Dr. Grossi's Blog

Human Misjudgement

Dr. Philip Grossi
Friday, 28 June 2013

The other day I was thinking about the mistakes in judgment that people make. There is a dazzling array of mistakes. They include choosing the wrong job, wrong spouse, incorrect medical decisions, mistakes regarding money, mistakes regarding children, etc. As I began to think about this, several associations came to mind. First I recalled my childhood fascination with optical illusions in which the eye which looks out onto the world makes a mistake in its perception.  What is really interesting is that it is the same mistake, a consistent mistake, and not some random mistake.  Then I thought about seeing into the future which is something uniquely human.  How do we do this?  We use something called imagination.  This is our wormhole, our creation of a virtual reality in which we project future events and more importantly our feelings about those events.  This is a truly remarkable feat, to see the world not as it was but as it might be.  The brain is filling in what is not known with information from what is known which is exactly analogous to the way sight is produced.

The imagination of future events leads to an overestimation of the likelihood of their occurrence.  Most people tend to imagine positive events more frequently than bad events.  This is likely the result of more positive historical experiences.  In turn an unrealistic, over-optimistic stance eventuates.  On the other hand, it's not all champagne and chocolates. Imagining distasteful or unpleasant events do have value at times as motivational tools and can have the effect of reducing their impact on us. Why do we do this?  Our brains want to know the future so that they can better control it. People enjoy making things happen and feeling less helpless, a distinctively unpleasant feeling. The paradox of this desire to control our direction is simply that the way we see the future is fundamentally inaccurate because we are seeing it through the lens of the present. This is analogous to illusions of eyesight and illusions of hindsight. 

The use of imagination has several substantial problems affecting its reliability.  When our eyes look out at the scene in front of us, many different neurons are stimulated by different components of the scene and these are combined in the visual cortex of our brain. The brain pieces these fragments together to form the picture we see.  Imagining the features and consequences of future events cannot possibly consider each and every feature and consequence because they are unknown.Therein lies the problem. Another shortcoming of imagination is the tendency to project the present feelings and experience onto the future. In other words how we feel now influences how we think we will feel in the future. The final problem is that future events will look different once they occur. It is these factors that conspire to produce errors in human judgment that are frequent and persistent and often predictable.