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The Mind is Flat

A lecture by Professor Nick Chater, WBS

Published January 2012

Do our minds have hidden depths or do we creatively make things up as we go along? WBS Professor Nick Chater argues that the mind is flat using behavioural psychology, Jeremy Bentham’s principle of utility and the English seaside resort of Bournemouth.


Behavioural science is an evolving and exciting discipline at Warwick. Says Professor Nick Chater, who joined WBS in 2010, it is “devoted to understanding individual behaviour from a scientific perspective and trying to use that insight to understand social and economic phenomena”.

Most have us have probably never thought of the mind as having dimensionality at all, and would think Prof Chater’s proposition that the mind is flat to be very curious indeed. He uses the analogy that inner mental depth is like a rainbow in the sense that “just like rainbows seem to be very deep things, as you move around the rainbow seems to move around with you, but nonetheless you have a strong sense that the rainbow has a depth and a real point in the ground. But we know they don’t really have depth”.

If we don’t have hidden mental depths, how can we clarify our behaviour? Prof Chater goes on: “I want to argue that those apparent beliefs and desires that we cook up when we explain our behaviour are actually just being creative for that moment, they’re not stable, we don’t have stable beliefs and desires which generate our behaviour. In fact we invent those beliefs and desires when we have to make a choice or justify our action … we infer our own inner life from our words and actions, just as we infer those of a third person. And then we invent what we will say and do next. Mental ‘depth’ is an illusion.”

Psychological experiments have proven this theory. Take Alter and Oppenheimer's 2006 data. They looked at IPOs on the New York stock exchange. All IPOs have three letter acronyms associated with them, such as RDO or KAR. Whilst reason tells us that people buy stocks based on economic fact, their data showed that IPOs with ‘fluent’ names like KAR sold substantially better in the first 24 hours than non-fluent ones such as RDO. The memorable name made people initially feel more happy and confident when thinking about the stocks and therefore more likely to purchase them.

Johansson, Hall et al used an experiment to show that preferences can be inferred. They showed trial participants a couple of pictures of people and asked them which person they thought was the most attractive. The interviewers then showed the participants the wrong face and questioned them on why they chose the picture.

Floating heads art installationThe first thing the data showed was that people didn’t notice that they had been shown the wrong picture. The interviewer then explained that 50 per cent of people were given the wrong picture and did the participant think they were one of them? Almost everyone said they weren’t tricked. Says Prof Chater, “people will give you a nice explanation of why they chose the person even though it can’t be right because they didn’t choose them. They will say things that couldn’t have possibly generated their original decision (like nice earrings!). What’s happening in general is rationalisation.”

In reality direct introspection is an illusion and a lot of human behaviour is quite like improvisational acting. “We don’t peer into our mental depths but we quite literally make up our minds as we go along… the overwhelming evidence from the psychology of judgement and decision making is that things like utilities and beliefs do not cohere. If you look from different places/ask different questions you find that the answers you’ve got just don’t cohere at all”.

Shafir et al used a holiday choice experiment as an example of reason-based choice. They asked people if they would choose Bali, an expensive but exciting destination, or a cheaper but duller holiday in Bournemouth. People generally chose Bali. Yet when asked the same question in a slightly different way - this time, Which they would reject? - the majority of people rejected Bali for reasons such as expense.

Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian dream was of morality and public policy entwining to maximise ‘utility’. He espoused that the right thing to do should be guided by maximising the greatest happiness of the greatest number. People should judge their own behaviour by whether they made themselves and others happier rather than sadder. Prof Chater argues that this will never work, because it “presupposes there is this stable notion of value and utility which you can somehow measure”.

Utilitarianism fails, he says, “not because utility is hard to measure, but because there is no utility to be measured. Our underlying preferences and desires are illusory, continually re-invented for each new time and situation.”

However much we would like to think we have depth, our minds are flat.

Professor Nick Chater

Professor Nick Chater joined WBS in 2010, after holding Chairs in psychology at Warwick and then at UCL. He has over 200 publications, has won four national awards for psychological research, and has served as Associate Editor for the journals Cognitive Science, Psychological Review, and Psychological Science. He was elected a Fellow of the Cognitive Science Society in 2010.

His research interests include cognitive and behavioural sciences and experimental, computational and mathematical studies of basic mental processes.

Images: mind control by Drinks Machine (via Flickr).
The Human Mind by David Webb (via Flickr).