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Overthinking a Problem

Written by: Bill Sherman on Friday, 20 June 2008, 7:34 AM

Sometimes our brains completely fail us. We tell ourselves that we’re smart enough to sort through complex issues and make smart choices. Humans have big brains, so we must be smart, right?

Michael S. Gazzaniga is a cognitive neuroscientist. In the June/July 2008 issue of Scientific American: Mind he writes that there are cases where our brains completely betray us.

Imagine the following experiment. There’s a light. 75% of the time, it will flash red. 25% percent of the time, it will flash green. However, each time, the color is selected randomly. There is no pattern.

People are asked to predict whether the red light or the green light will appear.

There are two possible strategies one can use: frequency matching or maximizing. Frequency matching would involve guessing red 75 percent of the time and guessing green 25 percent of the time. The problem is that the order of occurrence is entirely random it can result in a great deal of error–being correct only 50 percent of the time . . .

The second strategy, maximizing, involves simply guessing red every time. This ensures an accuracy rate of 75 percent because red appears 75 percent of the time. Animals such as rats and goldfish maximize. The “house” in Las Vegas” maximizes. Humans, on the other hand, match. The result is that nonhuman animals perform better than humans in this task.

Gazzaniga’s work focuses on patients who have had the hemispheres of their brain split (by severing the corpus callosum). It’s a good read, but let’s focus on the behaviorial implications.

Humans look for patterns, even when there aren’t fundamental patterns. We’re wired to seek order and have explanations (or rationalizations) for our choices.

How often do you spend time searching for a pattern when there is no underlying pattern?

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