Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Thomas Suddendorf's "The Gap"

Thomas Suddendorf is a professor of psychology at the University of Queensland whose research has attracted honors and awards from such organizations as the American Psychological Association, the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, and the Association for Psychological Science. His work has been covered by the New York Times, Discover, and Science, among other outlets. Born and raised in Germany, he lives in Brisbane, Australia.

Suddendorf applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals, and reported the following:
In The Gap I explore why we are the peculiar creatures that we are. What differentiates us from other animals and enabled us to dominate the planet? About half of the book examines the most common proposals about what sets us fundamentally apart from the rest: language, foresight, mind-reading, intelligence, culture, and morality. I find that various animals, in particular our closest animal relatives the great apes, have sophisticated capacities in even these domains. Nonetheless, in each of these contexts the human ability is special for recurring reasons. In particular, two profound characteristics keep re-emerging as critical: our deep-seated drive to exchange our thoughts, and our ability to imagine alternative scenarios (be they about past, future or entirely fictional events) and embed them into larger narratives.

Page 99 illustrates these two characteristics in the context of our capacity to travel mentally in time. As you well know, we can think about how events unfolded or what the future might hold. By comparing alternative routes to the future and deliberately selecting one plan over another we gain a sense of free will and an edge over creatures with less foresight. However, this also burdens us with the responsibility for getting it right. We are not clairvoyants. Constructing clever scenarios of the future is a complex skill that draws on many components (I compare it to what is involved in putting on a play in a theatre) and on page 99 I highlight how we frequently get it wrong — as well as how our urge to connect our minds was critical in turning this fallible system into a powerful adaptive strategy that harnesses our collective wit.
…spectacular miscalculations can be found among the annual winners of the Darwin Awards. We will never know what exactly a wheelchair-driving 2010 winner was anticipating would happen when, after missing a closing elevator, he decided to impatiently ram the door until it broke down—only to fall into the now-empty shaft. Most of our foresight errors are minor by comparison, leading to inconvenience or embarrassment. You may fail to usefully imagine the future because of shortcomings in any one of the components in the theater metaphor. Stage: you may fail to disengage from the present to imagine the future—perhaps like that wheelchair driver. Actors: you may miscalculate how others will feel or act—as so often happens in pranks. Set: you may misjudge physical relations—say, when you think the boat could surely take a much heavier load. Playwright: you may fail to generate the relevant scenarios—and you later have to admit that you didn’t think of this or that. Director: you may not have practiced for the future sufficiently—leading you to look distinctly underprepared. Producer: you may end up selecting the wrong plan—d’oh! There are countless ways in which our attempted foresight can let us down.

However, we have radically improved our chances of getting it right through a wonderfully effective trick: we share our plans and predictions with others. We can transmit our mental plays and reflections to audiences around us and, in turn, consider their thoughts. In preparing a speech, it can be helpful to rehearse it not only in our mind but also in front of a friend. We can learn from others’ memory and foresight, and listen to comments on ours. Indeed, we have a deep-seated drive to broadcast our minds and to read what is on the minds of others—to foreshadow the next chapter. And we have an extraordinarily effective way of exchanging our mind travels through language—to remind you of the previous chapter. Language is ideally suited for this mental exchange, and much of human conversation is indeed about past events (who did what to whom, and what happened next) and future events (what will happen to whom, and what we are going to do about it). By exchanging our experiences, plans, and advice, we have vastly increased our capacity for accurate prediction. In Stumbling on Happiness the psychologist Dan Gilbert discusses errors and biases in our foresight and argues that the most reliable way to predict a situation is to ask people who have experienced something similar. Indeed, for much of our past the stories of our fellow tribespeople would have been all we had to go by.
Learn more about the book and author at Thomas Suddendorf's website.

--Marshal Zeringue