Illusion of Explanatory Depth

Most people feel they understand the world with far greater detail, coherence, and depth than they really do.” [Rozenblit, L., & Keil, F. (2002)]

The illusion of explanatory depth is a cognitive bias that drives people to believe they understand things in far more depth than they actually do. These things may be familiar devices like toilets or refrigerators, or complex systems like government and healthcare. Rozenblit and Keil found that the “ratio of visible to hidden parts is the best predictor of overconfidence for an item”. What this means is that when a system looks simple on the outside, people tend to assume they understand it on the inside.

Across three studies, we found that people have unjustified confidence in their understanding of policies. Attempting to generate a mechanistic explanation undermines this illusion of understanding and leads people to endorse more moderate positions.” [Fernbach, P. M., Rogers, T., Fox, C. R., & Sloman, S. A. (2013)] The title of this paper says it all: political extremism is supported by an illusion of understanding.

There is one interesting tidbit in the second paper. “Although these effects occurred when people were asked to generate a mechanistic explanation, they did not occur when people were instead asked to enumerate reasons for their policy preferences […]”. If you want to get people to take a more moderate position, don’t ask them why they support one policy over another. Instead, ask them to explain how things work. That makes them realize how little they actually know, which then leads them to conclusions that are less intolerant of others’ points of view.

End-of-History Illusion

Apparently, individuals, at all ages, believe that they are unlikely to change much in the future (in terms of personal growth and maturity), even in the face of evidence that they’ve grown in the past. The psychologists who studied this effect gave it a cool name: the end-of-history illusion.

The psychology of your future self by Dan Gilbert on TED

Personally, I am skeptical that this is a problem, even if the bias was shown to be real. There’s a danger to thinking too much about the future: we may forget to live in the now. We might miss the chance to let opportunity and luck take us to all kinds of interesting places.

Unusual Numbers

Numbers are a human invention. As intelligent and rational creatures, we have learned to operate effectively in a world of abstract thought, where the concept of numbers goes beyond what we can count. But as humans, we cannot discount the evolutionary basis for how our apparatus works.

It turns out that numbers that are really large or really small are well-nigh impossible for us to comprehend. Upon careful inspection, this is not surprising, as comprehension is simply a form of analogy-making. We understand things when we can compare and contrast them with other things we are already familiar with. When we are presented with numbers that are very different from what we encounter in everyday experience, we have no way to make sense of them. Here are some examples:

Despite the beautiful pictures of galaxies you might have seen, the scale of the Universe is so vast that a galaxy is mostly empty space. For instance, the average density of our Milky Way galaxy — together with all its brilliant stars and planets — is conservatively estimated to be of the order of 1 kilogram over every billion cubic kilometers. If you imagine a box that spans a kilometer across on every side, magnify it a thousand million (1,000,000,000) times, and add a bag of potatoes into this box — that’s how empty our galaxy is. The space between galaxies is far emptier.

sky space dark galaxy
Photo by Pixabay on

We estimate that there are 2 trillion galaxies in the observable universe. A trillion is a million million. To put that in context, a trillion is a number that is so large that removing a few millions doesn’t make much of a difference — you’re still left with about a trillion. Astronomers conservatively estimate that there are about a 100 million stars in the average galaxy, and about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in all in the observable universe. That’s one followed by 24 zeros.

Okay, now here’s a fun fact: there are more molecules of water in a few regular-sized drops than the total number of stars in the observable universe. All it takes is about a hundredth of a liter of water.

Molecules are pretty average-sized in the bigger scheme of things. The Planck length is the theoretical minimum limit to distance you can meaningfully speak of. Nothing smaller than the Planck length exists, according to present-day theory. The Planck length is so small that if you were to magnify a particle that spans the width of a human hair (~0.1 mm) to the size of the observable universe, the Planck length would itself be as big as the original size of the particle (~0.1 mm).

And finally, humans have evolved on our planet for millions of years, right? It turns out that if you overlay the Earth’s entire history until today over a 24 hour clock (midnight to midnight), single cell life forms appeared at around 4 am, multicellular organisms appeared at around 5:30 pm, and all of human history spans the last two minutes until midnight.

Life is all about perspective.

Forgetting Machines

I offer you a simple conjecture: long-term memory is a bug, not a feature. To learn is to extract key patterns from events. Once that is done, the memory of events has no further value.

In an ideal world, we would learn from the environment around us, but remain unburdened by memories of the past.

But in the real world, learning is imperfect, and long-term memory is a work-around – it is an ‘archive’ of raw footage for us to consult, should we ever need them.

A more capable, or further evolved, learning machine (versus present-day humans) would not need long-term memory at all.