In a previous article, I looked at the belief structures of the archetypal “crazy uncle” worldview. It’s a worldview with a strong tendency towards whichever option requires the minimum short-term cognitive load; for example, binary yes/no categorisations rather than greyscales or multiple categories.
One theme I didn’t explore in that article, for reasons of space, was premature closure. This article picks up that theme.
Premature closure is closely related to pre-emptive categorisation, which I’ll also discuss in this article. Both these concepts have significant implications, and both involve minimising short-term cognitive load, usually leading to problems further down the road. Both tend to be strongly associated with the authoritarian worldview, for reasons that I’ll unpack later.
So, what is premature closure? In brief, it’s when you make a decision too early, closing down prematurely the process of search and evaluation and decision-making. This takes various forms; knowing these forms improves your chances of stopping at the right point. For clarity, I’ll use examples within the context of common “crazy uncle” arguments.
Other people frequently appear to behave like idiots. As is often the case, there’s a simple explanation for this, and as is also often the case, the full story is a bit more complex, but still manageably simple once you get your head round it.
First, the simple explanation. People usually behave in a way that looks idiotic for one or more of the three following reasons:
This model comes from the literatures on human error and on safety-critical systems; there are variations on the wording and on some of the detail (particularly around slips) but the core concepts are usually the same.
Sin (or “violations” in the more common version of the name) involves someone deliberately setting out to do the wrong thing. I’ll return later to possible reasons for people doing this.
Error involves people having mistaken beliefs; for example, they believe that closing a particular valve will solve a particular problem.
Slips involve someone intending to do one thing, but unintentionally doing something different; for example, intending to press the button on the left, but accidentally pressing the button on the right.
The crazy uncle is a well-established and much-dreaded part of Western culture. There’s probably a very similar figure in other cultures too, but in this article, I’ll focus on the Western one, and on what is going on in his head.
Why are crazy uncles permanently angry, and keen to inflict their opinions, prejudices and conspiracy theories on other people? Some parts of the answer are already well covered in popular media and in specialist research, but other parts are less well known.
In this article, I’ll give a brief overview of the better known elements, and then combine them with insights from knowledge modeling, and see what sort of answer emerges.
In politics and religion, a common accusation is that someone is being hypocritical or inconsistent. The previous article in this series looked at how this can arise from the irregular adjective approach to other groups; for example, “Our soldiers are brave” versus “Their soldiers are fanatical” when describing otherwise identical actions.
Often, though, inconsistency is an almost inevitable consequence of dealing with complexity. Mainstream political movements, like organised religions, spend a lot of time and effort in identifying and resolving inherent contradictions within their worldview. This process takes a lot of time and effort because of the sheer number of possible combinations of beliefs within any mature worldview.
In this article, I’ll work through the implications of this simple but extremely significant issue.
If you’re a researcher, there’s a strong temptation to find a Grand Unified Theory for whatever you’re studying, whether you’re a geologist or a physicist or psychologist or from some other field.
That temptation is understandable. There’s the intellectual satisfaction of making sense of something that had previously been formless chaos; there’s the moral satisfaction of giving new insights into long-established problems; for the less lofty-minded, there’s the prospect of having a law or theory named after oneself.
Just because it’s understandable, however, doesn’t mean that it’s always a good idea. For every Grand Unified Theory that tidies up some part of the natural world, there’s at least one screwed-up bad idea that will waste other people’s time, and quite possibly increase chaos and unpleasantness.
This article explores some of the issues involved. As worked examples, I’ll start with an ancient stone map of Rome, and move on later to a Galloway dyke, illustrated below.
Sources for original images are given at the end of this article
There was a classic article on Pharyngula recently about a group who donned bright yellow t-shirts to announce the imminent end of the world. It’s far from the first time that this announcement has been made; it’s probably not going to be the last.
So why do people keep making this announcement? Do they really believe that this time is going to be different, or is there something deeper going on?
As you might have guessed, usually there’s something deeper going on. The same underlying principle crops up in a wide range of forms, and is particularly prominent in politics, where it can cause a lot of problems.
The explanation begins with a topic that we discussed recently on this blog, namely expressive behaviour. It then moves on to systems theory, luxury, sex and power. The end of the world is a fine, rich topic…
There are a lot of very useful concepts which are nowhere near as widely known as they should be.
One of these is the concept of instrumental versus expressive behaviour. It makes sense of a broad range of human behaviour which would otherwise look baffling. It explains a lot of the things that politicians do, and a lot of the ways that people act in stressful situations, for instance.
This article gives a short overview of the traditional version of the concept, and describes how a richer form of knowledge representation can make the concept even more useful.
Humans being expressive and instrumental
Sources for original images are given at the end of this article
It’s a splendid example of nineteenth century ingenuity, right down to the name. What does it do? It’s intended to let you know if a storm is approaching. The way it does this is as wonderfully nineteenth century as the name. The Prognosticator is operated by twelve leeches, each of which lives in a bottle. When storms are approaching, the leeches become agitated, and climb out of the bottle. When they climb out, they disturb a piece of whalebone, which activates a bell. The more serious the risk of storm, the more leeches climb out, and the more bells ring.
The best examples of powerful principles often come from unexpected places.
Today’s article is one of those cases. It’s about why it often makes excellent sense to use a particular method, even when you’re fully aware that the method doesn’t work as advertised on the box, or doesn’t work at all.
It’s a story that starts with one of the most widely misunderstood cards in the Tarot pack. The story also features some old friends, in the form of game theory, pattern matching and script theory. It ends, I hope, with a richer understanding of why human behaviour often makes much more sense when you look at the deep underlying regularities, rather than at the surface appearances.
So, we’ll start with Tarot cards. A surprisingly high proportion of people who use Tarot packs will cheerfully tell you that the cards have no mystical powers. Why would anyone use Tarot cards if they don’t have those powers? There are actually some very good reasons.
Sources for images are given at the end of this article
I recently visited my old university town after being away for more than twenty years. It was a very unsettling experience; the town I saw was very different from the one I remembered, and those differences stirred up a lot of emotional turmoil.
I had uncomfortable visions of spending years coming to terms with those feelings, and with the deep subconscious issues that would probably be involved, about memories of my past and of days that could never be re-lived. It had all the makings of a great novel, until I mentioned it to Sue Gerrard, who said that more likely it was just a case of the uncanny valley.
So what is the uncanny valley anyway, and why does it mean that the world will have to settle for this blog article instead of a literary masterpiece? The answer takes us through a surprisingly broad range of phenomena that individually look difficult to explain, but which might be explicable together as the effects of some simple cognitive processes.
Images from Wikipedia; links are at the end of this article.