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‘How You Really Make Decisions’ – Analysis of a Horizon Documentary

An analysis of a psychology documentary based on the work of Prof Daniel Kahneman (—and not without a touch of sarcasm! 😉 )

Prof Daniel Kahneman in the psychological documentary: How You Really Make Decisions, based on his book: Thinking, Fast and Slow

The 2013 Horizon Documentary (BBC) How You Really Make Decisions features several psychologists providing their insights on this theme, most prominent of which is Prof Daniel Kahneman, whose best-selling book Thinking, Fast and Slow serves as the basis for the programme.

Having previously listened to Kahneman’s Google Talk on the book, I had the impression that his work is oriented towards proving the innate irrationality of the human species, rather than contributing anything substantial and original to the field of psychology.*

*This is not to say that the book is bad or that a reader would not find it highly stimulating; only that Kahneman’s angle on his subject matter makes the work less substantial to me, relative to other books I have read on the subject of psychology, as well as those I have yet to read.

Upon seeing this documentary appear on TV, I decided to watch it (apparently without knowing how or why I decided to watch it, as I was soon to be informed), thinking it would make for a good opportunity to take notes whilst watching a documentary, as I had never done so before. What follows here represents an expansion of my (hurriedly scribbled) notes, dividing the documentary into a series of the eight elements I found to be worthy of comment, each with a blunt but appropriate heading to identify the premise.

For each element, I have very briefly summarised the essential point that I identified from a segment of the documentary; and in doing so, I have omitted the details of the various (psychological) tests involved, which I deemed as being unnecessary and cumbersome here*: as the pattern of such contrived tests is a conventional one, I expect a reader to recognize it from other documentaries.

*But ideally, readers should watch this documentary online, which is currently available on YouTube here.

Now, let us discover how you – meaning wereally make decisions…

Element 1

Man is a delusional being

It is asserted that Humans think they are smart and rational beings—but they are actually delusional: the faculties of Intuition and Logic represents a “Battle in the Mind” that shapes Beliefs.

These two interconnected premises are presented as ‘findings’ – i.e. revealed by scientists, doctors, psychologists, and chimeras thereof – that are applicable to all humans—yet whilst ignoring the essential discrepancies:

If “We” – i.e. the human species (as it is often referred to) – are innately delusional; and consequently, are naturally productive of false beliefs;—then why should ‘we’ – i.e. the ‘lay’ audience – accept the ‘findings’ of these scientist and doctor experts?

The implication – which is commonly taken for granted – is that these critical assertions about human nature either do not apply to the experts; or, that they do apply—but to a degree that is relatively insignificant*.

*‘Double-think’ constructions such as this are a standard practice of flattering-to-deceive the laity, who are thereby encouraged to feel a sense of kinship with their superiors.

Hence begs the question: from where did scientists and doctors acquire the ability to discern human nature?—particularly when they have discerned that it is inherently delusional?(!)*

*Perhaps it’s one of the ‘mysteries’ of Evolution that they’re ‘evolving’ faster than the rest of us: from homolayicus to homoexpertificus!

Element 2

Cab drivers are habitually “illogical”—because humans are inherently illogical

A Cab Driver Study is presented as evidence of the inherent illogicality of humans; in which it was “found” that most cab drivers don’t adjust their working hours to maximize their profits; but instead, stick to a psychologically comfortable routine whilst believing it to be the most effective one.

This proposition assumes that maximizing profit – let alone figuring out how to do it – is actually people’s priority: in actuality, society – both institutionally and culturally – encourages common workers to do the bare minimum; and white-collar workers to cultivate and use initiative and guile to progressively increase their earnings and status.

Thus the example (i.e. the “study”) is taken out of its proper context: the culture encourages mechanized work in devalued social roles—in which case it is no surprise that common workers adopt the prevalent, standardized work habits with the deluded belief that they are applying themselves effectively or correctly.

