Saturday, September 04, 2010

Decision-Making In Multiple Worlds

Statue of Sarasvati, "revered as the presiding deity of the arts: music, painting, carving, and especially associated with the acquisition of writing." (Merlin Stone, Ancient Mirrors of Womanhood, Beacon Press 1984)

This semi-structured meandering is inspired by Sunday Scribblings prompt #230: Faith.

As investment firms remind us, past performance is not an indicator of future behavior, although this doesn't stop them from posting trends. Trends imply predictability. They're mental comfort food. Says Shawn Green in "Irrational Decisions May Actually Make Sense" (Rick Nauert, Ph.D., Psych Central, 1 Sept. 2010), "The overarching idea is that there is typically structure in the world, and it makes sense that when we make decisions, we try to understand the structure in order to exploit it. One of the simplest kinds of 'structure' is when the outcome that just occurred tells you something about what is likely to happen next."

Discussing a University of Minnesota study, Green points out that "people will interpret results through possible structures" even if no structure exists. Our invented structure can then become a faulty belief system.

Perhaps those beliefs were appropriate within one context, fitting into a structure that no longer applies. But in the absence of information telling us otherwise, we can stick to beliefs that don't match reality, as reality happens to stand at that particular moment. An irrational decision based on a faulty belief system retains its own intrinsic rationality, which is another way of saying we try to make sense of things. No big surprise there.

"[G]iven the right world model, humans are more than capable of easily learning to make optimal decisions,” Green says.

In a laboratory setting, perhaps, with relatively uncomplicated binary choice tasks, such as flipping biased coins. The more variables you throw into the mix, the tougher it is to find structure (if structure there is), and the dicier it gets.


For example, how much do you tell trapped Chilean miners? In light of the stresses they face, the newspapers they receive are allegedly censored. Family members are instructed to write upbeat letters, and debate continues over what movies should accompany the video projector lowered into the mine ("Chile rescuers divided over how much to tell trapped miners", Jonathan Franklin, UK Guardian, 1 Sept. 2010). Prof. Nick Kanas, who has studied the effects of distance and isolation on astronauts, argues for full disclosure, including disclosure of bad news, because to do otherwise might foster mistrust and suspicion, i.e., what else are the people aboveground hiding?

That's as of September 1. Each side in the debate makes its arguments within a certain implied structure at a certain moment in time. Which is the more rational decision, censorship or full disclosure? The relative weights of each may change over time, depending on changing conditions. The question itself implies a steady state, itself a faulty assumption. In a case of psychological (not to mention public relations) whiplash, Chilean minister of health Jaime Manalich diagnosed five miners as suffering from depression and the next day announced they had been cured. Not only have the miners no control over their entrapment (except insofar as how they cope with it), they have no control over how they are being represented on the surface with respect to such issues as confidentiality.

Indeed, debates over disclosure run both ways: how much and what is told to the trapped miners, and how much and what is told to the rest of us (a far from monolithic group that includes family members, countrymen, scientists, politicians, and news voyeurs of various stripes). I can't begin to figure out all the variables involved, let alone their uncertain trajectories.

Which gets us back to structure, the lack thereof, and the invention and reinvention thereof when it comes to trying to make sense of the world -- whether "the world" is a mine shelter, a biased coin, or my armchair flailing in the pursuit of interesting patterns, whether or not they are actually useful.

The miners have a religious shrine set up 2,300 feet underground (CNN, 25 Aug. 2010). Another shrine stands on the main patio of Chile’s presidential palace, La Moneda. Chilean president Sebastián Piñera plans to maintain that shrine until the miners have been rescued (Financial Times, 31 Aug. 2010).

"Religion can be so potent that it often seems to not only exercise and challenge the so-called soul, but also perhaps the neural underpinnings of circuits driving our decision-making and behavior," write Noah Gray and Hysell Oviedo ("The Brain's Gospel", Nothing's Shocking Blog, Nature Publishing Group, 1 Sept. 2010). They ask, "Could training and exercising this 'ghost in the machine' actually modify the machine (i.e., brain) itself, producing a better-functioning model?"

Gray and Oviedo make their comments within the framework of impulse control, in which the effects of religious practices can thwart destructive behavior. Neurologically, spirituality may boost the brain's "higher" areas specializing in executive function and decision making, so that they can better control the "lower" level brain structures representing basic emotions, rewards, and desires.

The authors add, "contemplating religious imagery allowed a religious experimental group to detach themselves from the experience of pain, representing another form of top-down suppression of basal impulses or sensory experience. This analgesia was context-dependent, as it did not occur when the religious group was presented with a non-religious image." They point out that attachment to a higher power -- what they call a "coalition partner" -- creates an emotional safety net, especially when such a safety net -- let's call it "structure" -- might be inaccessible or less accessible in the secular dimension.

