell them to go away..….with love, obviously. With love.

As always, thanks for reading.

One quick hunt for humbling easter eggs: how many typos have I made?

*Fritz Machlup, the economist, coined the phrase Half-Life of Knowledge.9 It is a phrase that is seemingly analogous to the half-life widely known in physics; the amount of time it takes for half of the knowledge within a field to be superseded by new, better sciences or be simply proven untrue. Donald Hebb famously estimated that the half-life of knowledge in psychology is just five years.

 

*Ahmad Hanif, Mahasiswa Teknik Kelautan ITB

References:

  1. The Method of Mechanical Theorems: https://www.sciencenews.org/article/prayer-archimedes
  2. Mishaps in the Mars Climate Orbiter Development: http://edition.cnn.com/TECH/space/9909/30/mars.metric.02/index.html
  3. Forest Fire: http://interwork.sdsu.edu/fire/photo_gallery/BackCountryPhotos.htm%20example%2C%20Donald%20Hebb%20estimated,of%20study%20is%20declining%20exponentially
  1. The Science of Thinking: “How We Think: Two Systems” from the book “Nudge Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness” by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein. E-book excerpt link: https://books.google.co.id/books?id=mzZV9jFLltwC&printsec=frontcover&dq=nudge&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwj4qp_Ll57tAhVVmuYKHSMEASgQ6AEwAHoECAQQAg#v=snippet&q=How%20we%20think&f=false
  2. The Psychology of Typos: https://www.wired.com/2014/08/wuwt-typos/
  3. Order-Letter Relationship: https://link.springer.com/article/10.3758/BF03213165
  4. McKinsey and Company fee: https://www.afr.com/politics/federal/revealed-mckinsey-partners-charge-16-000-a-day-before-discounts-20190808-p52f2a#:~:text=The%20daily%20rate%20for%20a,between%20%24660%20to%20about%20%245500.
  5. The Psychology of Pride: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/intimacy-path-toward-spirituality/201506/why-pride-is-nothing-be-proud
  6. Half Life of Knowledge: http://self.gutenberg.org/articles/eng/half-life_of_knowledge#:~:text=For

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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