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Trust your instincts?


In the raging pop culture battle between James Bond and Jason Bourne, I'm going to have to side with the latter. Not because Bond is "an imperialist and a misogynist"-- as "Bourne" actor Matt Damon has charged -- but because, debonair as he is, Bond is a hero of a different era, one in which we believed in the power of technology to do good. Sure, he had a way with people, particularly women, but the success of his exploits often relied on gadgetry that Q supplied back at headquarters, like the blue X-ray glasses in "The World Is Not Enough" or the underwater breather in "Thunderball."

Bourne, on the other hand, is a hero for our times, one in which we're suspicious of technology and nostalgic for the primitive, the organic. With no gadgetry in hand, he can scan a great hall in a London train station for enemies and track the movements of security cameras and synchronize them with his own. He seems to have memorized maps of all the world's major cities -- how else would he know which way to turn in a chase? He survives on acquired knowledge and heightened instincts -- his wits alone.

Beyond the tight editing, the over-the-top stunts and the glamorous locales, I think the popularity of the "Bourne" movies stems from our collective desire to have his uncanny ability to assess -- and overcome -- threatening environments. When making split-second, life-or-death decisions, he never hesitates. Trained under the duress of torture and mind-control, Bourne has been taught how to read the world so that he's always two steps ahead of everyone else.

As far as we know, human beings have always sought to survive by trying to reduce levels of uncertainty. We've sought to give the world order by categorizing possibilities so that we could quickly process seemingly random information and make the unpredictable more predictable. Once upon a time, we relied on folk psychology, aggregated common knowledge and everyday platitudes to help us to predict and explain human behavior. Through a combination of stories and experience, we "knew" that certain consequences match certain behaviors.

Modern science and new, more objective methods of gauging threats have led us to believe that machines could predict what folk psychology could not. In our time, computers calculate the chances of even the most unthinkable thing happening with great accuracy. Genetic diagnostics can predict what diseases we may develop in 30 years. But helpful as they are, computers have also overloaded us with information, and some argue that technology has made us dumber and less instinctively intelligent than we were before. A 2005 study in Britain concluded that information overload actually reduces IQ levels twice as much as smoking lots of pot.

So besides wishing we had the impossibly perfect instincts of Jason Bourne, how do we attempt to make sense of the world now? We go back to basics -- from simplistic, overarching religious world views to pet theories about how little, everyday things reveal the secrets of the universe. We buy how-to books such as "Reading People: How to Understand People and Predict Their Behavior -- Anytime, Anyplace" that presume to teach us how to detect lies and identify potential suitors. Even the federal government has begun teaching security officers how to hone their instincts to catch the bad guys.

Last month, the Transportation Security Administration announced that by the end of 2008, it will have added not scores of fancy new high-tech scanning machines to our nation's airports but 500 specially trained security personnel who will protect us all by watching passengers' body language and facial expressions. These officers' training will be based on the scientific study of "micro-expressions," those split-second involuntary facial movements that reveal our emotions against our wishes. But ultimately, they are being taught how to do something that we humans tend to try to do naturally -- pick up and interpret all the unspoken messages everyone else is radiating in the very social, very interdependent cohort of humans.

I have no doubt that these officers will weed out some threats here and there, but I can't help thinking that we're already pretty good at gaming the system. Just as pathological liars learn how to mask signs that are commonly thought to indicate fibbing -- nose touching is one, and researchers have found that liars touch their noses 20% less often than truth tellers -- you would think our enemies could come up with antidotes to involuntary movements.

This is not to say that we shouldn't do everything in our power to identify and predict potential threats to our well-being. In the end, however, we may never get around the fact that humans are wily, unpredictable beasts.


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