Element 3

Human intuition is fallacious—hence humans are risk-takers

A Money Proposition Test ‘reveals’ that an aversion to loss leads to risk-taking behaviours; and this human trait is termed as the “Intuitive Fallacy”, which represents the conflict between Intuition and Logic that leads to mistakes.

This “test” is designed for the selection of obscure, irrelevant questions related to unnatural scenarios, so as to prompt a particular response—which is then labelled as a “mistake”; and generalized as an innate human flaw.

From this we are cued to conclude that “We” thought we were deliberative and conscious beings—but evidently, we are not.*

*A scientific “discovery”—so chalk up another step towards ‘Progress’!

Element 4

Human attention is “blind” due to its “extremely limited mind”

A Jogging Attention Test discovers the human trait (i.e. flaw) of “Innattentional Blindness”: we glide through the world blissfully unaware of most of what we do and how little we know our own minds—and this trait flaw represents the “Quandary of the Mind”: as the mind is extremely limited, how are we to navigate our daily lives?

This test is based on an instruction – by an authority figure (i.e. Science) – to keep focused on one specific thing…                             which the subjects do exactly…                 and which is then labelled as a “flaw”—because the subjects did not notice something outside of their assigned point of focus.

This “test” thus demonstrates the basic societal principle that almost everyone in Society – i.e. everyone subjected to it – automatically and religiously submits to having their attention guided by the hierarchy of Authority—which is an essential and implicit principle of Society.

In the case of the commoners – i.e. lay people – their attention is misled so as to continuously distract them from the genuine examination of the most significant questions in Life; whilst in the case of the intellectuals (or at least those predisposed to being more aware in such matters), to participate in these areas of significance (thereby enhancing their social privileges)—which largely involves distracting the lay populous with the simplified content of the current ideologies and dogmas.

Element 5

Humans can think; but they don’t like to—hence they are thoughtless rationalizers

Kahneman introduces his concept of The Two Modes of Decision-Making:

(Thinking) Fast: S1 = Reflexive; and Slow: S2 = Effort and Concentration

He then explains that S2 “thinks” that it rules; but S1 is actually responsible for most of our beliefs, emotions, and intentions for what we do—hence our dependency on rationalizations; which manifests in the thoughtless creation of habits, based on automatic assumptions that our first decision was correct.

This scientific ‘diagnosis’ obscures the facts that:

a) These two modes of thought (‘discovered’ by scientists) are supposed to naturally complement each other (their complementariness being based on the foundation of a harmonious relationship between emotion and intellect.)*

*This is an observation I made myself – i.e. I did not read it somewhere – and which anyone can do simply by being aware of their own thought processes—you do not need a PhD to discern the basic workings of the human mind: for everybody has a mind and the capacity to reflect upon it at will.

But you do need a PhD to talk nonsense about absolutely anything and have it widely and resolutely believed.

b) The societal hierarchy (any) systematically induces the disruption of this harmony (between the two modes of thought) so as to produce submissive and suggestible subjects, i.e. people who have a dependency on Authority (any); and consequently, an unwavering faith in it.

c) The “lazy” S2 mode that is cultivated (by the system) in the populace – i.e. which creates in them a dependency on mental shortcuts that amounts to systemic psychological “mistakes” that necessitate cognitive biases – represents the suppression of the innate rational faculties that all human beings possess, who could therefore exercise it in an unbiased manner if they so willed; and which the system – in a rigidly controlled manner – cultivates the development of only in a minority, so as to uphold the Authority/Lay division that constitutes Society.

d) The “lazy” S2 mode is then identified as a natural human flaw – i.e. a flaw common to all people – and is used to explain the prevalence of many cognitive biases—yet without addressing the particular biases involved in the privileged status of making these authoritative pronouncements (i.e. over-and-above all of the other cognitive biases such authorities have collectively applied to humans, since these pronouncements imply that the whole catalogue of identified biases are applicable to them too).

