Tuesday 19 January 2016


Satisficing - that's a great word; a watchword for good sense; a portmanteau word from satisfy and suffice. As an evolutionary biologist, I assert almost every week in class that this is how evolution works. Perfection only exists in the cartoon 2-Dimensional world created by creationists. Real life in all its wonderful diversity has been shaped by evolutionary solutions that were good enough to get an organism over a hump in life's path . . . so that s/he could hump a conspecific and perpetuate the species.  Satisficing was coined by PseudoNobel Prize [pseudo because Nobel didn't endow the Prize in Economic Science] winning economist Herbert Simon. He maintained that agents in economics (like you and me) do not go for optimum/best/max.benefit solutions because those things are elusive and we lack the capacity [too mant parameters to juggles and integrate] to decide which outcome is the very top of the heap. Accordingly, we reject options until we encounter one which is above a threshold for acceptability and we take that. We have met the idea before in choosing a toilet at a pop-festival.

I came across satisficing in the first few pages of a Christmas Present The Organized Mind by Daniel Levitin. The book claims to tell you how to be a Boss in your everyday life: never forgetting your car-keys or the names of your children.  Satisficing is the first nugget; I'm hoping for more as I read on.  I'll add it to truthiness in my list of concepts to make my way successfully in a complex and potentially hostile world.

Here's an exercise in memory from Levitin's book. Presenting a list of words below I request and require you to read each one out loud taking a second on each word (normal reading speed is 140 wpm - so slow down . . . and focus).  Just do it: you might learn something about yourself.
Now turn away from the screen and write 
down as many words as you can remember.

If you wrote down DOLPHIN or OLIGARCH you're either living on another planet or living in Russia. Among earthbound Anglophones, 85% of people successfully recall REST because of the primacy effect in memory; and 70% get NIGHT because of recency.  But 60% of folk confidently write down SLEEP although <check!> it's not on the original list. That's because of association.  It's also a false memory: which may . . . or may not . . . be the explanation for the naked woodwork lessons I think I had with my Uncle Jim in the shed at the bottom of his garden.

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