Prereq: Question Substitution

by Hazard 3 min read18th Jul 20192 comments

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A quote from a 2002 paper by Kahneman and Frederick referencing some of Kahneman's earlier work with Tversky:

Early research on the representativeness and availability heuristics was guided by a simple and general hypothesis: when confronted with a difficult question people often answer an easier one instead, usually without being aware of the substitution.

It's an interesting hypothesis, and even without looking at studies it seems plausible. I can think of conversations where I've been frustrated by the fact that the other person can't seem to actually answer the question I've asked them and keeps wiggling around. But it makes me wonder.

How would you tell the difference between A:

Brain receives question
Question is substituted for an easier one.
Brain replies with answer to easier question

and B:

Brain receives question
Brain replies using a heuristic that it applies to this sort of question.

(thanks to this comment for helping me notice the discrepancy)

Hmmm, it seems like they could easily produce the same answer. Does question substitution explain any more than "the brain uses heuristics"?

Yes and no. I read the first few pages of the paper, and pretty quickly noticed that Kahneman doesn't seem to think that a literal question substitution is happening. Most of the paper explores the question of "what governs what heuristic gets applied when?" and in other phrasings Kahneman states "[people reply to questions] as if she had been asked [other question]."

Despite the fact that literal question substitution might not happen that much, I can still get useful information by using the substitution frame. If I'm investigating whether or not I used a heuristic I wasn't aware of, I can ask myself: "Was I trying to answer an easier question? What are similar but simpler questions related to the one I was trying to answer? Are there any questions I know I'm good at answering that I might have substituted for the original one?"

You might even say that question substitution is a great... heuristic for figuring out if you were using a heuristic, in lieu of a more detailed model of how and when your brain picks heuristics. Yes, by all means read the rest of the paper and launch a quest into understanding in detail how the mind works. And while you're working on that, feel free to use the idea of question substitution to help you explore.

One thing that question substitution helps me notice is my tendency to "have a hammer and go looking for nails." When doing a substitution, what sort of other questions might you want to substitute in? Questions you're good at answering! This will be relevant later on when when exploring ways you can accidentally get stuck in never ending arguments.

Isn't this just...

No. It's not. To be more explicit about what I was saying in cognitive fusion, I frequently see people take the following frame:

Sometimes, for no reason people make dumb mistakes, which they'd better fix as soon as I point them out.
"Well gee, there's got to be some reason people make these mistakes."
"Yeah, it's because they're dumb/irrational/unenlightened."

At best, telling someone not to make "dumb mistakes" let's them know how you are going to judge them. At worst, it asserts a world where "dumb mistakes" are this magical fundamental thing your brain spits out sometimes, and that you fix it by turning off the "dumb mistake" switch in your head. We all know where that is, right? Cool, just checking.

Thinking about question substitution orients me to the process of my brain swapping in a heuristic, instead of becoming fixated on the heuristic itself and how positively idiotic it is and how I can't believe anyone could possibly be dumb enough to use such a heuristic and I'm so glad that I don't use any heuristics that stupid...

And so it goes.

Fusion, substitution, and your journey into the mind

I've been ignoring the second part of substitution, the part where you don't notice that you did a substitution. Hmmm, not noticing when something that feels like "just giving an answer" is actually composed of a multi step heuristic selection process. If I squint, this sort of looks like fusion. A very light sort of fusion, depending on how readily I go "Oh yeah, oops" when the substitution is pointed out.

"Wait, you seem to be diluting the meaning of fusion to refer to any sort of lack of awareness of what your mind is doing!"

Yeah, I'm definitely using fusion pretty broadly. I'm proposing that you can use fusion and substitution as two general lenses to explore how you're mind actually works. What is your mind doing, and how much are you aware of what it is doing? If you dig into ACT, you'll find that cognitive fusion is a richer concept with more backing than what I'm describing. If you read the paper I linked at he beginning, you'll find Kahneman and Frederick digging into all sorts of interesting mechanisms that govern how and when heuristics get applied.

I'm proposing thinking in terms of fusion and substitution as a first step out of "dumb mistakes" thinking. "I don't like the fact that my future is an empty hopeless void". Maybe I'm "just being dumb" and I should "get over it." Or maybe I substituted "Will there be anything good in my future?" with "Is there anything good in my life right now?" (because predicting the future is hard) and then fused to that (because it's a super emotionally charged low level thought and I've never trained in defusion). They both point to the same problem. Which one is easier to solve?

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