Kyle Nel

Growing up in the 1980’s I was told over and over that I was unique, special, exceptional, and that I could be and do anything I set my mind to.  My generation was the first to get trophies no matter how badly you did, and ribbons just for showing up.  I was taught that I was not just a cog in a machine but an actor in the greatest show on earth.

During my academic development and through my career as a researcher, I have come to see that people aren’t as unique as we have hoped and believed we were. As Dan Airely’s book so poignantly puts it we are “Predictably Irrational”.  The operative word there is predictable.

The “predictableness” of people was very clear to me in a story I recently came across about Transient Global Amnesia.

Transient Global Amnesia is a sudden, temporary episode of memory loss that can’t be attributed to a more common neurological condition, such as epilepsy or stroke.

During an episode of transient global amnesia, your recall of recent events simply vanishes, so you can’t remember where you are or how you got there. You may also draw a blank when asked to remember things that happened a day, a month or even a year ago. With transient global amnesia, you do remember who you are, and recognise the people you know well, but that doesn’t make your memory loss less disturbing.

Fortunately, transient global amnesia is rare, seemingly harmless and unlikely to happen again. Episodes are usually short-lived, and afterward your memory is fine. –

The thing that struck me from the videos in the story was how almost mechanical the people were in the their responses, their phrasing, their tone, and their emotion.  The woman in the video below seems to repeat the same track over and over again. Notice the same repetition questions she asks about her birthday, what day it is, and saying “that’s creepy”.  (Each loop is about 2 mins. long.)

It is as if we are on a track and as we progress down the track we act in seemingly predictable ways, but the individual is almost completely unaware they are so predictable. Just as the people going through a bout of TGA are unaware they are asking and saying the same things in a loop. Just as the people going through a bout of TGA are unaware they are asking and saying the same things in a loop. (Sorry I couldn’t help myself.) TGA just reveals how mechanical and predictable we truly are.

The problem with research is that we generally ask much and observe little. In my previous post I talked about the dearth of System 1 tools. As a buyer of research I would love to see more tools and methods to get to the core of what truly influences us to believe and behave as we do. Bottom line—we are predictable, but we’re not predicting very well yet. I believe that large leaps in neuroscience and big data modeling will give us a truer understanding and insight than we can presently imagine.

What tools and methods do you use to uncover our predictableness?

kyle Kyle Nel is Head of International and Multicultural Research for Lowe’s Home Improvement in USA