Why do intelligent individuals sometimes make inexplicably poor decisions? Why do certain individuals embrace conspiracy theories, such as the belief that the moon landing was a hoax or that Hillary Clinton is a space alien? And why is it so challenging for some people, like Bernice, to admit that a new Superman movie is far from impressive?
Cognition, the process by which we think and solve problems, is at the heart of these questions. While we often think of cognition as the mental process that helps us solve puzzles and riddles, it encompasses a broader range of functions.
involves knowing, remembering, understanding, communicating, and, to a certain extent, learning.
Our brains, remarkable as they are, can sometimes falter in these cognitive functions. In the past, we believed that cognition operated like a logical computer, methodically processing information. However, our brains are not always so logical, and their capabilities extend far beyond mere calculation.
Many experts argue that cognition is what truly defines us as human beings. It shapes our preferences, prejudices, fears, and intuitions, molding us into unique individuals. While other animals exhibit signs of cognition, such as insight and planning in chimps and gorillas, tool usage in crows, and teaching among elephants, our capacity as humans to comprehend and misjudge things is unparalleled.
For every brilliant and insightful moment, we are equally prone to irrational thinking and false intuitions. So, in the words of René Descartes, “you think, therefore you are,” which implies that you’re brilliant most of the time, but occasionally, you might appear less than astute.
Concepts & Prototypes
Our innate desire to make sense of the world drives one of the fundamental aspects of cognition: forming concepts. Concepts are mental groupings that allow us to categorize similar objects, people, ideas, or events. They simplify our thinking, enabling us to navigate the world more efficiently.
Without concepts, we would require unique names for everything, leading to cumbersome communication. Concepts like “shake” or “fish” facilitate our interactions because they represent common ideas we all share. Concepts are essential for problem-solving, as they provide a structured framework for understanding and communication.
We often organize our concepts by creating prototypes, which are mental images or idealized examples of certain things. For example, when you hear the word “bird,” a typical songbird might come to mind before less common birds like penguins or emus. Prototypes help streamline our thinking by offering a standard reference point.
When faced with unfamiliar creatures, if they possess characteristics like feathers and a beak, we tend to categorize them as birds because they align more closely with our bird prototype than with other concepts like rodents, overcoats, or footstools.
Concepts and prototypes expedite our thinking but can also lead to prejudice if something doesn’t fit our prototypes. Historically, the idea of a female doctor could have caused astonishment, as the prototypes of “doctor” and “woman” didn’t overlap in people’s minds. Even today, some individuals still harbor such biases.
Prejudice occurs when our mental constructs prevent us from accepting information that contradicts our prototypes. Maintaining an open mind is essential for evolving concepts and overcoming prejudice, as concepts can both aid and hinder our understanding.
Solving Problems: Algorithms & Heuristics
Problem-solving is a crucial cognitive skill that we employ in various situations, from assembling furniture to dealing with missing ingredients in recipes or managing disappointment over a disappointing movie.
We approach problem-solving using different strategies, balancing speed and accuracy. Some problems require trial and error, a methodical approach where we attempt various solutions until one succeeds. Trial and error is deliberate but can be time-consuming.
Alternatively, we employ algorithms and heuristics to solve problems. Algorithms are systematic, step-by-step procedures guaranteeing a solution, albeit potentially slow. In contrast, heuristics are mental shortcuts that expedite problem-solving but may introduce errors.
For instance, when searching for a specific item in a store, you could use an algorithm and meticulously check every shelf or aisle, or you could opt for heuristics and first explore sections most likely to contain the item based on prior knowledge.
Neurology of Problem Solving
Problem-solving isn’t solely dependent on planning; it can also involve sudden flashes of insight. These “Aha!” moments offer instant solutions and are often accompanied by distinct neurological activity.
Neuroscientists have observed these flashes in brain scans. During focused problem-solving, frontal lobes show activity. However, at the precise moment of insight, a burst of activity occurs in the right temporal lobe, associated with recognition. These flashes of insight provide immediate solutions to problems and are a testament to our brain’s capacity for creative thinking.
Confirmation Bias & Belief Perseverance
While insight is valuable, not all problems are resolved this way. In many instances, our cognition can lead us astray, influenced by cognitive biases. One such bias is confirmation bias, where we seek and favor evidence that aligns with our beliefs while disregarding contradictory information.
Confirmation bias can lead to belief perseverance, where individuals cling to their initial conceptions even when confronted with evidence to the contrary. This cognitive bias can perpetuate misconceptions and hinder the acceptance of new information.
Mental Sets & the Availability Heuristic
Our cognitive processes are susceptible to mental sets, which can predispose our thinking. Mental sets influence how we approach problems, often based on past success or familiarity. These sets can hinder creative problem-solving by limiting our perspectives.
Additionally, heuristics, our mental shortcuts, can introduce errors in judgment. The availability heuristic, for instance, influences our perceptions based on the ease with which we recall vivid or memorable information. This can lead to an overestimation of the likelihood of events based on their prominence in our memory.
Framing, or how an issue is presented, can also impact our thinking. The presentation of information can shape our judgments and decisions. How risks and benefits are framed can influence our perceptions of various activities or choices.
In summary, our cognition is a remarkable and complex aspect of our humanity. While it enables us to solve problems, it can also lead us astray through cognitive biases and limitations. Acknowledging our capacity for error while honoring our intellectual abilities is crucial for navigating the complexities of the world.
So, as you ponder these cognitive quirks, you might find yourself asking, “Where’s my fish?”