Since May is Mental Health Month, let’s discuss the brain for a bit. The brain is a marvel of evolution; it is so incredibly complex that we barely understand how it works. It can compute millions of bits of information at once without you even consciously realizing it, and all the while regulating your body and keeping everything working and in order.
What we do know, however, is that the brain is not a perfect machine. Alas, it is flawed, and today I’m going to introduce you to one of those flaws that I found in an article by Rhodes Scholar Jonah Lehrer: certainty bias.
When you make decisions, you use the rational part of the brain, or prefrontal cortex, to analyze the known information and come to a logical conclusion. For example, in a study done by Colin Camerer, subjects were given a deck of twenty cards. The subjects had to bet whether the next card drawn would be black or red. They were told how many of each was in the deck, so all they had to do was calculate the odds and use their rational brain to decide which was a more probable answer.
However, when you introduce ambiguity, things become more complicated. In a second stage of that same study, subjects underwent the same test, only this time they were not told how many black and red cards there were. The odds were thrown out the window, and things became completely random. When their brains were imaged, instead of their
rational brains showing activity, they showed increased activity in parts of their emotional brain, specifically the amygdala, which is responsible for the feeling of fear. So basically, uncertainty breeds fear.
This, too, is not a novel idea. However, according to Lehrer, our brains always try to minimize the feeling of fear. As a result, our brains also try to minimize uncertainty by pushing us towards one conclusion or another, even if one of those conclusions doesn’t really make more sense than the other. In other words, our brains make us feel more certain of things than we should be, especially (ironically enough) with regards to the things that we are most uncertain about.
To further bolster this concept, Camerer tested patients with damaged orbitofrontal cortices. The orbitofrontal cortex is believed to regulate activity in the amygdala and emotional brain, and as such people who have damage to this part of the brain cannot generate and feel emotions. Sure enough, in both stages of the test their rational brains were most active, and they treated both decks the same. They played the odds and were perfectly rational, exhibiting no bias for certainty.
The bottom line that you can take from this is that when things are totally random, you should never listen to your brain. The brain cannot understand randomness; it is always looking to put a pattern on things. This is why we perceive such things as “streaky shooters” in basketball or get addicted to slot machines: these things are actually completely random events, but the brain tries to make sense of it by finding some sort of pattern when there really is none. And, as a result, your brain falsely pushes you to a conclusion that you really should not be certain of.