The most dangerous and misunderstood threat to humanity is the human mind

In an era defined by human impact, the most pressing questions of this time are about ourselves.
In an era defined by human impact, the most pressing questions of this time are about ourselves.
Image: Reuters/Minzayar
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The defining characteristic of humans is our capacity for complex thinking and advanced reasoning. These abilities have allowed us to develop innovations that transform our lives and our world. The impact of our intellect is so significant that the present era has been called the “Anthropocene,” in recognition of the extent to which this epoch of our planet is defined by human activity.

These innovations have improved our lives in many ways. Indeed, by many indices, humanity is experiencing historically unprecedented success. Data show that the average member of our species is more literate, less impoverished, has access to more powerful technology, and is living a longer, healthier, more peaceful life than our ancestors.

Our innovations have also created new problems, many of which threaten our existence. Since 1950, in what is known as The Great Acceleration, increased human activity and population growth has resulted in greater pressures on earth systems. Climate change, pollution, economic and social disruption due to emerging technologies, political polarization, misinformation, inequality, and large scale conflict are all major challenges for humanity to overcome that have arisen from our own innovation.

We are unlikely to effectively solve these problems unless we truly understand their ultimate source: the human mind. In our view, to survive and flourish in the Anthropocene, we must look inward. In an era defined by human impact, the most pressing questions of this time are about ourselves.

How might we best approach these questions? One particularly important area of research looks at the relationship between computing technology, the internet, and the human mind. A growing body of evidence shows that technology use interacts with memory, attention, and reasoning. Our decision making has become both increasingly influenced by how we use technological advances such as the internet and smartphones, and influences these technologies in turn. Artificial intelligence and machine learning are also raising new dilemmas about how human reason can be augmented.

While globalization and technology have made us incredibly interconnected, these advances have not necessarily resulted in greater cohesion, and there remains considerable group polarization and major division over key political and social issues.

Some of the most promising work in understanding the nature of such rifts comes from moral psychology research, which has analyzed the manifestation of moral outrage in the digital age. Other work in this area suggests that more analytic thinking is related to more complex representations of moral issues, whereas intuitive thinking leads to more simplistic reasoning and more singular focus on one factor, like individual rights or utilitarian gains. This work suggests that greater understanding across groups may come from greater reflection and deliberate thinking about the complexity of societal issues.

To survive and flourish in the Anthropocene, we must look inward.
To survive and flourish in the Anthropocene, we must look inward.
Image: Reuters/Stoyan Nenov

Relatedly, cooperation has always been an important aspect of the success of our species, and will be necessary to ensure that the benefits of increased efficiency and productivity forecast to arrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution are distributed across all levels of society. People of diverse nationalities, religious beliefs, political views, and moral tribes must unite as a species to take on the challenges of the Anthropocene.Research into the reasoning processes involved in cooperative exchange has shown that institutions which reward working together can enhance prosocial behavior and have potential to shape cultures of cooperation. Finding ways to further understand and promote cooperation as expansively as possible stands as arguably the greatest challenge in a globalized age.

Cutting across all of these research areas is the need to understand and enhance creativity. Scientists and engineers need creativity to innovate, artists and writers need it to tell stories that impact the public, and students need to learn to be creative to prepare for the dynamics of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Unlocking the secrets of the creative mind and understanding how our most advanced reasoning relates to our creative capacity can increase our collective ability to generate new ideas to improve the future of humanity. In articulating the need for creativity, education expert Ken Robinson argued that “if we are to survive and flourish, we have to think differently about our own abilities and make the best use of them.”

As critical as basic research aimed at understanding the human mind is, we must take lessons from this work and apply it. Behavioral scientific approaches bring insights and methodologies from psychology to bear in the real world. Since the success of books like Nudge and Predictably Irrational, businesses and governments around the world are increasingly appreciating the utility of approaches that are grounded in what we know about the human mind and how to study it. For example, the OECD has documented the use of behavioral insights in the quest to improve the welfare of citizens and consumers. Applied interventions that ethically and responsibly change behavior for the betterment of humanity and the planet need to be increasingly adopted across all levels of society, and be rigorously tested for their efficacy.

Advancing and applying research on human reason holds promise in ameliorating our most significant anthropogenic threats. As such, we think that research on reason and its applications must be elevated from an important area of psychological and scientific inquiry to an urgent global priority of our time.

Indeed, we would argue that there is a disproportionate lack of funding in this area given how strongly it is aligned with the most pressing global concerns in this era. As evidence of this shortage, the National Science Foundation recently proposed a 9% budgetary cut to the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences. Representative Lamar Smith, Chairman of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee, has argued that much of the work in this area is not applicable to military and economic security, and is thus a waste of tax dollars. This view is unfortunately not an isolated one.

While the funding, administration, and application of this research will largely be the task of institutions, the responsibility to prioritize understanding ourselves, and to pressure leaders to allocate resources appropriately, lies with each individual. As the eminent psychologist George Miller wrote in 1969, “the most urgent problems of our world today are the problems we have made for ourselves. They are human problems whose solutions will require us to change our behavior and our social institutions.”

The duration and prosperity of our species’ journey together on this planet will, in part, be determined by the extent to which we can come to understand our minds and apply the lessons we learn to how we live our lives.

This essay was adapted from a chapter in The New Reflectionism in Cognitive Psychology titled “Why reason matters: Connecting research on human reason to the challenges of the Anthropocene.”

This article is part of Quartz Ideas, our home for bold arguments and big thinkers.