The Situationist

Dan Gilbert on Why the Brain Scares Itself

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 8, 2009

Dan Gilbert1For the Harvard Law Record, Harvard Law Students, Anush Emelianova and Gustavo Ribeiro, wrote a nice summary of Dan Gilbert‘s recent lecture at Harvard Law School.  His lecture, titled “Why Does the Brain Scare Itself?,” drew a  crowd of roughly 150 students and contributed to Gilbert’s reputation as an amazing and captivating speaker.    Here’s Emilianova and Ribeiro’s description.

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Why does the brain scare itself?  On Monday, October 19, Professor Dan Gilbert confronted this question in an event sponsored by first-year Section VI. Professor Gilbert, who wrote  the bestselling book Stumbling on Happiness, is a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and the Director of Harvard’s Hedonic Psychology Laboratory. He opened his remarks by stating that the power of the mind to automatically make predictions by simulating outcomes is the key feature that distinguishes humans from other animals.

Because the brain is made up of semi-independent systems, it can talk to itself or even “scare itself.”   But Prof. Gilbert believes that the limited mental capacities of humans impose limits on the accuracy of predictions about the emotional impact of future events. He demonstrated this by identifying four limitations of the brain’s ability to simulate the future: unrepresentativeness, essentialization, truncation, and presentism.

According to Prof. Gilbert, humans’ mental simulations are unrepresentatively based on the individual’s best or worst memories, failing to correspond to the average experience.  When the mind produces imaginary scenarios, the images tend to be essentialized, that is, distilled to a simplified image with the details cut out.  Remembered experiences also interfere with accurate prediction because they are truncated and fail to incorporate the ability to adapt to different situations over time.  Furthermore, Prof. Gilbert believes the human mind has a “presentist” bias, accepting in most circumstances the fiction that tomorrow will be exactly like today and that the feelings at the moment of making a decision will persist until the outcome of that decision arises. As an example, Professor Gilbert demonstrated a photograph of a 16-year-old who had tattooed Pac-Man on her head, suggesting that the excitement of the moment would eventually give way to regret.

Professor Gilbert does not believe humans have the capacity to systematically prevent errors in mental simulations.  “As I marinate you in the bloopers and foibles, the mistakes and biases of the human mind, you must be thinking, is there anything we can do about this? I’m happy to tell you the answer is no,” he said.

Despite the failure of predictions to account for dynamic circumstances, humans tend to adapt or rationalize outcomes to make themselves feel better.  Prof. Gilbert illustrated this tendency with the satisfied attitude of Pete Best, the original drummer for the Beatles.

Despite missing out on being part of one of the most successful bands ever, Best said in a 1994 interview that, “I’m happier than I would have been with the Beatles.” Professor Gilbert argued that this was a striking example of rationalization.

Prof. Gilbert also indicated that there may be techniques available to minimize some types of cognitive error.  “Surrogation,” or asking others about their experience of a similar situation, can act as a more reliable guide than one’s own expectations. In fact, according to Prof. Gilbert, any random person’s actual experience of a given situation is likely to be much more predictive of our future enjoyment than our imaginary simulation of that same experience.

“Human beings are all basically the same.”

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The Project on Law and Mind Sciences will make the video of Gilbert’s talk available within the next few weeks.  To review a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Dan Gilbert To Speak at Harvard Law School,” “Dan Gilbert on the Situation of Our Decisions,” Dan Gilbert on the Situation of Psychology,”The Situation of Climate Change,” The Heat is On,”The Situation of Happiness,” and “Conversation with Dan Gilbert.”

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