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Weekly I/O: What maximizes biodiversity in ecosystems, Cognitive tunneling, Having choices makes us live longer
#72: Intermediate Disturbance Hypothesis, Cognitive Tunneling, Locus of control, Need for Cognitive Closure, Scientists with Door Open
Greetings from Clear Lake!
Here's your weekly dose of I/O. I hope you enjoy it!
Here's a list of what I'm exploring and pondering on this week.
1. Intermediate Disturbance Hypothesis: Biodiversity is highest in ecosystems where the level of disturbance is neither too low nor too high.
Book: Smarter Faster Better
The Intermediate Disturbance Hypothesis (IDH) is an ecological theory that says that the most diverse ecosystems are those that experience moderate levels of disturbance. In other words, biodiversity is highest in ecosystems when changes in environmental conditions, such as fires, floods, and windstorms, happen neither too rarely nor too frequently.
Too little disturbance allows dominant species to outcompete others, reducing diversity, while too much disturbance makes the environment too unstable for most species to survive, also leading to reduced diversity. At intermediate levels of disturbance, however, no single species can dominate, allowing a greater variety of species to coexist.
This hypothesis reminds me that what we need for mental health is not a tensionless state but a certain degree of tension between what one is and what one should become. It seems like we can apply IDH to mental health as well.
2. Cognitive Tunneling: When our brains abruptly shift from a relaxed state to high alert, we tend to focus too much on the most obvious stimuli and overreact.
Book: Smarter Faster Better
The focus range in the brain operates like a spotlight. When we are relaxed, this spotlight dims its intensity and scans randomly to conserve cognitive energy.
However, in emergencies or unexpected situations, like when our boss suddenly throws a question at us during a meeting, the spotlight is forced to concentrate its beam. The challenge is that it doesn't necessarily focus on what's most important.
In such scenarios, the brain tends to believe that a brighter, more focused spotlight is better, even if it's not aimed where it should be. This phenomenon of the brain shining the light haphazardly is called "cognitive tunneling."
Cognitive tunneling occurs when our brains transition suddenly from relaxed automation to panicked attention, which explains why relaxed drivers might slam on their brakes when they suddenly realize there's a red light ahead. Once in a cognitive tunnel, we lose our ability to direct our focus effectively. Instead, we focus on the easiest and most obvious stimulus and overreact without common sense.
To mitigate the effects of cognitive tunneling, we can equip ourselves with mental models. Mental models help us better understand unexpected problems by simplifying unfamiliar situations into concepts we already know. As a result, we can more quickly recognize when something is off and respond appropriately.
If you want to learn more about mental models, The Great Mental Models Volume 1: General Thinking Concepts is a good starting point.
3. Locus of control shapes our emotional well-being. Strong internal locus of control, the belief that we have control over the outcomes, can motivate us and extend our lifespan.
Book: Smarter Faster Better
Why do we feel the urge to exit during a highway traffic jam, even if we know that taking the exit might take longer to get home? It's because having the ability to make a choice gives us a sense of control, which makes us feel better.
This idea is supported by research examining brain activity, which shows that people feel more engaged and less bored when they have the power to make choices, even in mundane tasks like guessing if a number is higher or lower than five.
This need for control is related to a psychological concept known as locus of control, which measures the degree to which people believe they have control over events in their lives versus attributing outcomes to external factors. In other words, "Do you believe that your destiny is controlled by yourself or external forces?"
People with an internal locus of control believe they can control their fate. Therefore, they take credit for their successes and accept blame for their failures. They are more likely to attribute good grades to hard work rather than innate intelligence.
In contrast, those with an external locus of control attribute their life's events to luck or fate. They often feel helpless because they don't think their action can make a difference. Thus, they often feel more stressed and frustrated in tough situations.
Feedback plays a crucial role in nurturing an internal locus of control. For instance, when someone solves a difficult math problem, saying, "You must have worked very hard to solve this problem," stimulates their internal locus of control and increases their willingness to spend more time on upcoming complex problems.
On the other hand, saying, "You must be very smart to have solved this problem," fosters their external locus of control, leading to less motivation to address upcoming challenging problems. As a result, they give up on challenging problems quickly and move to easier ones.
Choice, an act of making a decision between options, shapes our emotional well-being. By developing a stronger internal locus of control, we can even extend our lifespan. For example, studies have shown that older people in nursing homes who have the freedom to arrange their own living spaces tend to live longer.
It's worth noting, however, that while attributing success or failure, one can fall into attribution traps like self-serving bias, where people tend to take credit for successes while blaming external factors for their failures.
4. Need for Cognitive Closure: How much do you prefer getting a clear and definitive answer to questions versus remaining uncertain or ambiguous?
Book: Smarter Faster Better
The Need for Cognitive Closure (NFCC) is a psychological term that describes one's preference for certainty over ambiguity. It gauges to what extent a person prefers getting a clear and definitive answer to questions, instead of remaining uncertain or ambiguous. The level of NFCC varies from person to person.
People with a high need for cognitive closure tend to be more disciplined, prefer to make judgments quickly based on intuition, and are less likely to second-guess their decisions once made.
However, an overly high NFCC can lead to rigid thinking. Such individuals may resist changing their views and reconsider new information, even when confronted with evidence that contradicts their beliefs. Moreover, sometimes high NFCC can also lead to rushed decisions.
You can try the test here to measure your NFCC.
5. Great scientists work with their door open. Though keeping the door closed enhances short-term productivity, an open door invites interruptions that can bring insights into what's truly important in the long run.
Why do some scientists make groundbreaking contributions while others fade into obscurity? Richard Hamming noticed distinct patterns among scientists who choose to work with their door open or closed.
Scientists who work behind closed doors are generally more productive in the short term. They get more work done today and tomorrow. However, they often find themselves disconnected from the bigger picture as years pass. A decade later, they may realize their hard work hasn't necessarily focused on the most impactful problems.
On the other hand, scientists who work with open doors get interrupted more often, which might hinder their productivity in the short run. However, these interruptions occasionally provide clues about the world's needs and what might be important in their field.
Though we cannot prove a cause-and-effect relationship, Hamming believes there's a strong correlation between those who work with the doors open and those who ultimately make important contributions, despite people who work with doors closed often working harder.
This reminds me of write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open, and Beer Mode and Coffee Mode.
Photo of the Week
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And as always, feel free to send me any interesting ideas you came across recently!
Looking forward to learning from you.