[Taking something speculative, running with it, piling on some more speculative stuff]
In an interesting post summarising her exploration of the literature on rational thinking, Sarah Constantin introduces the idea of a ‘cognitive decoupling elite’:
Stanovich talks about “cognitive decoupling”, the ability to block out context and experiential knowledge and just follow formal rules, as a main component of both performance on intelligence tests and performance on the cognitive bias tests that correlate with intelligence. Cognitive decoupling is the opposite of holistic thinking. It’s the ability to separate, to view things in the abstract, to play devil’s advocate.
… Speculatively, we might imagine that there is a “cognitive decoupling elite” of smart people who are good at probabilistic reasoning and score high on the cognitive reflection test and the IQ-correlated cognitive bias tests.
It’s certainly very plausible to me that something like this exists as a distinct personality cluster. It seems to be one of the features of my own favourite classification pattern, for example, as a component of the ‘algebra/systematising/step-by-step/explicit’ side (not the whole thing, though). For this post I’m just going to take it as given for now that ‘cognitive decoupling’ is a real thing that people can be more or less good at, build on that assumption and see what I get.
It’s been a good few decades for cognitive decoupling, from an employment point of view at least. Maybe a good couple of centuries, taking the long view. But in particular the rise of automation by software has created an enormous wealth of opportunities for people who can abstract out the formal symbolic exoskeleton of a process to the point where they can make a computer do it. There’s also plenty of work in the interstices between systems, defining interfaces and making sure data is clean enough to process, the kind of jobs Venkatesh Rao memorably described as ‘intestinal flora in the body of technology’.
I personally have a complicated, conflicted relationship with cognitive decoupling. Well, to be honest, sometimes a downright petty and resentful relationship. I’m not a true member of the elite myself, despite having all the right surface qualifications: undergrad maths degree, PhD in physics, working as a programmer. Maybe cognitive decoupling precariat, at a push. Despite making my living and the majority of my friends in cognitive-decoupling-heavy domains, I mostly find step-by-step, decontextualised reasoning difficult and unpleasant at a fundamental, maybe even perceptual level.
The clearest way of explaining this, for those who don’t already have a gut understanding what I mean, might be to describe something like ‘the opposite of cognitive decoupling’ (the cognitive strong coupling regime?). I had this vague memory that Sylvia Plath’s character Esther in The Bell Jar voiced something in the area of what I wanted, in a description of a hated physics class that had stuck in my mind as somehow connected to my own experience. I reread the passage and was surprised to find that it wasn’t just vaguely what I wanted, it was exactly what I wanted, a precise and detailed account of what just feels wrong about cognitive decoupling:
Botany was fine, because I loved cutting up leaves and putting them under the microscope and drawing diagrams of bread mould and the odd, heart-shaped leaf in the sex cycle of the fern, it seemed so real to me.
The day I went in to physics class it was death.
A short dark man with a high, lisping voice, named Mr Manzi, stood in front of the class in a tight blue suit holding a little wooden ball. He put the ball on a steep grooved slide and let it run down to the bottom. Then he started talking about let a equal acceleration and let t equal time and suddenly he was scribbling letters and numbers and equals signs all over the blackboard and my mind went dead.
… I may have made a straight A in physics, but I was panic-struck. Physics made me sick the whole time I learned it. What I couldn’t stand was this shrinking everything into letters and numbers. Instead of leaf shapes and enlarged diagrams of the hole the leaves breathe through and fascinating words like carotene and xanthophyll on the blackboard, there were these hideous, cramped, scorpion-lettered formulas in Mr Manzi’s special red chalk.
I knew chemistry would be worse, because I’d seen a big chart of the ninety-odd elements hung up in the chemistry lab, and all the perfectly good words like gold and silver and cobalt and aluminium were shortened to ugly abbreviations with different decimal numbers after them. If I had to strain my brain with any more of that stuff I would go mad. I would fail outright. It was only by a horrible effort of will that I had dragged myself through the first half of the year.
This is a much, much stronger reaction than the one I have, but I absolutely recognise this emotional state. The botany classes ground out in vivid, concrete experience: ferns, leaf shapes, bread mould. There’s an associated technical vocabulary – carotene, xanthophyll – but even these words are embedded in a rich web of sound associations and tangible meanings.
In the physics and chemistry classes, by contrast, the symbols are seemingly arbitrary, chosen on pure pragmatic grounds and interchangeable for any other random symbol. (I say ‘seemingly’ arbitrary because of course if you continue in physics you do build up a rich web of associations with x and t and the rest of them. Esther doesn’t know this, though.) The important content of the lecture is instead the structural relationships between the different symbols, and the ways of transforming one to another by formal rules. Pure cognitive decoupling.
