“If the brain were so simple that a single approach could unlock its secrets, we would be so simple that we couldn’t do the job!” Andy Clark (1998), p. 175

There is a puzzling paradox about self-knowledge. On one side, people can acknowledge that its challenging to have a hand on our thoughts, feelings and behaviours. On the other side, the ability for us to think about our own thoughts, feelings and behaviours - human metacognition - perpetuates this belief that humans already come with everything that they needed to understand and regulate how they operate. As the cognitive philosopher Andy Clark neatly points, don’t get tricked, metacognition can only get you that far. Let me invite into this discussion in a moment where self-knowledge is of a particular importance. Let me present you with a few well-established concepts and process of human cognition, hidden from your metacognition abilities, that can substantially help with navigating the current pandemic.

A critical element in human cognition is knowledge. Knowledge is pretty much like food for our thoughts. So the same way you will have a serious health problem if you eat a francesinha and couple of fresh pines of super bock every night, you will have a serious appraisal problem if you feed your knowledge structure with whatever is given to you in the social networks and media. Tool number one to navigate the pandemic - mind your knowledge structures. Feed it properly, chose credible and reliable sources, create your own meaning of the information your read, share and confront your perspectives with others, and let others share and confront their perspectives with you. 

Healthy knowledge structures make a long way towards healthy appraisals and healthy interactions with the world. But it is just the tip of the human cognition iceberg. Let’s now consider the process responsible for establishing our knowledge structures - memory. Memory is not passive, it transforms information, namely, it clears up complexity and creates stable simplified representations. These allow us to navigate a complex world without becoming exhausted but also makes us prone to disastrous misrepresentations. For example, when you meet someone new, you can infer the person characteristics based on her nationality or profession. However, meaningful decisions with people, like granting a job position or making a value judgment, need to acknowledge de details beyond nationality and professional stereotypes. Tool number two - acknowledge and embrace complexity. Keep in mind that memory is prone to simplifications - tends to make it either red or green - but that the world in a pandemic is quite more complex - it is red one day, it is greed the other, and might even get red and green at the same time in the future.

Finally, let’s consider a cognitive prosses responsible for turning knowledge into action in a context of threat - human risk judgment. Remember that our memory works towards simplification which, consequently, makes the default to risk judgments, at best, a rough estimation of the actual danger. In addition, the risks in a pandemic are particularly complex because i) they depend on the aggregated behaviour of many individuals, ii) on complex political and social decision chains, iii) are temporally delayed, and iv) occur across health, financial and social domains. Finally, on top of this, the thoughtful consideration of risks (e.g., a paper and pencil enumeration of risky, a cost-benefit analyses) requires cognitive effort, analytical competences, and monitoring the use of heuristic processing. A simplified knowledge structure, a very complex set of risks, and our gut feelings, taken together, are the golden ticket to a biased attenuation or amplification of risks! Tool number three - work your way towards objectivity. Remember that objectivity does not come promptly, it requires effort, time and an appropriate set of instruments. Also remember that the price for shortcuts is biased judgments, which is not a problem if you are discussing soccer with a friend, but it is a problem if you are makings decisions that impact others. Finally, objectivity can be at odds with complexity, but the idea of working your way towards objectivity is not to solve the theory of everything but, instead, to have the best risk assessment for the current situation with the current data.

Building healthy knowledge structures, remaining mindful of the world’s complexity, and investing extra energy and time to assess the risks are just three among many other possible examples of what or current understating of human cognition says about self-knowledge and navigating a pandemic. Our life could be made much easier in challenging times like these if humans came with a handbook with a disclaimer about metacognition and explanations about how our cognitive apparatus make sense of the world! 

Have a great and impactful week!

Sérgio Moreira
Invited Assistant Professor at CLSBE

This article refers to edition #42 of the "Have a Great and Impactful Week" Newsletter.
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