Me. No, Really – ME! Your Brain at Work

Some Brain Stuff

It may be reasonable to assume just about everybody thinks of themselves as a rational, logic person,  yet each of us is most definitely not.  There is plenty of proof, what some would call pesky facts.   I hope after you read this post, you watch Brain Games, which you can watch on You Tube, or on Netflix and Amazon Prime.  Brain Games originally aired on the National Geographic Channel.

You won’t find academic scientific papers when  you watch Brain Games, but you will see and hear everyday examples that explain why what we hear, see and think is quite often detached from objective reality.  You don’t think so?  Then watch as they show us two bars of equal length, but with railroad tracks behind them.  Because the tracks are really parallel but appear to get closer and closer together the farther away we are, one bar looks very much longer than the other.  Or because of shading and shadows, two identical colors look vastly different.  Think you have a good memory? So did a handful of people who witnessed a “robbery” (done by actors) while watching a game of three card monte.  Were their memories (and yours also watching it) faulty, and worse, could they be manipulated by subtle but wrong clues?  You have to watch this episode, amazing.  Or do you think you can multi-task?  David Copperfield and other illusionists and magicians show you can’t.  But we can, in our minds, right?

This is a circuitous route to some other social science and psychology experimentation and research.  In particular, let’s consider the Ultimatum Game and the Prisoner’s Dilemma. They emerged a few decades ago in the experimental realm but quickly spread to gaming theory interpretations and practical applications like economics, war games, and likely the military (think interrogation methodologies, but I don’t know for certain).

The Prisoner’s Dilemma goes like this: two suspects who are gang members are arrested for a crime, but into rooms that are isolated from each other and have no way to communicate. Despite being in a gang, they have no allegiance one to the other.  Each are offered a deal; rat on the other one, who will get a three-year sentence but that one will  go free.  However, if both choose to rat on each other, they will both serve two year sentences.  If neither rats on the other, then they each serve a one year sentence.  What is the best strategy for each of them?

By co-operating with each other meaning both keeping quiet, they only get a one year sentence.  But selfishly, each is tempted to choose giving the other a longer sentence but avoiding one of their own.  If both choose this strategy, they both get the worst possible outcome, three years each.  Gaming theory predicts that co-operation is the logical, rational choice.  In experiments, it is rarely what players choose to do.  More astonishing is that if the same players repeat the choices successive times, the best strategy does not emerge.  Their selfish and non-rational behavior prevails.

The Ultimatum Game also involves two players.  One is given a sum of money, let’s say $100.  That player then announces how the money will be split between the two players, anywhere from $0-$100 for player one and from $0-$100 for player two.  Player two must approve the choice, otherwise neither player gets anything. You might be tempted to think that $50-$50 is the best strategy, but you would be wrong.  It is, however, the preferred choice after many different teams have played the game.  The optimum strategy, on the other hand, is for player one to suggest $99.99 to keep and $0.01 to give to player two.  Why?  Because each will have more than before the game is played. Why doesn’t that work in practice?  Well, play the game in your mind and be player 2, and then answer it yourself.

You probably came up with fairness as the reason why you wouldn’t approve the deal, right?  Why should the other person get so much more than you?  Aren’t you just as deserving?  As good a person? As logical and rational a thinker?

My early thoughts about the Ultimatum Game made me wonder:  is this a uniquely American result, or is it uniform in different cultures and different social structures? What the research has shown is that the offers themselves differ by some cultures as well as gender (men as player two seem to get better offers when women are player one, but you knew that, right?).  There is also some variation in what the threshold split is, about 20% for player two, but less than you would think.  Likely this behavior is just how our brains are making decisions for us we think we are making for ourselves.

Some Politics

How can two people hear the same speech, read the same news story, be faced with similar concerns about the welfare of themselves, their families, and their country yet have vastly different conclusions and opinions, even see the same set of facts differently?  It is our brains, not the lack of them as some would say about “the others.” In the same way a group of people can watch a robbery but remember very different things about it, and later be completely convinced that as their memories were altered by outside influences, still remain certain of what they remembered they saw, we can watch or read something political and then not remember what it was but only what someone wanted us to remember.  It happens, it is not new, and it will happen again and again.

Watch the episode of Brain Games about magic and illusions, discover how we don’t see things so obvious because we have been told to look at something else; maybe you’ll laugh at yourself when you miss the six foot tall penguin.  Now, how is it again that fake news works?

And when we vote for a candidate who gets into office and enacts measures that are against our self interests, but we still love him or her, think about how well we do at the Ultimatum Game and the Prisoner’s Dilemma.  We really don’t choose well, do we.  When we complain that we don’t want our tax dollars paying for abortions, for illegal immigrants, or for someone else’s healthcare, it’s just our sense of injustice and not being fair.  Never mind that their tax dollars pays for the roads you travel on, the police and firemen who protect you, buy the goods and services for the company where you work who provides your healthcare, and for the schools you elect not to send your kids to.  None of it, really, is fair, is it?  It’s not fair to pay taxes for FEMA unless it is your house that is flooded or destroyed by a storm.  Maybe there is a pattern here?

So when you want to rant against someone because of their political leanings and opinions, because of their religious beliefs, because of whatever it is that makes them different from you, it is literally all in their heads.  And in you head, too.

Now go watch Brain Games.  Read up on these cool games and experiments.  Science is waiting to help you understand your mind, even if you can’t control it.