Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Does Bayesian bias aid us in making adaptive distorted self-assessments?

Posted 16 Oct 2015 / 0

PNAS-2015-Pooresmaeili-1507527112_Page_1Proceedings of the National Academy of SciencesReceipt of reward leads to altered estimation of effort

This is an interesting study because it suggests that we can make rational but distorted assessments of their own efforts based on what reward they bring. What’s interesting is that we tend to belittle our own efforts when they don’t happen to produce a large reward and exaggerate our efforts when they do happen to produce a large reward. Why would this sort of distortion be adaptive? Well, I suppose that it could be a sort of “effort calibrator” to deal with a shifting and probabilistically-uncertain world. In an environment that has rules but does not behave in a strictly deterministic manner, there has to be a way of effectively basing behavior on information that’s inherently noisy and unreliable. How do you make good decisions? The findings of this article suggest that people are constantly adjusting their idea of how hard they are working based on what the environment provides in response to their efforts. Put in a lot of effort and still get no reward? That could be an indication of a low reward-to-effort environment, and so it becomes adaptive to under-estimate your effort, which presumably would push you to put in more effort in the future. But if big rewards are easy to come by it is better to ease off on the effort, in which case over-estimating your labor is adaptive.

I find it particularly interesting and important to consider how this psychological tendency might translate into our modern world, where there is a lot of uncertainty and “luck” in how one’s effort translates to success (or lack thereof). Our innate psychological response to rewards could become maladaptive if it makes people who reap low rewards through no fault of their own continually disparage their own efforts in their own minds. And what happens when a person reaps huge rewards despite not putting in much effort? Well, that person decides to put in even less effort. Ah, there you have it folks: a clear evolutionary psychological explanation for why poor people are often so down on themselves and why rich people are often so slothful and full of themselves. That’s if you are ready to extrapolate pretty far from this study…

A Minor Post, Articles, Behavior, Cognitive Ability, Consciousness, Psychology

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