There is too much internet and our attempts to keep up with the breakneck pace of, well, everything these days — it is breaking our brains. Parsing through the deluge of inundating information hoisted up by algorithmic systems built to maximize engagement has trained us as slavering Pavlovian dogs to rely on snap judgements and gut feelings in our decision making and opinion formation rather than deliberation and introspection. Which is fine when you're deciding between Italian and Indian for dinner or are waffling on a new paint color for the hallway, but not when we're out here basing existential life choices on friggin' vibes.
In his latest book, I, HUMAN: AI, Automation, and the Quest to Reclaim What Makes Us Unique, professor of business psychology and Chief Innovation Officer at ManpowerGroup, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic explores the myriad ways that AI systems now govern our daily lives and interactions. From finding love to finding gainful employment to finding out the score of yesterday's game, AI has streamlined the information gathering process. But, as Chamorro-Premuzic argues in the excerpt below, that information revolution is actively changing our behavior, and not always for the better.
Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from I, HUMAN: AI, Automation, and the Quest to Reclaim What Makes Us Unique by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. Copyright 2023 Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic. All rights reserved.
Our Brain on Speed
If the AI age requires our brains to be always alert to minor changes and react quickly, optimizing for speed rather than accuracy and functioning on what behavioral economists have labeled System 1 mode (impulsive, intuitive, automatic, and unconscious decision-making), then it shouldn’t surprise us that we are turning into a less patient version of ourselves.
Of course, sometimes it’s optimal to react quickly or trust our guts. The real problem comes when fast mindlessness is our primary mode of decision-making. It causes us to make mistakes and impairs our ability to detect mistakes. More often than not, speedy decisions are borne out of ignorance.
Intuition can be great, but it ought to be hard-earned. Experts, for example, are able to think on their feet because they’ve invested thousands of hours in learning and practice: their intuition has become data-driven. Only then are they able to act quickly in accordance with their internalized expertise and evidence-based experience. Alas, most people are not experts, though they often think they are. Most of us, especially when we interact with others on Twitter, act with expert-like speed, assertiveness, and conviction, offering a wide range of opinions on epidemiology and global crises, without the substance of knowledge that underpins it. And thanks to AI, which ensures that our messages are delivered to an audience more prone to believing it, our delusions of expertise can be reinforced by our personal filter bubble. We have an interesting tendency to find people more open-minded, rational, and sensible when they think just like us. Our digital impulsivity and general impatience impair our ability to grow intellectually, develop expertise, and acquire knowledge.
Consider the little perseverance and meticulousness with which we consume actual information. And I say consume rather than inspect, analyze, or vet. One academic study estimated that the top-10 percent digital rumors (many of them fake news) account for up to 36 percent of retweets, and that this effect is best explained in terms of the so-called echo chamber, whereby retweets are based on clickbait that matches the retweeter’s views, beliefs, and ideology, to the point that any discrepancy between those beliefs and the actual content of the underlying article may go unnoticed. Patience would mean spending time determining whether something is real or fake news, or whether there are any serious reasons to believe in someone’s point of view, especially when we agree with it. It’s not the absence of fact-checking algorithms during presidential debates that deters us from voting for incompetent or dishonest politicians, but rather our intuition. Two factors mainly predict whether someone will win a presidential candidacy in the United States—the candidate’s height and whether we would want to have a beer with them.
While AI-based internet platforms are a relatively recent type of technology, their impact on human behavior is consistent with previous evidence about the impact of other forms of mass media, such as TV or video games, which show a tendency to fuel ADHD-like symptoms, like impulsivity, attention deficits, and restless hyperactivity. As the world increases in complexity and access to knowledge widens, we avoid slowing down to pause, think, and reflect, behaving like mindless automatons instead. Research indicates that faster information gathering online, for example, through instant Googling of pressing questions, impairs long-term knowledge acquisition as well as the ability to recall where our facts and information came from.
Unfortunately, it’s not so easy to fight against our impulsive behavior or keep our impatience in check. The brain is a highly malleable organ, with an ability to become intertwined with the objects and tools it utilizes. Some of these adaptations may seem pathological in certain contexts or cultures, but they are essential survival tools in others: restless impatience and fast-paced impulsivity are no exception.
Although we have the power to shape our habits and default patterns of behaviors to adjust to our habitat, if pace rather than patience is rewarded, then our impulsivity will be rewarded more than our patience. And if any adaptation is overly rewarded, it becomes a commoditized and overused strength, making us more rigid, less flexible, and a slave to our own habits, as well as less capable of displaying the reverse type of behavior. The downside of our adaptive nature is that we quickly become an exaggerated version of ourselves: we mold ourselves into the very objects of our experience, amplifying the patterns that ensure fit. When that’s the case, then our behaviors become harder to move or change.
When I first returned to my hometown in Argentina after having spent a full year in London, my childhood friends wondered why my pace was so unnecessarily accelerated—“Why are you in such a hurry?” Fifteen years later, I experienced the same disconnect in speed when returning to London from New York City, where the pace is significantly faster. Yet most New Yorkers seem slow by the relative standards of Hong Kong, a place where the button to close the elevator doors (two inward-looking arrows facing each other) is usually worn out, and the automatic doors of the taxis open and close while the taxis are still moving. Snooze, and you truly lose.
There may be limited advantages to boosting our patience when the world moves faster and faster. The right level of patience is always that which aligns with environmental demands and best suits the problems you need to solve. Patience is not always a virtue. If you are waiting longer than you should, then you are wasting your time. When patience breeds complacency or a false sense of optimism, or when it nurtures inaction and passivity, then it may not be the most desirable state of mind and more of a character liability than a mental muscle. In a similar vein, it is easy to think of real-life problems that arise from having too much patience or, if you prefer, would benefit from a bit of impatience: for example, asking for a promotion is usually a quicker way of getting it than patiently waiting for one; refraining from giving someone (e.g., a date, colleague, client, or past employer) a second chance can help you avoid predictable disappointments; and waiting patiently for an important email that never arrives can harm your ability to make better, alternative choices. In short, a strategic sense of urgency—which is the reverse of patience—can be rather advantageous.
There are also many moments when patience, and its deeper psychological enabler of self-control, may be an indispensable adaptation. If the AI age seems disinterested in our capacity to wait and delay gratification, and patience becomes somewhat of a lost virtue, we risk becoming a narrower and shallower version of ourselves.