Element 6

Humans cannot overcome their cognitive biases—hence major terrorist attacks

A Counter-Terrorism Test is run in which analysts are tasked with correctly identifying the terrorists before they strike, based on their surveillance network of information. The result of the test was deemed as being proof that people cannot overcome their cognitive biases—which in turn, is deemed an explanation for ‘the ever-present threat’ of major terrorist attacks.

This test indicates the fact that analysts – as with professionals in general – do not ‘analyse’ anything objectively; but are taught to memorize scripted patterns of logic and apply them to circumscribed criteria—hence why in this case, all of the analysts (i.e. trained professionals) failed the test due to the same cognitive bias error; whilst the only one who got it correct was the novice: because he had not yet had the training to have internalized the logic scripts as the others had.

Thus, such scientific tests obscure the true source of such cognitive “flaws”, which is sociological and not natural: The social system has various in-built mechanisms to discourage truly independent and objective thinking, whilst compelling and rewarding the obedient and unquestioning absorption of both explicit and implicit rules and conventions of thought and behaviour.

Element 7

Humans’ aversion to losing makes them irrational and reckless with money—hence economic failures

A Money-Gambling Risk Test finds that the feeling after a loss or a win reveals the cognitive bias of “Loss Aversion”; which manifests in irrational, reckless behaviour concerning money—and which in turn, explains economic failures.

The fallacies of this test are as follows:

a) It constructs an unnatural scenario—and one that involves a trivial matter.

b) It is directed at members of “the public”, who are socially conditioned to live by S1 mode and to only exercise S2 mode in order to fulfil particular social roles (i.e. as opposed to exercising their discernment regarding any matters of common consequence).

c) It ignores the culturally induced attitudes and conventions regarding behaviours concerning money; as well as the sociological factors concerning the competitive aspect of gambling or risking money (i.e. the social and self image of the individuals involved, aside from the pecuniary aspect).

From the results of the test is derived the conclusion that the “extremely limited” S2 mode of humans’ thought causes them to be inherently reckless concerning money—which is then extrapolated to apply to all professional fields related to economics. In turn, this assertion is used to ‘explain’ – and essentially excuse – the otherwise incredible reality that people within the “complex system of high finance” are able to be expert professionals—and yet take actions so reckless that they are detrimental if not devastating to the whole of society (meaning that the common folk are always affected by the consequences of this expert professional “recklessness” far more than anyone else).

Element 8

Monkeys have the same biases humans do, proving cognitive flaws are in our nature—hence we must change society

A Monkey Test is used to prove that monkeys display the same biases as humans: therefore, these cognitive flaws must be our evolutionary heritage; meaning that it is simply in our nature to make predictable mistakes—hence “We” must change society in order to minimize our biases and, if possible, try to overcome them.

Animals – including monkeys – don’t “think”; they are not composed of the ‘self’ that is characteristic of human beings. Animals are thus not self-aware to any degree and operate purely at the level of instinct.

In the human world, Authority coerces people to restrict their awareness – i.e. to apply their intelligence only in circumscribed ways, if at all – whilst manipulating their instincts. Meanwhile, scientists strenuously contrive to present animal behaviour as being akin to that of humans, i.e. that animal behaviour derives from a “self” which represents an “individual” “who” “thinks”.

No different than in the essential machinations of any religion, both of these authoritarian contrivances aim to serve the same end: to present preconceived agendas as logical conclusions, towards the justification of the ‘progressive’ scientific modification of human nature and social forms.

Meta-Point

Television: The Real “Lazy S2 Mode”

The documentary format – i.e. the television medium – is itself a good example of how “we” are conditioned to predominate in S1 mode with a limited S2 mode: the continuous stream of simultaneous sound and image inhibits, if not prohibits, the comprehension and evaluation of deep concepts—which is why documentaries are typically simplified into a shallow substitute of their textual source material: substantial treatment of the same subject matter can always be found in books.

