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Tuesday 16 December 2014

Snapshot Versus Movie: Two Ways of Thinking

Too many passengers, too small a boat.
Missionaries, Cannibals, and Problem Solving

In the Missionaries and Cannibals problem, three missionaries and three cannibals must cross a river in a boat that can only hold two people - and the cannibals must never outnumber the missionaries.

It’s tempting to try to advance one's position with every move, never returning the boat with more than a single occupant. In most versions of the problem, however, this won’t yield a solution. At some point, two people have to move back across the river.

The puzzle is interesting from a psychological perspective because it requires a shift from move-by-move to longer-term planning - a process that the mind often rebels against. It appears that our default wiring causes us to look for linear solutions - a tendency that can blind us to
alternatives and to the negative consequences of our best intentions.

We might think of our default mode as "snapshot" thinking. We look at the current problem and try to find a solution that takes us a step in the right direction.

The alternative is "movie" thinking, in which we examine the consequences of our immediate actions and look a few steps down the road. In effect, we view the problem as an ecological system in which our own inputs alter the problem space and lead often to unexpected shifts.

Who really cares? 

The type of thinking we employ governs our responses to problems, and often determines whether our solutions work, prove ineffective, or make things worse. Many of our most pressing problems can only be solved with "movie" thinking, but our bias causes us to attempt to employ snapshot thinking.

Consider a few examples.

Invasive species.
Australia is well-known for the introduction of new species with unforeseen consequences. In the 1930s, hoping to battle the native cane beetle, cane toads from the Americas were released in Queensland. From a snapshot perspective, this made sense. Lacking natural predators, however, the toads spread uncontrollably across the state, causing greater problems than the one they were intended to solve. Similar eye-rolling foul-ups were caused by the introduction of foxes, rabbits, housecats, camels, goats, pigs, and deer.

Every school child learns about the ecological catastrophes visited upon Australia by naive snapshot-thinkers. We know and accept that it is generally a bad idea to introduce foreign species into an ecological system. This has not stopped us, however, from developing entirely new organisms and releasing them into the environment as though the lessons of Australia had never been taught.

Genetically modified corn is a good example of snapshot thinking. Developed to be resistant to widely-used herbicides or to express proteins that are poisonous to insect pests, these varieties produce healthier and more abundant crops. Switch to movie-style thinking, however, and the problem readily becomes apparent. A new selection environment has been introduced, and unexpected shifts in ecological systems will result. Already, some pests have evolved resistance to the supposedly insect-resistant strains, potentially resulting in greater insect problems than the strains were originally developed to address.

What about foreign policy initiatives? Imagine that you have intelligence indicating that there are 1000 terrorists operating in a given region. Using snapshot thinking the solution seems obvious. Invade, target the terrorists, and eliminate them one by one. Movie thinking would ask how those individuals became terrorists, and would wonder whether an invasion might inadvertently spawn more terrorists than it eliminates. Having armed and trained Osama bin Laden to fight Soviets in Afghanistan, for example, movie thinking might ask whether the creation of a band of Islamist fighters could cause more problems than it solves.

Snapshot thinking also bedevils our personal lives. We see the immediate problem that our spouse disagrees with our plans to renovate the garage, and press our point relentlessly. Although this might succeed in the short term, movie thinking might look a few steps down the road to see whether our browbeating style could have further-reaching consequences. Rushing to solve our children's problems, we might inadvertently undermine their ability to perceive and deal with the consequences of their own actions.

What about the field of mental health? Snapshot thinking would lead us to attempt the solution of an immediate problem using seemingly common-sense strategies. If depression is believed to be the result of insufficient neural transmission within serotonergic systems (an admittedly bad example, because this widely-believed notion has found little empirical support), then introducing medications to promote serotonergic action seems an obvious move. If some people with depression fail to seek medical assistance, then public education campaigns should surely help some of them to see their physician. If anxiety is a problem, then the administration of antianxiety medication is a no-brainer.

But all of these are the products of snapshot thinking. And like the environmental problems of Australia, the challenges of a GMO-infested world, the terrorist situation of a post-9/11 world, each of them suffers from the law of unintended consequences. Serotonin reuptake blockade may ultimately impair previously-functional serotonergic systems. Public education campaigns may cause epidemics of overdiagnosis and overmedication. And benzodiazepine dependence may ultimately be worse than the anxiety these drugs are intended to treat.

In coming weeks we will take a closer look at just a few of these issues within mental health - and examine whether a system designed to improve human welfare may have accidentally amplified the problem.

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