When Our Brains Short-Circuit – Maybe It Was Never Connected

Posted on July 3, 2009


Kristof is one of the most popular of the NYTimes.com Op-Ed writers. His most recent article “When Our Brains Short-Circuit” suggests:

Evidence is accumulating that the human brain systematically misjudges certain kinds of risks. In effect, evolution has programmed us to be alert for snakes and enemies with clubs, but we aren’t well prepared to respond to dangers that require forethought.

I actually wonder if evolution isn’t to blame. Rather, perhaps the culprit is education, societal ethics, and the insulated experiences of our narcissistic nation.


— VIA —

EDUCATION. Kristof’s article doesn’t take into account the early developmental psychology that precedes “adults” and “adult” ways of thinking. Children at an early age are unable to think long-term, to understand consequences, and to piece together cause and effect, costs and benefits. But that’s why we educate. His example of the $50 and $100 experiment/survey has been shown in multiple studies with children and cookies. What is also shown, is that as we as a society can help to shape that thinking and those processes by how we engage children, and how we craft their educational environments. Perhaps what we’re reaping now, in these studies, is not the consequences of our evolutionary history. Rather (and more immediately) it is due to our fundamental lack of understanding in how to raise the young right when the most active cognitional development is happening.

SOCIETAL ETHICS. While it is important to understand the psychology of “threats” when it comes to issues such as global warming, the other side of the coin is the moral centers from which we make our decisions. If we sift through the rhetoric of the environmentally skeptical, we run into deeper objections that are rooted in ethical (it’s my right to drive an SUV), moral (it keeps people employed to keep the economy the way it is) and religious (God’s coming back anyway to destroy this planet) underpinnings. Again, perhaps it’s not evolution at work, but a collective societal ethic (made up of smaller pockets of ethics) that keep us from understanding the future.

INSULATED EXPERIENCES. This is why journalism is so important (and why so many appreciate Kristof and others and their work) as  it exposes us to worlds that are so far removed from us we would have never known about them had it not been for their efforts. While globalization is still rapid, there are still many in this world who know little to nothing outside of their “home-grown” experiences. This “ignorance by absence” is a detriment that can only be solved through exposure, and that by travel.

Either way, Kristof and I agree on the conclusion:

Still, all is not lost, particularly if we understand and acknowledge our neurological shortcomings — and try to compensate with rational analysis. When we work at it, we are indeed capable of foresight: If we can floss today to prevent tooth decay in later years, then perhaps we can also drive less to save the planet.