I think back to the 33 miners, who have faced weight loss, dehydration, crowded conditions, isolation from the surface and from loved ones, and a host of other hardships, who have set aside space for a shrine. I imagine them living within two overlapping structures. One structure presents them with physical and emotional challenges that I can't begin to fathom. The other structure lets them transcend those challenges. As I see it, two belief systems are running in parallel. There's the observable world, with its "world model" as expressed by Green; and there's the non-observable world as expressed in the shrine. Both aid the decision-making process. Using belief systems that correctly represent reality -- what Green calls the "right world model" -- humans can learn to make optimal decisions. In addition, a spiritual anchor that boosts higher brain functions and affords detachment from lower-order distress has the potential to override an impulsive, emotional response to that distress and a resultant faulty belief system (and thus poor decision-making).

So -- given certain conditions, faith can help one make better decisions. What about superstition?

"Re-Examining the Form and Function of Superstition," an undergraduate research project at Kansas State University (reported on here), posits three reasons for superstitious behavior: "individuals use superstitions to gain control over uncertainty; to decrease feelings of helplessness; and because it is easier to rely on superstition instead of coping strategies."

I would argue that, in certain contexts, superstition may be used as a successful coping strategy. I haven't seen the questionnaire used in the study, which asked undergraduates "about how pessimistic they were, whether they believed in chance or fate, if they liked to be in control and other questions. One of the major discoveries was that people who believe that chance and fate control their lives are more likely to be superstitious."

But is pessimism the real story here? And what kind of superstitious behavior are we talking about?

Take, for example, the "superstitious behavior" of pigeons as observed by B.F. Skinner in 1948. After pigeons learned to peck a lever to receive food, Skinner modified his experiment and delivered food on a completely random feeding schedule that bore no relationship to what the birds did.

The pigeons then associated whatever behavior they were engaging in at the time of the food being dispensed with the delivery of the food. As a result, they kept repeating those behaviors -- spinning in circles, nodding, swaying, and other unusual tics that the birds exhibited only after the random feeding schedule had been introduced.

These behaviors were especially hard to break, even after feedings were discontinued. As reported on the "Skinner Pigeons" site, "One bird produced over 10,000 responses before extinction [of the behavior] occured."

Were the pigeons "pessimistic"? I strongly doubt it. In fact, they seem to me to have been proactive, latching onto a behavior they associated with food. One might say they "believed" the odd behavior would bring them food, because it had done so in the past. One might say their "superstitious" behavior equated to the overlaying of structure where none in fact existed. To me, Skinner's pigeons don't seem all that different from the subjects in the University of Minnesota study: "[G]amblers who win three hands in a row may believe themselves to be 'hot' and thus more likely to win the next hand. Green, with advisors Daniel Kersten and Paul Schrater, showed that similar behaviors are seen even in an optimal, fully rational computer learner given similar incorrect beliefs about the world."

I would argue that more than the obvious is going on here. What about superstition as a mechanism for focus?

Back in the 90s, when I was training to do the first Boston-New York AIDS Ride, I learned of elite bicyclists spending thousands of dollars on ways to decrease the weight and increase the aerodynamics of their bikes. Those cyclists then festooned their bikes with the added weight and drag of good luck charms. (See, for example, this article about superstitions among pro cyclists.)

On one level, it made no sense. On another level, I'd argue that it made sense in much the same way as the religious icons 2,300 feet underground in a Chilean mine do. Charms and icons can provide a mix of transcendence and focus. Meditation is at once a form of focusing and de-focusing. One pays attention to one's breaths, to a mantra, and in general to something that de-focuses one from everyday concerns. Meditating on a charm or an icon provides a shift in awareness.

"So many people get caught up in multi-tasking, that we often fail to do the one thing that will almost always improve your memory -- paying attention to the task at hand," writes John M Grohol, PsyD, in "8 Tips for Improving Your Memory." He adds that paying attention -- focusing -- lets the brain encode information properly.

So, too, involving more senses (tip #2). Charms and icons are tactile and three-dimensional. As symbols they harbor multiple associations in and of themselves and form a mnemonic shorthand on which to focus. I would maintain that tip #3, repetition, reinforces that shorthand further. The associations with a charm or an icon or a ritual may have been repeated so many times that the shifts they engender become automatic. Transcending pain and fatigue via a relaxation response through focusing on a charm may well outweigh the effects of the weight and drag that charm places on a bicycle.

Transcending pain and fatigue would then mitigate the distraction they cause, breaking the feedback loop of stress, which in turn can strengthen one's concentration and sense of well-being. And that in turn may lead to better decision making, itself a positive feedback loop.

That, at least, is what I believe.

Elissa Malcohn's Deviations and Other Journeys
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