The human mind is among the most powerful forces we know — it’s invented methods to get to the moon (and back!) and at least a dozen more to get pizza delivered to your house. It’s hard to overstate how much the complexity of our brains affords us, but that sophistication rarely comes in the form of the hard numbers we’d use to describe a processor. We’ve yet to create artificial intelligence that can convincingly mimic human decision-making, or even reliably beat a human at chess, and for good reason: there is an uncanny grayness about how we think. Few of us can crunch numbers like a calculator can, but only we can navigate the ambiguity and inconsistency of ourselves and the situations we create.
We spend a lot of time and capital trying to understand and work around our own fickleness. A 1991 study at the University of Virginia hosted a poster fair, asking students to choose a poster to take home and then write about why they made their choice. When the experimental group had to articulate why they did what they did… they couldn’t. And when experimenters asked them to evaluate how happy they were with their choice a few weeks later, they were, on average, less happy than those who didn’t have to think about their choices in objective terms.
These muddy, hard-to-describe “autopilot” decisions constitute the bulk of our everyday lives. That’s what makes it so difficult to study ourselves: each of us has a unique, complicated, senseless calculus for making choices that we’re rarely even aware of. Data can tell us how often we eat our favorite food, but it can’t suss out with the same certainty what we’ll order in favor of it at restaurants or when those spur-of-the-moment deviations will arise. In some significant capacity, research on humans must capture our own human-ness — and humans are the only force that can fully grasp it.
Back to Top