Problematic brain: why we worry about how much in vain

Why do so many problems in life seem so huge and intractable, no matter how hard people try to solve them? It turns out that the way the human brain processes information shows that when something becomes rare, we start seeing it in more places than ever. Think about the neighbors who call the police when they see something suspicious in your house. When a new neighbor moves into your house, the first time he sees a burglary, he raises his first alarm.

Suppose that his efforts help, and over time, crimes against the residents of the house become less. But what will the neighbor do next? The most logical answer is that he will calm down and will no longer call the police. After all, the serious crimes he worried about were gone.

However, in practice everything turns out to be not so logical. Many neighbors in this situation will not be able to relax just because the crime rate has dropped. Instead, they begin to consider everything that happens suspicious, even those that seemed normal to him before he first called the police. Silence that suddenly came at night, the slightest rustle near the entrance, steps on the stairwell – all these noises cause him stress.

You can probably think of many similar situations where problems do not disappear, but only get worse. You are not making progress, although you are doing a lot to solve problems. How and why does this happen and can it be prevented?


To study how concepts change as they become less common, the scientists invited volunteers to the lab and challenged them with the simple task of looking at faces on a computer and deciding which ones seemed “threatening” to them. The faces were carefully designed by the researchers, ranging from very frightening to completely harmless.

Over time, people were shown less harmless faces, starting with menacing ones. But the researchers found that when the threatening faces ran out, the volunteers began to see harmless people as dangerous.

What people considered threats depended on how many threats they had seen in their lives lately. This inconsistency is not limited to threat judgments. In another experiment, scientists asked people to make an even simpler inference: whether colored dots on a screen were blue or purple.

When blue dots became rare, people started referring to a few purple dots as blue. They believed this to be true even after they were told the blue dots would become rare, or when they were offered cash prizes for saying the dots didn’t change color. These results show that – otherwise people might be consistent in order to earn the prize money.

After reviewing the results of face and color threat scoring experiments, the research team wondered if it was just a property of the human visual system? Could such a change in concept also occur with non-visual judgments?

To test this, the scientists conducted a definitive experiment in which they asked volunteers to read about various scientific studies and decide which ones were ethical and which were not. If today a person believes that violence is bad, he should think so tomorrow.

But surprisingly, this turned out not to be the case. Instead, scientists met with the same pattern. As they showed people less and less unethical research over time, volunteers began to view a wider range of research as unethical. In other words, just because they read about less unethical research first, they became harsher judges of what was considered ethical.

Permanent Comparison

Why do people consider a wider range of things to be a threat when the threats themselves become rare? Cognitive psychology and neuroscience research suggests that this behavior is a consequence of how the brain processes information – we are constantly comparing what is in front of us with the recent context.

Instead of adequately deciding whether or not a threatening face is in front of a person, the brain compares it to other faces it has seen recently, or compares it to some average number of recently seen faces, or even to the least threatening faces it has seen. Such a comparison could lead directly to what the research team saw in the experiments: when threatening faces are rare, new faces will be judged against predominantly harmless faces. In an ocean of kind faces, even slightly threatening faces can seem scary.

It turns out, think about how much easier it is to remember which of your cousins ​​is the tallest than how tall each of your relatives is. The human brain has probably evolved to use relative comparisons in many situations because these comparisons often provide enough information to safely navigate our environment and make decisions with as little effort as possible.

Sometimes relative judgments work very well. If you’re looking for fine dining in the city of Paris, Texas, it must look different than in Paris, France.

The research team is currently conducting follow-up experiments and research to develop more effective interventions to help counter the bizarre consequences of relative judgment. One potential strategy: When you’re making decisions where consistency is important, you need to define your categories as clearly as possible.

Let us return to the neighbor, who, after the establishment of peace in the house, began to suspect everyone and everything. He will expand his concept of crime to include smaller infractions. As a result, he will never be able to fully appreciate his success in what a good thing he has done for the house, as he will constantly be tormented by new problems.

People have to make many complex judgments, from medical diagnoses to financial additions. But a clear sequence of thoughts is the key to adequate perception and successful decision making.

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