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Better Than Conscious?Decision Making, the Human Mind, and Implications For Institutions$
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Christoph Engel and Wolf Singer

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780262195805

Published to MIT Press Scholarship Online: May 2016

DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/9780262195805.001.0001

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How Culture and Brain Mechanisms Interact in Decision Making

How Culture and Brain Mechanisms Interact in Decision Making

(p.191) 9 How Culture and Brain Mechanisms Interact in Decision Making
Better Than Conscious?

Merlin Donald

The MIT Press

Decision making is a very private thing, individualized and personal. Yet it has a cultural dimension. The human brain does not acquire language, symbolic skills, or any form of symbolic cognition without the pedagogical guidance of culture and, as a result, most decisions made in modern society engage learned algorithms of thought that are imported from culture. Mathematical thought is a good example of this: it is cultural in origin, and highly dependent on notations and habits invented over many generations. Its algorithms were created culturally, by means of a slow, deliberate process of creation and refinement. Thus, the algorithms that determine many mathematically based decisions reside, over the long run, in culture. The brains of the individuals making the decisions are, in most particular instances, temporary “carriers” of cultural algorithms, vehicles for applying them in a particular time and place. In principle, this conclusion applies to many examples, such as chess-playing, social judgment, business decisions, the composition of poetry, and so on. Culturally transmitted algorithms can be learned and made so automatic that they can be executed by the brain without much conscious supervision. Unconscious or “intuitive” decisions are often the best, and many successful decisions occur in an automatized manner, in highly over-practiced situations. This does not diminish the larger role of consciousness in cognition, because, when necessary, decision makers retain the option of intervening consciously and deliberately to modify or fix their specific performances. Conscious supervision is thus the ultimate tribunal in cognition, a cutting-edge adaptation that is particularly important in the creative role of generating and changing the existing algorithms of culture that underlie most decisions.

Keywords:   Strüngmann Forum Reports, consciousness, cultural dimension of decision making, human cognitive origins, intuitive decision making, language acquisition

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