Wikipedia defines a cognitive bias as follows:

“A cognitive bias is a pattern of poor judgment, often triggered by a particular situation. Identifying “poor judgment,” or more precisely, a “deviation in judgment,” requires a standard for comparison, i.e. “good judgment.

Cognitive biases, like many behaviors, are influenced by evolution and natural selection pressure. Some are presumably adaptive and beneficial, for example, because they lead to more effective actions in given contexts or enable faster decisions, when faster decisions are of greater value for reproductive success and survival. Others presumably result from a lack of appropriate mental mechanisms, i.e. a general fault in human brain structure, or from the misapplication of a mechanism that is adaptive (beneficial) under different circumstances.

Cognitive bias is a general term that is used to describe many distortions in the human mind that are difficult to eliminate and that lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, or illogical interpretation”

Look closely at the text in bold, which is mine. We see a world convulsed in agonies over the euro and yet we know from history (the South Sea Bubble, Great Depression, the Weirmacht Inflation, Harold Wilson’s “pound in your pocket”) that these are but passing human frailties. In the climate change debate however, we stand on the edge of a precipice that no one has yet looked over and no really influential group seems to take seriously. Argue all you like about the causes, few would argue these days that there is climate change taking place – and many would argue it is already irreversible.

So why is Durban already seen as doomed to failure? Ok, by “doomed” and “failure”, perhaps I’m being a tad judgmental at this stage. It may well actually be a diplomatic success when diplomacy is measured in decades, but the consensus is already that real change will be reserved for future consideration – and generations. And this at a time when even the EU, hardly the most dynamic of political bodies, is quoted as saying “the European Commission today proposed legislation to significantly enhance the monitoring and reporting of GHG emissions, in particular to meet new requirements arising from the package of EU climate and energy laws for the period 2013-2020.” But note as yet, only proposed!

Why this prevarication? Does the answer lie in human nature? Is it that the changes are taking place too quickly, are so far outside our collective experience and have consequences too dire for the human brain to comprehend? Have we, as the definition says, a lack of appropriate mental mechanisms?

Is it fair to be so cynical? Actually, I’m not sure that it is. I’m basically a humanist at heart and I believe it is within our capacity to find the answers. And whilst we wait for that step change in thinking to come – perhaps even to ensure that the step change does come – I see Durban as a necessary evolutionary step along the way, so I fervently hope it will be seen as a success and would support it in any way possible.

But the real challenge remains. How do we force the “biological” evolution of the mind to speed up and match the rate of “social” evolution in the world in which we live?

2nd December 2011