Uncertainty, probability, and mental burden
There is nothing more mentally taxing than uncertainty. Having many possible outcomes means a huge mental burden, each taking up precious working memory and reducing our capacity for productive work and innovation. We hate uncertainty so much, psychologists have studied uncertainty avoidance and developed an index to measure different cultures’ aversion to uncertainty. Many studies have shown that getting a bad news comes as mental relief compared with not knowing.
Because this mental burden chews up our energy reserves, we have an evolutionary incentive to avoid uncertainty, and that tendency leads to all sorts of cognitive biases. We create false dichotomies and prefer to categorize and label whenever we can.
The Dunning–Kruger effect, a cognitive bias where people with low skill overestimate their abilities, comes partly from false dichotomies — seeing the world in rigid black-and-white categories leads people to propose simplistic solutions to complex problems. Our love of labelling can also lead to stereotyping, scapegoating, and an us-versus-them mentality.
Our dislike of uncertainty as a concept is probably responsible for our low statistical literacy. Unfortunately for us, the world is inherently probabilistic. It is nuanced. Most issues fall on spectra, not in absolutes. To understand science, economics, and politics, we need to get a better grasp of uncertainty and risk. The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe recognized the need for better statistical literacy in a 2012 report.
So even though it feels mentally taxing, learning about uncertainty and probability is productive mental burden. Higher education gives most of us some exposure to statistics, even if we learn it just by osmosis, which may be why educated people are generally more tolerant of diversity. They not only get exposure to different types of people and ideas, but also develop the schema to understand the nuances in these differences.
But a concerted effort to promote early education in statistical literacy to help kids form schema will help them not only cope better with uncertainty but ultimately better understand their world. We need a generation of people for whom odds, risks, and probability will be second nature.
Originally published at aloadoffyourmind.wordpress.com on December 3, 2016.