Laurie Santos
Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science, Yale University

The Trouble With Overcoming Our Instinctual Biases

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Why Wall Street investors may think more like monkeys than we might have imagined.

Laurie Santos

Dr. Laurie Santos is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Yale University. Her research provides an interface between evolutionary biology, developmental psychology, and cognitive neuroscience, exploring the evolutionary origins of the human mind by comparing the cognitive abilities of human and non-human primates. Her experiments focus on non-human primates (in captivity and in the field), incorporating methodologies from cognitive development, animal learning psychology, and cognitive neuroscience.

Question: Why is important to study the evolutionary origins of our behavior?

Laurie Santos: One reason it’s important to actually study the evolutionary origins of say, you know, our economic troubles and so on is that, oftentimes when we learn some behavior or some bias, is built in natural selection, it means it’s actually hard to overcome.  So, you know, it’s really hard to convince people that cheesecake doesn’t inherently kind of taste good, right?  You know, sugary, fatty things are just built in by natural selection; we’re going to like them.  By the same token, it’s really hard to convince people not to flinch when there’s some moving object coming at your head, or there’s some scary spider, or so on.  These are these kinds of biases that are built in via natural selection. They’re pretty old and they’re also really hard to turn off, even when we’re aware of them. 
The problem in the economic domain is, my guess is that the biases we are seeing in us and in monkeys are going to be equally hard to turn off.  But these are ones that it’s hard to even be aware of how strong they are.  So, I think one of the important things about seeing these kinds of errors in monkeys is, it’s just not only that they are old, but they’re going to be really hard to get over.  So, policies that try to deal with these biases it might be well served to say, "Look, let’s just assume that these biases are in place and how can we design policies that can accept that sort of deal with them as they are?"

Question: Do monkeys have an awareness of their own biases when making tough decisions?
Laurie Santos: Yeah. So one thing we're really interested in is whether monkeys have the opportunity to think twice, right? Now we can experience this bias and succumb to it, we can also be very meta about it and think about, "Well, I can talk to you now about these biases," you know, the monkeys probably aren’t you know, sitting around the forest talking to each other about the kinds of economic biases they have. 
So the fact that we can kind of think twice, pause, kind of inhibit this sort of instinctual bias... that gives us a weapon against these sorts of biases.  But in some sense we have to know they’re there in the first place to actually implement these kind of "Wait, wait, wait, let me stop, pause, think about it and try to come up with the right decision."  So, I think awareness that we have these biases in these everyday situations and that we’re really affected by them is actually very important.

Recorded May 21, 2010
Interviewed by Andrew Dermont