A look at the role of type I and type II errors on human social behavior

(image taken from Huffington Post, not my own)

Hypothetical story time! Let’s imagine a scenario:

Our ancestors are sitting in the African Savannah thinking about the meaning of life. All of a sudden there is an unknown sound in the brush nearby. Our ancestors essentially had two options, here is the first:

1) our ancestors could have assigned additional meaning to the sound of the brush and run/flee to safety. In this case they would have assumed it was a possible predator or rival group and acted accordingly. This error is known as a type I error, or a false positive. In our not so distant past, our ancestors that routinely chose this error type were more likely to survive and reproduce. For the sake of simplicity we will call this social behavior “type I behavior”. In a community, this type of thinking would become become normalized and develop into dogma, religion, traditions, and other faith-based beliefs. With imminent danger ever-present, this type of behavior would have more likely increased our biological fitness.

Now let’s look at the second evolutionary option…

2) Alternatively, our ancestors could decide not to assign additional meaning to the unknown sound. In this case, they could have assumed the sound was probably due to something harmless, maybe just the wind and would have acted accordingly. This is known as a type II error, or a false negative. Our ancestors that routinely chose this behavior were less likely to survive and reproduce. For the sake of simplicity we will call this social behavior as a “type II behavior”. This type of behavior is analogous to skepticism and rational inquiry and would not have been beneficial for the life of our ancestors. For our ancestors, with threats abound, this type of behavior would be more likely lead to their death.

It’s better to be safe than sorry right? Well, not exactly…

We can understand how this pattern seeking behavior in our African ancestors would have formed a “type I brain”. This is where our current brain comes from.

Now let’s fast-forward a few hundred-thousand years. For those of us living in the western digital world, the massive advantage of type I behavior is no longer as appropriate. Fortunately for us, there aren’t any lions waiting to eat us in the Starbuck’s line. Likewise, the produce section of Whole Foods doesn’t have any vultures waiting to pluck us out of the sky (not sure if the vulture thing is real but let’s go with it anyway). In summary, there are far fewer life-threatening unknowns that require type I behavior in order to survive today. More and more we are seeing a trend, the modern world is requiring a very precise, very accurate understanding of systems in order to survive and thrive. As such, it is becoming more advantageous for us to have type II behavior.

The new and unknown dangers of space may recreate an African savannah for future generations of us. Space may present a whole host of new threats, unknowns, and uncharted territory. With these new uncategorized dangers, the most advantageous survival technique might shift back into the favor of type I behavior.

(image taken from random google search of “space”, not my own photo…clearly. )