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Averting Disasters, Preventing Problems

Strategies to overcome the shortsightedness of the human mind.
September 2, 2008

We are terrible at solving future problems before they become big. A friend of mine who worked for decades as a governmental security advisor was once told by an official, “Unless there are bodies on the ground, we can’t pay attention to it.” This property of the human mind affects us at the personal, community, and global levels, whether it’s dealing with diet and exercise and debt, or the future of Social Security, or global climate change–all scenarios where people must invest effort now, to solve a problem that won’t hit until some time passes. Now, it’s one thing to complain about how bad we are at this problem (as psychologists have been gleefully pointing out for many years). But can we do anything about it? Can we engineer new tools to enhance our judgment, and to augment our ability to objectively deal with problems?

Easy gimmicks and fixes don’t work: this problem might be fundamental to the human condition. Information is not enough to enable good decision making. We need to improve how we act on information, and that means utilizing emotion as a tool. Now, emotions of the moment shape how we prioritize and act, whereas distant emotions have little or no impact on our current actions. Thus it is hard to resist that extra cheese Danish or that new car–because we feel current urges and emotions right now, while the distant emotion that would accompany a medical problem or a financial problem isn’t real to us. Conversely, an immediate problem is far more painful than a future one: it is easy to procrastinate about something laborious, or to rush to solve an emergency. So immediate problems will override future ones, grabbing our attention because of the immediate anxiety and stress produced.

Thus, one possible principle of prevention is: develop tools to help yourself feel future emotions now. Create visceral visualizations of the different outcomes, so that you can feel the feelings that result from each one. Emotions are shortcuts, and while they can be destructive when gone awry, they can be harnessed to augment rational behavior, if you understand your mind. It is possible to make software tools that enable visceral visualizations of the consequences of current actions. When I schedule future activities on my to-do list, for example, I often embed appropriate emotional cues in the list, so that when the time comes to act, it’s easier for me to do what I’ve planned. Perhaps software that enables additional visual, auditory, and other-modality cues to enhance this process–and personalizes the emotion to the individual–could help boost the power of the human mind, to actively prevent problems. I wonder if such a tool, properly developed, could be a true cognitive prosthetic to enable better decisions and fewer disasters in the future.

Cite as: Boyden, E. S. “Averting Disasters, Preventing Problems.” Ed Boyden’s Blog. Technology Review. 9/2/08. (http://www.technologyreview.com/blog/boyden/22122/).

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