I am now halfway through my one semester at Yale, and for a while I’ve been promising some of my World Fellow colleagues a summary of my psychology class, called Thinking. Here is the first part. Part 2, which will appear on Friday, will summarise Weeks 2 and 3. I was going to include them all in this blog, but that made it far too long, and there is a lot to digest.
The course has been fascinating in two respects: firstly it has made me much more aware of my own thinking errors, and secondly it has helped me to understand some of the flawed logic I see around me, that explains all kinds of things from how advertisers can make us buy stuff we don’t need, and why many environmental communications have fallen on deaf ears.
[Note: Most of the course reading consists of psychological studies that are provided to us via the internal Yale server, so I can’t share the links, and to be honest, they’re not all that exciting anyway. What I’m aiming to give you here is a summary of the most important points that I have taken away from the class so far.]
Week 1: Causality
Human beings are programmed to see patterns: if x happens, and then y happens, and this is repeated a number of times, then we conclude that x caused y. But it ain’t necessarily so. For example, when I was a student (first time around) I used to think that champagne gave me a hangover. Much later it occurred to me that the only time I drank champagne was when it was included in the cost of a black tie dinner, at which I would invariably also have drunk white wine, red wine, and probably dessert wine and port as well. It wasn’t the nature of what I was drinking that was the problem, it was the quantity.
The problem is compounded when there is a gap in time between the cause and the effect, e.g. gradual weight gain, or to a more extreme degree, climate change. When you are trying to prove causality over the long term, as a nutritionist or as a climate change campaigner, your work becomes more difficult.
We also tend to oversimplify by ignoring extraneous factors. Our wonderful Professor Ahn gave us this example: a study said that babies’ eyes were being damaged by nightlights, because people exposed to nightlights at a young age tended to have worse eyesight in later life. Only later was it found that parents with poor eyesight were more likely than other parents to use nightlights, so the eyesight problems were in fact inherited, and nothing to do with nightlights. You see the problem? Just because there seems to be a correlation between x and y, doesn’t mean that x caused y.
We block or screen data that does not agree with our working assumption. We tend to notice when x happens then y happens, but not to notice when x happens but y doesn’t, or when y happens but x hasn’t. More about that on Friday, when I get onto Confirmation Bias.
Terra Mar: If you haven’t checked it out already, please take a look at the newly-launched Terra Mar Project. They spotted that 45% of the world’s surface is unclaimed by any nation, and decided to create a new oceanic territory. You can become a citizen of Terra Mar and claim a square mile of ocean. I already have. There is one particular mile, just outside English Harbour in Antigua, that I am particularly fond of.
There is all kinds of other cool stuff on the site, like a virtual dive off Heron Island on the Barrier Reef (I’ve dived there), or friend a species, an education program, and a regular roundup of oceanic news in The Daily Catch. Please see especially the latest Catch, called The Truth About Plastic, with a great infographic. I strongly encourage you to become citizens of the weird and wonderful new land of Terra Mar.
Retreats: For the remainder of this week I will be away at our World Fellows’ retreat at Race Brook Lodge in Sheffield, Massachusetts. It’s easy to get caught up in the Yale bubble and lose track of time, so the objective of the retreat is to take a step back from life on campus to allow each of us to evaluate whether we are achieving our goals, and allowing us the remaining 6 weeks for corrective action if we discover that we are not. I’ll be leading a workshop on journaling on Thursday, which I’m quite looking forward to. I’ve never led a workshop before, but journaling is something that I’m passionate about. It is one of the most self-transforming tools you can find, and costs next to nothing – unlike many retreats! Would you be interested in seeing a blog about my take on journaling? Post a comment and let me know.
I will go directly from the World Fellows retreat to a second retreat, fortunately also in Massachusetts, with the Pleiades network. I went on the retreat last year, which I thoroughly enjoyed. You might remember the resulting slideshow, shot on what was then my brand new Sony NEX-5N camera. The same camera will be coming with me this year, and I hope to capture some images of gorgeous fall foliage around Colrain, where we will be staying at the Roundhouse, boldly called The Center for Cultural Evolution. I hope to come back suitably more cultured and evolved.