People who expect fairness or perfection of evolution are bound to be disappointed. Evolution can only proceed with local forces of natural selection acting on whatever genes already exist. If genes that foster better hearts, higher IQs, and empathy do not exist, evolution has to wait for an appropriate mutation.
Evolution does not improve individuals on their own, or within a single generation, but only in populations, usually over many generations.
Yet when evolution does succeed in suiting us to our environment, increasing our reproductive fitness, we may fail to recognize it. Since we no longer live in the prehistoric past when some of our traits broke new ground in saving our species, some of our once-useful traits may now be mismatched to the 21st environment. Our genes stayed the same while the environment changed. An analogy is the way that special environmental stimuli seem to trick the sensory systems into seeming blunders, when we are merely experiencing how our brains evolved to keep us alive in a long-ago, long-vanished environment in prehistory. To some extent, our consciousness creates our impression of the external world–as a kind of hallucination or illusion.
Could this be why we sometimes make mistakes in thinking? Granting that genes and thoughts are never directly linked, might a prehistoric set of genes have biased our development in ways that don’t make sense nowadays?
Where do cognitive biases, some memorably displayed here, come from? They seem to vary with culture, yet spring up in every culture in much the same way as psychological disorders.
When the natural world was highly uncertain and famines and thunderstorms might have seemed capricious, the absence of science left only superstitious beliefs for reassurance. A strongly held belief might have been persuasive when evidence to support it could be adduced in its defense, allowing decisions to be made and a path of action to become clear. In such a way, confirmation bias may have earned its retention as a persistent trait. Others have been described as adaptive, though this does not demonstrate that they evolved.
We criticize confirmation bias as irrational. Scientific arguments are available to replace the bias. Confirmation bias is mismatched to our demand for accuracy. When we have astronomers to explain tides, we don’t need the half-truth of a full moon to explain them by confirmation bias.
Needless to say, cognitive biases are the very definition of a mixed bag. There are hundreds of departures from rationality in our thinking. We don’t know which ones reflect the same adaptation or flaw. They are not simply shortcuts, despite some popular claims, for as Korteling, Brouwer and Toet have pointed out, biases such as the conjunction fallacy call for more information and, presumably, harder thinking than a rational solution. But they are unconscious and involuntary, or mostly so, which makes them impenetrable to intuition or logic.
BIO: While cognitive biases might largely reflect cultural influences, in the way some of us use forks while others use chopsticks, it is interesting to begin with the hypothesis of a biological origin, as we might do with handedness or behavioral imitation.
We are on firm ground believing that the human brain is an outcome of biological evolution, including particularly the cerebral cortex, with a description of process here and more entertainingly there.
With somewhat less justification, we might accept the hypothesis that cognition is linked to brain structure in specific ways. In such a way, biological evolution has the capacity to influence the way we think. This does not exclude cultural influences, such as those that distinguish individualist from collectivist cultures, perhaps to the extent of creating changes in brain structure.
Korteling, Brouwer and Toet suggest that cognitive biases typically originate from “hard-wired” brain mechanisms comprising associations of self-consistent (compatible), memorable, and salient experiences to generate “biased” outcomes. Kappes, Harvey, Lohrenz, Montague and Sharot emphasize the importance of something like the compatibility principle of Korteling et al. in producing the confirmation bias (and, I would guess, also the present bias).
Such networks must presumably be widely distributed in the brain.
PSYCHO: If cognitive biases evolved, they may persist into the indefinite future. The changing environment, the changing reality, in which we confront forces of natural selection will lend varying significance to the biases. Just now, the present bias may be delaying our success with climate change and extinctions, though, as with the genes that may have spawned them, mental quirks are not destiny. We can’t blame evolution for everything.
Lots of cognitive biases have been named, though lists vary and there are species-wide habits that are not found in the lists, such as procrastination , a sense of direction, expertise, causality, a handedness bias and perhaps the placebo effect. Such collections leave unanswered important questions about independence, validity, and adaptiveness.
Gigerenzer discusses our automatic mental decisions as heuristics to solve problems quickly, which are discussed further in this blog. They can also be manipulated for others’ advantage or our own, putatively.
SOCIAL: Cognitive biases are a social phenomenon brought to the front page by Kahneman and Tversky along with fast and slow thinking. They are interesting as a fad for self-improvement as well as for an investigation of mental processing. For the public, they provide superficial ways of explaining complex behaviors and they can be counted on to produce unexpected outcomes.
This has happened before, many times. One example is bioelectricity, health, and the whole phenomenon of electricity itself: mysterious natural phenomena that bear re-explaining with each new discovery.