There is a tangible physical object, the ‘little wooden ball’ (better than I got in my university mechanics lectures!), but that object has been chosen for its utter lack of vivid distinguishing features, its ability to stand in as a prototype of the whole abstract class of featureless spheres rolling down featureless inclined planes.
The lecturer’s suit is a bit crap, too. Nothing at all about this situation has been designed for a fulfilling, interconnected aesthetic experience.
I think it’s fairly obvious from the passage, but it seems to be worth pointing out anyway: ‘strong cognitive coupling’ doesn’t just equate to stupidity or lack of cognitive flexibility. For one thing, Esther gets an A anyway. For another, she’s able to give very perceptive, detailed descriptions of subtle features of her experience, always hugging close to the specificity of raw experience (‘the odd, heart-shaped leaf in the sex cycle of the fern’) rather than generic concepts that can be overlaid on to many observations (‘ah ok, it’s another sphere on an inclined plane’).
Strong coupling in this sense is like being a kind of sensitive antenna for your environment, learning to read as much meaning out of it as possible, but without necessarily being able to explain what you learn in a structured, explicit logical argument. I’d expect it to be correlated with high sensitivity to nonverbal cues, implicit tone, tacit understanding, all the kind of stuff that poets are stereotypically good at and nerds are stereotypically bad at.
I don’t normally talk about my own dislike of cognitive decoupling. It’s way too easy to sound unbearably precious and snowflakey, ‘oh my tastes are far too sophisticated to bear contact with this clunky nerd stuff’. In practice I just shut up and try to get on with it as far as I can. Organised systems are what keep the world functioning, and whining about them is mostly pointless. Also, I’m nowhere near the extreme end of this spectrum anyway, and can cope most of the time.
When I was studying maths and physics I didn’t even have to worry about this for the most part. You can compensate fairly well for a lack of ability in decoupled formal reasoning by just understanding the domain. This is very manageable, particularly if you pick your field well, because the same few ideas (calculus, linear algebra, the harmonic oscillator) crop up again and again and again and have very tangible physical interpretations, so there’s always something concrete to ground out the symbols with.
(This wasn’t a conscious strategy because I had no idea what was happening at the time. I just knew since I was a kid that I was ‘good at maths’ apart from some inexplicable occasions where I was instead very bad at maths, and just tried to steer towards the ‘good at maths’ bits as much as possible. This is my attempt to finally make some sense out of it.)
It’s been more of an issue since. Most STEM-type jobs outside of academia are pretty hard going, because the main objective is to get the job done, and you often don’t have time to build up a good picture of the overall domain, so you’re more reliant on the step-by-step systematic thing. A particularly annoying example would be something like implementing the business logic for a large enterprise CRUD app where you have no particularly strong domain knowledge. Maybe there’s a tax of 7% on twelve widgets, or maybe it’s a tax of 11.5% on five hundred widgets; either way, what it means for you personally is that you’re going to chuck some decontextualised variables around according to the rules defined in some document, with no vivid sensory understanding of exactly what these widgets look like and why they’re being taxed. There is basically no way that Esther in The Bell Jar could keep her sanity in a job like that, even if she has the basic cognitive capacity to do it; absolutely everything about it is viscerally wrong wrong wrong.
My current job is rather close to this end of the spectrum, and it’s a strain to work in this way, in a way many other colleagues don’t seem to experience. This is where the ‘downright petty and resentful’ bit comes in. I’d like it if there was a bit more acknowledgment from people who find cognitive decoupling easy and natural that it is in fact a difficult mode of thought for many of us, and one that most modern jobs dump us into far more than we’d like.
From the other side, I’m sure that the decouplers would also appreciate it if we stopped chucking around words like ‘inhuman’ and ‘robotic’, and did a bit less hating on decontextualised systems that keep the world running, even if they feel bad from the inside. I think some of this stuff is coming from a similar emotional place to my own petty resentment, but it’s not at all helpful for any actual communication between the sides.
I’m seeing a few encouraging examples of the kind of communication I would like. Sarah Constantin looks to be in something like a symmetric position to me on the other side of the bridge, with her first loyalty to explicit systematic reasoning, but enough genuine appreciation to be able to write thoughtful explorations of the other side:
I think it’s much better to try to make the implicit explicit, to bring cultural dynamics into the light and understand how they work, rather than to hide from them.
David Chapman has started to write about how the context-heavy sort of learning (‘reasonableness’) works, aimed at something like the cognitive decoupling elite:
In summary, reasonableness works because it is context-dependent, purpose-laden, interactive, and tacit. The ways it uses language are effective for exactly the reason rationality considers ordinary language defective: nebulosity.
And then there’s all the wonderful work by people like Bret Victor, who are working to open up subjects like maths and programming for people like me who need to see things if we are going to have a hope of doing them.
I hope this post at least manages to convey something of the flavour of strong cognitive coupling to those who find decoupling easy. So if the thing I’m trying to point at still looks unclear, please let me know in the comments!