As opposed to books, the medium of television is inherently unsuitable for edification, i.e. even before considering the techniques that are universally employed to enhance its shallowness, such as music, shot position, movement, sequencing, editing, etc. On the contrary, the television medium is perfectly suited for indoctrination: the desired thoughts, ideas, and attitudes are impressed onto the viewers’ minds—who yet feel that they have been well informed and edified.

Thus, a scientific documentary of the kind as “How You Really Make Decisions” scientifically engenders one to believe that he has observed an illustration of objective research, made with the intent of solving a naturally occurring dilemma—when in fact he has merely subjected himself to a dose of ideological indoctrination, that inclines him to feel that he has been educated in the latest and most important discoveries by the intellectual elite of humanity (i.e. Science).

The point is not to say that no documentaries are worth watching, as some do offer substance worthy of interest and contemplation—especially when they are presented in a way that minimizes the superficializing conventions of this form. However, most documentaries do not take the approach of genuinely trying edify the populace (i.e. doing their best with this unsuitable but dominant medium): rather, they are designed to predominantly amuse and pseudo-inform; and generally, to instil ideological principles that are the epitome of falsehood.

Closing Words

Decisions, decisions…

In closing, I mention a few relevant principles I have discovered concerning the important field of psychology:

1. Generally, the various forms of human irrationality identified by psychologists are valid and well described. However…

2. The standard context for works of psychology is a negative one: the field of Psychology is based on the premise that the human mind is flawed ‘by design’ (or by ‘mutation’, as Evolutionary theory would have it).

3. Substantial works are those in which this institutionalized (i.e. dogmatic) context is not emphasized; and instead, psychological mechanisms and principles are discussed on the basis that raising one’s awareness of them can facilitate the more appropriate use of them (i.e. rather than being discussed on the basis of proving the ‘innate flaws’ of the human mind).

4. The exceptional works are those in which the author not only includes the external factors – which are primarily sociological – but places the descriptions of irrational behaviours and psychological disorders squarely in that overarching context.*

*The books Escape From Freedom, by Erich Fromm (known as The Fear of Freedom in the UK); and The Undiscovered Self, by Carl Jung, are excellent examples that come to mind.

5. The dogmatic context of the innately flawed human mind is ‘sold’ to the public much more directly via the medium of the television documentary than by books. Hence, despite that Kahneman places his studies in a fallacious context, a read of his book Thinking, Fast and Slow would probably provide much more stimulating substance than its totally misleading counterpart documentary How You Really Make Decisions.

The title ‘How You Really Make Decisions’ implies that the public are being informed (by experts) of their innate processes of decision-making, which we learn are inherently flawed.

However, this documentary has actually focused on a particular area of the human’s mental faculties that are commonly misused by people; and has misrepresented these faculties as being inherently flawed. This is achieved by totally excluding the sociological context that engenders precisely this misuse, thereby obscuring the fact that there is a commonly conditioned misuse of the mind; so as to compellingly present an idea of the human mind as being essentially defective.

The truth of the matter is that all human beings possess mental faculties that can be used rationally in all cases—if they so choose. Despite that there are many pressures and influences in society that engender a diversion from this natural use of one’s mental faculties, anyone can resist the habituation of irrational thinkingsimply by deciding to be aware of their own thought processes, as well as the pressures and influences upon them. In other words, the ‘laziness’ of Kahneman’s “lazy S2 mode” is a choice—and subordinating one’s mind to the pronouncement of experts represents the most perfect expression of that choice.

Hence, I now suggest the following: Take the phrase ‘How You Really Make Decisions’ and reform it to the more appropriate question ‘How do you really make decisions?’ From time to time, ask yourself that question, observing your own thought and decision-making processes towards answering itand thus creating the basis for harnessing them.

Should you find that your “lazy S2 mode” sabotages your efforts, I leave you to consider my non-expert judgement on How You Really Make Decisions:

You decide.

Author: Simon Kanzen

I value reading substantial literature, enjoy thought-provoking entertainment, and above all, I think every day. With Stepping Stones, I develop my thoughts in writing and share references to relevant media, intending for other readers and thinkers to find these writings useful.

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