Why are there so many endless problems in life, no matter how hard we try to overcome them? It turns out there is a uniqueness in the workings of the human brain: the less often something happens, the more often we see something everywhere.
Let us imagine an environmental security program involving volunteers to contact the police if they see anything suspicious. A volunteer joins to reduce crime rates in his area. In the early days he joined, he immediately reported when he saw signs of serious crime, such as violence or robbery.
Suppose, after a while, all these efforts help reduce the number of violence and robbery. What will this volunteer do next? There was a possibility that he would relax and stop reporting to the police because the things he had worried about were gone.
But it could also be that you guessed like the group I studied: many volunteers in the same situation just did not feel relieved because crime reduced. Instead, they begin to regard things they did not see as signs of crime – such as people crossing the street carelessly or hanging out – as something to report.
We can imagine the same thing happening in many similar situations; problems continue to exist because the definition of “problem” continues to be replaced. This can be called a concept creep or change the rules (moving the goalposts), and this can be frustrating.
How can we know whether we are solving a problem if we always redefine the problem?
My colleagues and I want to understand when things like this happen, why, and whether they can be prevented.
To study the change in the concept of something as it becomes increasingly rare, we bring volunteers into our laboratory and give them a simple task – to look at several faces, then decide which ones are “dangerous.”
These faces have been designed in such a way that researchers range from those that look very intimidating to those that are harmless.
As we showed faces that were less frightening, we found that volunteers widened their definition of what was a “scary” face.
In other words, when they no longer find faces that are scary, they begin to call faces that were previously thought not to be scary. Instead of being consistent, what they consider “scary”, they depend on how much threat they have seen lately.
Such inconsistencies occur not only when they assess a threat. In another experiment, we asked several people to make a simple decision: are the dots on the screen blue or purple?
As soon as the blue dots became less and less, people began to pick purple-blue dots. They even do it when we tell them that the blue dots are low or when we offer money if they remain consistent with their choices.
The results show that this behavior is not entirely under conscious control – because if so, people will be consistent in getting rewards.
Spreading immoral meaning
After seeing the results of experiments on facial threats and color selection, we wondered if this only happened in the visual system. Does this concept change also occur for a non-visual assessment?
To test this, we run a final trial. Volunteers are asked to read about different scientific studies, then decide which ones are ethical and unethical. We are not sure of finding the same inconsistency – like face and color experiments – in experiments like this.
Why? Because moral judgments, in our estimation, will be more consistent over time than judgments about other things. After all, what we consider today violence, we will still consider violence the other day, no matter how much or how little violence we see at that time.
Surprisingly, we found the same pattern. When we show a more ethical study, they begin to widen the range of what they consider to be “ethical”. In other words, just because they read more ethical studies, they become harder and harder in determining which studies are ethical.
Our brains like to do comparisons
Why can’t people be consistent with what they think is dangerous when the threat is reduced? Research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience states that this behavior is a consequence of the basic way our brains process information – we always compare what is in front of us with the current context.
Instead of determining how dangerous those faces are with all other faces, our brain can only compare them to faces that were seen not long ago, or compare them with the average face seen later, or the least frightening face.
Such comparisons illustrate the pattern we saw in our experiments because when frightening faces begin to diminish, new faces will be compared with less frightening faces. In a crowd full of soft faces, even faces that look a bit spooky will be considered scary.
It turns out, for our brains, to make relative comparisons requires less energy than absolute measurements.
To get an understanding of why this is happening, try to imagine how easy it is to remember who our tallest cousin is compared to how exact centimeter our cousin is. The human brain tends to develop to use relative comparisons in many situations because such comparisons provide sufficient information in observing the environment and making decisions with as little effort as possible.
Sometimes, judgment is relatively very useful. If we are looking for a fancy restaurant, what we consider to be “luxury” in Paris, is not necessarily the same as in Texas.
However, environmental inspectors who make relative judgments will continue to expand their concept of what is “criminality” by including things that are actually mediocre, after the crime rate has decreased.
As a result, they will never reward their success in helping to reduce the problems they once worried about. From health diagnoses to financial investments, modern humans must remain consistent when making complex judgments.