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  Global Catastrophic Risks by Nick Bostrom and Milan J. Cirkovic chapter 5 is loaded with absolutely essential information for anyone who wants to understand human understanding and resultant behavior. In this chapter Cognitive biases potentially affecting judgement of global risks (p. 91-119) the contributor Eliezer Yudkowsky summarizes the research findings of recent cognitive science research called  heuristics and biases. He discusses the results of the processes of natural-selection and in the case of humans artificial-selection and how those processes have not adapted modern humans into perfectly rational creatures but instead into strategy optimizing ones which can react quickly and accurately, most of the time, to real world settings. These built-in human qualities were honed by our evolutionary past to react appropriately to the most common events to which we have been subjected. That is, the human being responds well, and adapts well to experience, but it does not forsee the cause and effect of events very well which are outside of that past experience and when it comes to existential risks for all humanity it is worse than poor at rational thinking and behavior and quickly devolves into a type of thinking which most people when thinking rationally would characterize of as panic like thinking.

Our unconscious and almost totally automatic mode of thinking gives good working behavior to our local problems based on genetic experience and personal experience — heuristics — most of the time it works well but these same methods sometimes have strange and illogical results. A type of thinking was discovered and termed — biases. One of the first of these biases was reported by Tversky and Khneman in 1973 which has to do with the availability of a thought. It appears that a thought that is easily accessed by our mind, even when false, is more readily believed than a more difficult to access idea even when this difficult one is objectively and testably true.  

Newspapers and the entertainment media thrive on these human shortcomings and inundate humanity with tales of tragedy and mayhem which few will encounter in their daily lives but which they trained to believe they will encounter and are at great risk of injury. Back in 1979 Slovic tallied reporting deaths in two newspapers and found that errors in probability judgements correlated strongly, (.85 and .89) with selective reporting in newspapers. People when interviewed have been shown to have outrageously erroneous estimates of easily measured risks. Because of the non-availability of the thought of catastrophic risks to humanity and possible human extinction people totally discount it and make no preparations for averting that potential tragedy. No one will ever know but if there is a single survivor he will say, “I saw it coming !”

Taber and Lodge (2000) tested for heuristics and  biases: (see p. 100 GSR)

  1. Prior attitude effect. Subjects who feel strongly about an issue – even when encouraged to be objective – will evaluate supportive arguments more favourably than contrary arguments.
  2. Disconfirmation bias. Subjects will spend more time and cognitive resources denigrating contrary arguments than supportive arguments.
  3. Confirmation bias. Subjects free to choose their information sources will seek out supportive rather than contrary sources.
  4. Attitude polarization. Exposing subjects to an apparently balanced set of pro and con arguments will exaggerate their initial polarization.
  5. Attitude strength effect. Subjects voicing stronger attitudes will be more prone to the above biases.
  6. Sophistication effect. politically knowledgeable subjects, because they possess greater ammunition with which to counter-argue incongruent facts and arguments, will be more prone to the above biases.

 These are some of the ways that humans are deceived by their natural constitution even when attempting to cope with personal situations with which they have some experience. Unfortunately, when thinking about living humanity of 6.8 billion people or the ~ 30 billion who have lived and hopefully many more to come along we are even more easily trapped by our own built-in and probably inescapable limitations.

I can not know what will help to make future people happy but I can say that unless they exist they can not be happy. Therefore, what I can say with confidence is that I want to maximize the total number of human hours and leave the quest for their individual happiness to the individuals themselves. I would encourage them to participate to their fullest in the world into which they find themselves immersed.