Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Our Lazy Brain Democracy: Are We Doomed?

By John Banja, PhD

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the Martin Shkreli embarrassment in connection with System 1 and 2 reasoning [1].  Popularized by thinkers like Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, System 1 thinking refers to the fast, intuitive, reflexive, usually highly reliable cognition that humans deploy perhaps 95 percent of the time in navigating and making sense of their environments. System 2 thinking, on the other hand, is slow, effortful, plodding, analytical, and data dependent—in short, an activity that most humans don’t particularly gravitate towards perhaps because our brains, at least according to Kahneman, are inherently lazy [1]. Shkreli, you’ll recall, is a former pharmaceutical CEO who found himself at the top of everyone’s hate list when he announced that his company was going to increase the cost of its drug Daraprim by 5000 percent.  (Daraprim is used in the treatment of malaria and HIV.) The public’s System 1, gut-level outrage predictably kicked in and, within weeks, Shkreli found himself without a job and battling criminal charges for securities fraud he allegedly committed with a previous company.
Martin Shkreli arrest, image courtesy of YouTube 
To me, Shkreli’s case vividly illustrates America’s sensationalist-prone, media-driven, knee-jerk, System 1 style of moral reasoning. Of course, Shkreli’s greed was way over the top and his price-hike justification—pharma’s predictable “we need these profit margins to fuel innovation”—was ridiculously disingenuous. Yet, Shkreli’s pricing indiscretion was an economic blip compared to two other health-related events with which our public sense of justice seems little concerned. One is the $160 billion merger (largest in 2015 corporate America) that is underway between American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and the Ireland based company Allergan. Pfizer’s intentions are to reconstitute itself as an Irish company so as to be relieved from paying the high American corporate tax rate. The relocation is perfectly legal and follows in the wake of Burger King, Medtronic, and other American companies doing the same. But it means the loss of gazillions of tax dollars to the American economy.  Oh, and Pfizer also just announced that it was raising its price on some 100 drugs (including Viagra) by as much as 20 percent.

And how about this persisting one: The United States pays more for prescription drugs than any other country in the world. One of the primary reasons why is because Medicare, which is the largest drug purchaser in the United States, is prohibited by law from negotiating price discounts with pharmaceutical companies. Medicaid can negotiate discounts and health maintenance organizations and the VA can negotiate too. But not Medicare.

So, how come we robustly and gleefully intervene with the likes of Shkreli but allow these other, considerably more worrisome events to get a pass? Why isn’t the public and the media equally outraged by the colossal loss of tax revenue and the increased health care costs that the American economy must bear because of economic arrangements like these? I’d suggest it’s because they are very hard to understand, tedious to analyze, and frustrating to resolve. In short, they’d require a lot of System 2 thinking that we’re not willing to expend. For example, just to appreciate the Pfizer case, you’d need to know about “inversions,” territorial tax systems, deferrals, and anti-tax abuse regulations. For Medicare, you’d need to know about the history and the moral propriety of the back room, closed-door deals and trade-offs that resulted in the original 2003 legislation, and why President Obama hasn’t yet attempted to reform the legislation despite saying he would. You’d then have to argue the associated moral pros and cons according to some kind of ethical platform—most assuredly, a platform that not everyone would accept, such as Wall Street’s fat cats shrugging their shoulders at crusading moralists like Bernie Sanders.

Yet, we should all be thoroughly upset at how these events are structurally embedded in and enabled by our laws and politically sanctioned economic arrangements such that their impact will almost certainly widen the already worrisome gap between our country’s wealthiest 3 percent and everyone else. But as long as we stay mired in System 1 thinking, that’s very unlikely to happen.

Superintelligence, image courtesy of flickr user Anders Sandberg
Maybe technology will help us out. I’ve been reading Nick Bostrom’s new book Superintelligence, and early on he makes a provocative comment: that the super-intelligent technology of the not terribly distant future—perhaps within a century—will be “capable of improving its own architecture… (It) should be able to understand its own workings sufficiently to engineer new algorithms and computational structures to bootstrap its cognitive performance.” [2, p. 29, also described in a previous blog post].  That sort of thing would accomplish what “neuroevolution” hasn’t done for us humans in the last 10,000 years. Although our brains may have “shrunk” in size over time, they continue to use the same neural structures, programs and circuits our ancient ancestors did, which worked great for fleeing from predators, herding livestock, and cultivating crops but not great for dealing with inversions, territorial tax systems, Medicare Part D coverage legislation, and the like.

Consequently, superintelligent technology that could learn from its mistakes and continuously rewire and re-architecture itself seems fabulous. But in matters of morality, there’s a big catch: What if the superintelligent technology turns out to be greedier than Shkreli but is much more strategic and cunning? How do we program such technology with not only the requisite instrumental intelligence for regulating pricing schemes, tax rates, profits, and so on, but also with substantive moral intelligence so that our prospects for human flourishing aren’t thwarted? Indeed, who or what gets to say what “flourishing” is, what are “acceptable” means for achieving it, and what such “improvement” resembles? We’ll not only need a lot of System 2 thinking to accomplish this, but a collective, exquisitely well-intentioned and morally disciplined will if our grandchildren are going to thank us for our efforts.

For now, I hope we can figure out how to overcome our lazy brains and morally enhance ourselves with the following: That we figure out ways to shape our educational systems, the media, and other information outlets in ways that present information that is true to facts, that respects the law of non-contradiction, that practices sound methods of evidence gathering, and that values the best scientific opinions. We need to humble ourselves and admit all the things we don’t know, and then commit ourselves to becoming much more informed knowledge consumers. And at the very least, we should collectively denounce the media’s spotlighting evolution deniers, vaccine deniers, climate change deniers, and—perhaps the most vomitous—Sandy Hook murder deniers as beneath the intelligence and dignity of a 21st century electorate.

One of the best features of western democracies is that they enable the fairly rapid correction of legislative or socioeconomic experiments gone wrong. The greatest challenge of navigating life in the 21st century, however, is that we have created many extremely complex socioeconomic arrangements that lazy brains are not equipped to manage and seem unmotivated to change. If we fail to remedy these ills, however, we will suffer the consequences of a lazy brain democracy. While System 1, lazy brain thinking can be comforting (because it doesn’t require much effort), a national commitment to System 2 reasoning about the issues we all know are important for our collective well-being may spell the difference between doom and realistic hope as our century evolves.


1. Kahneman, D. 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

2. Bostrom, N. 2014. Superintelligence. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Want to cite this post?

Banja, J. (2016). Our Lazy Brain Democracy: Are We Doomed?. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2016/02/our-lazy-brain-democracy-are-we-doomed.html

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