Monday, October 30, 2017

Cognitive Bias



It's relatively easy to spot someone else's cognitive biases, those beliefs that cause humans to behave in irrational ways. For instance, we've all known people who are so entrenched in their belief system that they are immune to facts that tend to disprove their views, choosing instead to seek out information that supports what they already believe, ignoring the rest, a phenomenon called "confirmation bias." Or as Stephen Colbert famously said about one of our presidents, "He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened on Tuesday."

These guys explored these rusty remains of a barrel.

What's not so easy is identifying our own biases. I like to think of myself as a rational man, one who draws conclusions from the facts at hand, but one of those facts is that I'm a human, carrying around a brain that evolved over hundreds of thousands if not millions of years and that brain has hundreds of identifiable cognitive biases baked into it.

This broken plastic tub was repeatedly filled with things then thrown off the rocks.

I shared some pictures last week of some Icelandic preschoolers playing on a characteristic lava rock and spongy moss landscape. I showed you pictures that showed the place at its "best," as I wanted you to see it: strange and magical, a place of alien beauty. Indeed, that is what I saw as I stood their watching the children climb and explore. It was all so different that what I was accustomed to, that my eyes didn't really know where to focus. It was all bizarre and visually striking.

A shredded woven plastic bag.

But that wasn't the case for the kids who have grown up playing in such a place. They instead found what was truly bizarre and visually striking: the human garbage. They did play with the rocks and plants they found there, but mostly they were drawn to things that didn't "belong" there. A pair of boys, for instance spent a lot of time moving and bending an old, rusty barrel. Some girls found a shredded bag that had once held cement or gravel and used it to alternately tie things up and adorn themselves. Several of the children found lengths of lumber which they used as dramatic play props, levers, and weapons.

The children found chunks of styrofoam that they collected in one place.

As I watched them be drawn toward what I identified as garbage, I recognized that I was witnessing an ancient cognitive bias at work. One of the ways we've evolved to sort out information in an information rich environment is to be drawn to those things that stick-out, that don't belong, that we find as beautiful or funny or strange or anthromorphic. That's what this garbage represented out here on the moss and lava. I also recognized that I have a knee-jerk bias in favor of what we tend to call "nature," which generally means those things that are not man-made, and expect that children will most likely be drawn to natural things because that's part of how I view children.

There are no trees out here on the lava (nor indeed anywhere in Iceland), so when the children found any sort of "stick" it became a treasure.

If I believe, as I do, that children will naturally gravitate toward those things, and play with those things, from which they perceive they have the most to learn, then in this case, at least, it's wrong of me to place "nature" over garbage. Back home now in Seattle, with what I often call our "junkyard playground," I'll be seeing our environment in a new way, looking to see what it is that stands out for the children I teach here in our urban environment. And, of course, I'll continue to strive to fight the losing battle against my own cognitive biases.


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