The Brain Knows More than it can Handle

Note that this post is in the musings category; neither advocacy nor nostalgia is present. Rather, it is the brain’s incapacity to integrate percentages with empirical reality that has always intrigued the mariner. He was reminded of this recently when the mariner and his wife sent a birthday card to our son advising him that every year that passes, he grows closer to the mariner’s age.

Empirically, this is not true – our ages remain the same number of years apart in arithmetic terms. However, convert the difference to a percentage and one can make the case that our ages are converging.

Hypothetically, let’s say the mariner’s son was born when the mariner was 20 years old. On the son’s 5th birthday, he is 20% as old as his father. On the son’s 10th birthday, the son is 33% as old as the mariner. On the son’s 40th birthday, he is 66% as old as his father. As a percentage, the son is growing old faster than his father!

Humans can understand percentage values only after their brains interpolate percentage values to an approximate empirical reality, that is, an absolute event. The mariner knew a person who believed that when the weather report said 30% chance of rain, it meant the person would receive 1/3 of all the rain that would fall – an absolute value.

This inability to rationalize probability in terms of absoluteness is what makes lotteries work. Simply say, “You gotta play to win,” And the brain thinks that if one plays, one wins. Never mind that as a probability, one may win once in 17 million tries. But even that is not guaranteed. One may win 17 million times or may never win at all or win any number in between. That’s the problem: probability is not empirically guaranteed. The brain is much more comfortable coping with the absoluteness of empirical reality.

The brain can override probability (percentages) very easily by replacing a percentage with one that is an unrelated empirical situation that has completely different probability. A common example is ignoring the probability of an automobile accident by responding to the empirical urge to answer a text on the cell phone. The odds that someone will be on the other end of the call are very high both empirically and statistically. The absoluteness of the texting seems more dependable than the absoluteness of having an accident. A fair trade off, wouldn’t you think?

The obvious conclusion is that the brain has difficulty evaluating percentages. The brain is much more comfortable comparing empirical relationships. True, over evolutionary time, the skill of evaluating empirical absoluteness is more useful, else, lions, tigers and panthers would have eaten all our ancestors while the ancestors calculate the probability of whether they actually will be eaten.

One may argue that the brain actually accepts percentages and alters empirical behavior. One can train oneself not to respond to the cell phone while driving. An intellectual victory but not an empirical one; a dog will accept heeling intellectually but, all things said empirically, would rather be running off doing what dogs like to do best – answer the cell phone.

Over the years, mariner has given countless presentations to managers, planners, project teams and others who must develop decisions that most graphically affect the empirical world but in the beginning are decisions based on percentages, statistics, base expectancy and gut feelings. Human society cannot live without probability. Still, probability is a foreign value until it is interpreted as an absolute event.

Think of all the things that face probability in your life – starting with the color of your eyes and hair and whether your middle finger is as long as your ring finger. What is the probability that you would meet the person you married? No judgment intended, what is the probability that you did not meet the person you should have married? How fortunate are you to have the job you have? You may never have had the chance for that job if you reacted to 30% of the rain that was going to fall on that fateful day.

The truth is, probability shapes our reality in every way – even to the fact that life would not exist without the moon. How fortunate we are that, against all probability, the pieces of Earth that formed the moon did not fly off into a scattered belt of asteroids – as percentages would have predicted. We are not conscious of the influence of probability because the brain does not notice probability until it is converted into an empirical event. What if you were told that the son’s age is 66% of his father’s age? Does that help with your understanding of the family relationship?

What is the probability that this post is important to the empirical circumstances of its readers? Probably not worth mentioning but the mariner had a good time writing it – a victory for empirical judgment in spite of probable value. Just don’t call him while he’s driving.

Ancient Mariner