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Science File | K.C. Cole MIND OVER MATTER

Default Thinking Often a Wrong Path to Truth

July 08, 2002|K.C. Cole

My new computer was driving me nuts. Every time I tried to save a document, it would instead demand that I ask for "help" and refuse to budge until I went through the motions of posing some kind of question. As it turned out, the problem was easily fixed by altering the program's default settings.

Computer programs have minds of their own. That's why they're so useful. It becomes a problem only when you and the computer aren't of like minds and you don't realize you can fix the problem by changing the program's defaults.

Would that it were so easy to fix the defaults programmed into human thinking.

A familiar riddle illustrates the problem: A man and his son are driving home from a baseball game when their car stalls on the railroad tracks. As a train rushes toward them, the father struggles desperately to start the car, but to no avail. The father is killed. The boy is critically injured. The ambulance arrives, and the boy is rushed to the hospital. In the operating room, the surgeon looks at the boy and gasps: "I can't operate on this boy. He's my son."

If you haven't heard this before, you'll have some trouble figuring out what's going on here. But the solution is simple. The surgeon is the boy's mother. Alas, since our "default setting" for "surgeon" is male, almost everyone has a hard time coming up with the obvious solution.

"A default assumption is what holds true in what you might say is the 'simplest' or 'most natural' or 'most likely' possible model of whatever situation is under discussion," wrote Douglas Hofstadter some years ago in his Scientific American column, Metamagical Themas. "But the critical thing about default assumptions is that they are made automatically, not as a result of consideration and elimination."

We slip into default thinking completely unaware of what we're doing. We assume that the ground will be solid when we step on it (even though it sometimes isn't); we assume that the brakes will work on the car. Too many people also learn to assume that blonds are dumb, Arabs are terrorists, that a group of black teenagers coming down the street means trouble.

Default settings are shortcuts that allow us to go through life without a thought as to what we are thinking. They are insidious because the default--in our minds--becomes the only possible scenario.

One species that put this to use is the cowbird, which lays her eggs in the nests of other species. The bird that actually built the nest assumes that whatever hatches must be hers, feeding and raising the intruder as her own, even when the hatchling looks very different from the rest of her brood.

This is a fine strategy for cowbirds but a very bad thing for the true fledglings that can get thrown out of the nest or starve as a result.

Scientists too mistake defaults for the only possible truth. They took it for granted that we couldn't know what stars were made of, couldn't fly to the moon (indeed, fly at all); they assumed that mountains are immovable and atoms indestructible. They took it for granted that space and time were dependable and solid. Now we know they can slip, slide, stretch, warp, foam at the mouth.

Some argue that the default state of the human species is war. When we don't know what else to do, we fight. However, a recent study by UCLA psychologists throws this into doubt.

True, men under stress do tend to fall back on "fight or flight" as the first line of defense. Their default state is: hide, or hit someone. Women, however, cope with stress quite differently. They seek social contact or turn to nurturing--pick up the phone or tend the children. In fact, what principal investigator Shelley Taylor called this "tend and befriend" strategy for coping with stress seems characteristic of females of many species.

No one had seen this pattern before, Taylor said, because, until recently, most studies focused on males--the universal default mode.

Given that the world is run mostly by men, however, it's going to take no small amount of imagination to think outside this particularly lethal box. Certainly, it's happened before. Against all odds, there is quasi-democracy in Russia, quasi-peace in Northern Ireland; Nelson Mandela prevailed in South Africa and even Richard Nixon went to China.

Default is not the only option. In fact, Taylor and colleagues conclude that the "tend and befriend" strategy might well be responsible for the fact that women live on average 7 1/2 years longer than men.

An intriguing idea to consider for those of us who live so close to default lines.

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