Discover more from Overcoming Bias
Beware Detached Detail
Yesterday I talked about how "social minds must both make good decisions, and present good images to others" and suggested "the near-far brain division can be handy when facing this problem; let the far system focus more on image, and the near system focus more on decisions." But I didn't follow this thought very far down the game tree. To an economist going down the game tree is like going down the rabbit hole; it shows us just how deep and strange are the underlying drivers of top behavior.
If our far thoughts are more distorted to present good images, then the next step down the rabbit hole is this: to judge how we will typically act, others should prefer to see our near thoughts, at least if they can distinguish near versus far thoughts. After all, near thoughts drive most day to day actions. And we should each look more to our own near thoughts to judge our own sincerity.
Once we evolved to weigh near others' thoughts more heavily, the next step would be to look for cheap ways to have good-looking near-thoughts, without paying the full price of distorting important actions. That is, our mind designer would look for ways to show "detached" near thoughts, consistent with good-image far-thoughts, but not actually impacting much on important near decisions. This could be accomplished by vivid engaging detail that can clearly occupy our near thought systems, but which isn't much connected to substantial personal decisions.
For example, abstract religious beliefs are usually tied to specific concrete, but largely irrelevant, details. The gods and prophets have names and birth-dates and stories of who did what when. Churches have pictures and idols people and events, and religious rituals are full of rich sensory details, like incense, plush materials, stained-glass windows, and angelic singing. Daily routines regarding what to eat and when to pray and what to wear all let you show how much near thought there is in your religious thought. Of course most of these details hardly matter to your important decisions; they let you assure yourself you will be a good Samaritan, without actually much influencing whether you be a good Samaritan.
Similarly, fiction lets us tie lots of concrete detail to our abstract social beliefs about what sorts of people are good or bad, who helps who how much, and which of them tend to win in the end. Stories presented as plays, movies, or video games have especially rich sensory detail, to give us experiences not just of abstracting having certain far reactions, but of having our near systems fully engaged and in agreement with our far expectations of what one should do in various situations.
A movie can let you feel not only that people in distant times and places should fight Nazis or free slaves, but that if you were actually in such situations with near systems fully engaged, you would actually do such things. But of course since the movie's scenario has little overlap with your real life, there is little risk that near habits acquired would interfere with your usual near actions. You rarely watch movies about, say, helping poor neighbors or illegal immigrants, since those stories are less detached from your ordinary life. There is a reason they call it "escapism," after all.
This detached detail dodge may explain why inside views seem worse at schedule forecasting than outside views. Yes inside-view schedulers consider more detail that engages near mental systems, but I suspect this is mostly detached detail, driven as with fiction detail more by far thought agendas than by consistency with relevant personal detail. Little girls may imagine their future wedding in vivid detail, without that being much constrained by actual weddings they have seen.
Don't assure yourself that your vivid near thoughts mean you are being more realistic, if those vivid thoughts are little connected with real personal experience. It might just be detached detail, there more to flesh out far thoughts than to advise important decisions. When you stand at a real street corner looking to see if it is safe to cross, that is attached detail; when you imagine being tempted by a grinning ten foot devil after fasting for weeks in the hot red desert, that is detached detail.