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The Mechanism of Spontaneous Induction (MSI)

The mechanism of spontaneous induction (MSI) is a cognitive mechanism that, as the name suggests, gives rise to inductive judgements apparently instantly, without the apparent need of reflection or deliberation. From past experience, we observe A followed by B. A typical view of induction is that is requires multiple observations and recollections of A following B.

However, Persson argues that not all forms of induction require us to reflect on a multitude of observations to be activated. Some forms of induction are instinctual or spontaneous. We observe A followed by B; observing A again, we spontaneously anticipate that В will happen. This is because induction also happens instantly upon our first observing a sequence of A then B.

Furthermore, although MSI is spontaneous, it can draw on previous experience to fill out the contents. If we experienced event A before, and also that В followed A, then, when we next experience A, we will spontaneously induce that В follows A (Persson 2005, 3).

Imagining Sequences From the Present Into the Future

Why do P-bias and MSI generate F-bias? Persson argues that, because of P-bias and MSI, we more frequently and vividly experience sequences of future events than we do past events. The difference in the power of these experiences explains the biases we have toward the relevant times.

Because of P-bias, when I imagine a temporal sequence, I tend to imagine events extending from the perceived present. The P-bias is the origin, where the sequence begins, with other events extending away from that origin. So, for example, if I imagine the steps in constructing a building, I tend to imagine the first step in the construction as being present. I do not tend to imagine the first event as being in the past, such as the credit crunch, or in the future, such as the death of the sun.

Because of MSI, when I imagine the first event as present, 1 also spontaneously imagine the event that follows it. That is, I spontaneously imagine an event that is later than a present event. Any other events I imagine follow on this sequence—giving a sequence of later and later events. An event that is later than a present event is a future event, and each one is later again. As such, I imagine the events extending into the future. Thus, MSI:

[Exemplifies our tendency to imagine things rolling on from the present into the future in the kind of order we have experienced them, for it consists in roughly imagining that the future will be that which, in the past, followed upon what was like what is now the perceived present.

(Persson 2005, 213)

Note that this is a tendency. It is possible for us to look backward from the present and imagine a sequence into the past. However, we do not look backward from the present to the past. If we imagine a sequence involving a present and past event, we imagine the sequence as going from a past event to events after it—i.e., into its future, and perhaps to the present event.

As such, the experience of a remembered past event is weaker than the experience of an imagined future event. In imagining the future events that follow perceived events, because of MSI, our representations of them are more forceful or vivid than any comparable past events.

This, then, is why there is F-bias. We vividly imagine some future events because of our tendency to imagine temporal sequences with the present as the origin and the future as spontaneously induced from that origin. We do not have such a mechanism for past events. As such, we are biased toward the future over the past. In addition, as a condition of this analysis, we are biased toward the present over the future. Assuming that significance is transitive, we are also biased toward the present over the past.

Finally, why do P-bias and MSI generate N-bias? Given MSI, the experience of the imagined events that most closely follow the perceived event is stronger than the imagined events that occur further along the imagined temporal sequence. Whatever the strength of an imagined future event, it is not as strong as the experience of a perceived event. Then, with respect to different imagined futures, the nearer imagined futures are more intimately linked to the perception than the farther imagined futures. As such, the nearer representations are stronger than the farther representations.

By itself, Persson’s account is not an explanation of such biases’ utility—at least, not its utility in the modern world. Instead, his suggestion is that we evolved such tendencies, and they are built into how we represent the world to ourselves. What makes it more than simply “it benefits us”—and thus the common evolutionary answer—is that Persson tries to identify the specific reason for this in us, and also what brings it about. It is a product how we represent, through imagination and perception, the past and future to ourselves.

Persson’s Proposal to Overcome Temporal Bias

Again, this answer does not save the biases from being irrational. It is irrational to treat a relative under-representation of the past as meaning it has lesser importance. This is what happens in this model. However, Persson uses his model of these biases to propose a way we can overcome them.

Persson recommends that, to be as rational as possible when making judgements about time, we should represent different scenarios as vividly as possible. This brings the force of these scenarios as close as possible to competing with the force of perception. It offsets the irrational tendency to take what is perceived, and what is imagined as following what is perceived, as having greater significance than what is otherwise imagined (Persson 2005, 215-221).

For example, imagine Parfit’s past ten-hour operation as vividly as one imagines one’s future operation—that is, with as much accuracy as one imagines the future pain. When you do that, Persson argues, you judge a ten-hour operation in the past as worse than a one-hour operation in the future. As such, “we are as distressed by our own past pains when we recall having them” (Persson 2005, 221). You form a rational judgement. Your judgement is not F-biased.

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