Monday, August 3, 2020

Mastering Internal Gongfu: Are You Ready? Cognitive Bias

The title of this series is: Mastering Internal Gongfu: Are you Ready? When I was asked this question twenty years ago, I responded with an emphatic “Yes!” As the years went by and I discovered the amount of work involved in mastering this art, I slowly came to realize that, no, I was not ready. Sure, I was willing to give it a try but I was not appropriately prepared to acquire new skills.

This realization then shined a light on the question asked by many internal gongfu practitioners, “Why does it take so long to get it?” To this, the typical response is, “If getting it were that easy, then everyone would be a master.” Well, we need a better answer than that! This series of posts is an attempt to provide a more thoughtful response to this question.

In the previous article in this series, I explored how my day-to-day patterns of movement or "Activity Patterns" could either support or hinder my formal training. In this post, I explore the mental process elicited when facing an uncertainty (an unfamiliar problem) and how this mental process helps or hinders my training.

my practice puzzle cognitive bias

What is Cognitive Bias?
Simply stated, cognitive bias is the mental process of using a previous experience rather than rational thinking to solve a new and unfamiliar problem. (If you’d like to read the articles I used to arrive at this summation, see the “Further Reading” section at the end of this post.) Moving on, how does this mental process show up in daily life?

First, when I’m faced with uncertainty, that is, when I’m trying to solve a new and unfamiliar problem, if I’m not reasoning my way through the problem in the present moment, then I’m most likely referencing a previous experience; I’m using a cognitive bias.

Second, I have the ability to detect whether I’m present and reasoning or whether I’m using past experiences to help figure out a present problem. How do I do that? Reasoning is slow and effortful and cognitive bias is fast and relatively effortless; intuitive.

The earliest identified cognitive biases are: Representativeness, Anchoring, and Confirmation.
    • Representativeness - “the likelihood of an event is evaluated by the degree to which it is representative of the major characteristics of the process or population from which it originated.” (1972) 
    • Anchoring Bias - “Anchoring occurs not only when the starting point is given to the subject, but also when the subject bases his estimate on the result of some incomplete computation.” (1974)
    • Confirmation Bias - “seeking or interpreting evidence in ways that are partial to existing beliefs, expectations, or a hypothesis in hand” (1998)

      Application to Internal Gongfu
      Cognitive bias can reference any of a variety of previous experiences. For this article I've chosen to limit this previous experience to the context of martial arts, specifically, my previous martial art experience. Here are my interpretations of how each of these cognitive biases, these types of deviations from reasoning showed up later in my Wujifa zhan zhuang practice.

      Anchoring Bias
      My starting point in my internal gongfu journey was learning a dancer’s interpretation of Tai-chi Chuan for one year and then learning the Zheng Manqing/William C.C. Chen/Bob Klein interpretation of Tai-chi Chuan for four years. This five year “starting point” experience formed my anchor bias.

      Confirmation Bias
      My initial five-year experience became not only an anchoring bias but this experience also established my beliefs and expectations through which I would interpret all future experiences. I “intuitively” interpreted all my new zhan zhuang experiences according to my existing beliefs and expectations.

      When I began practicing zhan zhuang, I evaluated the likelihood of my success in this practice according to how I perceived zhan zhuang as being a representative of the major characteristics of my previous forms and push hands experiences.

      How Does Cognitive Bias Inhibit Progress?
      While this mental process is obviously beneficial in many situations, when it comes to learning internal gongfu, it can be detrimental. For example, the “it” that I want to “get” bears no similarity to any known phenomenon. The words used to describe “it” by those who have achieved “it” are misinterpreted by those who do not have “it”. Using previous experience to try to “figure it out” is a losing proposition.

      Cognitive bias distracts my attention from experiencing the present moment as it is. By filtering my present kinesthetic experience through one or more previous experiences, I am unable to fully engage with my practice in the present moment. Cognitive bias inhibits me exploring this new experience, with all its uncertainty, as being completely different and unique unto itself.

      What is the uncertainty? It is questions like these: What is the movement principle? How did he do that? What do I have to practice to develop that? How do I know if I’m making progress or not? Cognitive bias seeks to remove uncertainty and provide an answer to these questions even if the answer is wrong or misleading.

      In Closing
      Cognitive bias is part of our human condition; it’s how we’re “wired” for survival, for energetic efficiency. To the extent that my cognitive biases show up in daily life, my cognitive biases can also show up in learning internal gongfu.

      In hindsight, I unwittingly applied all three of these cognitive biases (and more) in an attempt to understand an experience outside of my previous range of experiences. These cognitive biases did not help my practice but instead, they hindered my practice

      These biases were so deeply embedded and their influence so subtle that I simply could not recognize how they were influencing my practice in that present moment. Now with some temporal distance from those days, the issue becomes obvious.

      I am thus inclined to think of Cognitive Bias as the modern psychological equivalent of the poetic and proverbial full cup, the carved block, the marked slate. To empty the cup and approach each new training experience as unique unto itself means to become aware of my cognitive biases and then to make an effort to mitigate this bias in my training. Obviously the best case is to have no previous experience; no cognitive bias, an empty cup.

      This series will continue with each article filling in one of the puzzle pieces until the entire puzzle is complete. We’ll wrap up by considering how this puzzle can be interpreted in an Internal Gongfu Progress Matrix and finally we’ll look at the role of the Source and Level of Instruction.

      Further Reading

      Subjective Probability: A Judgment of Representativeness
      Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky
      Cognitive Psychology 3, 430-454 (1972)

      Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases
      Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman
      Science, New Series, Vol. 185, No. 4157 (Sep. 27, 1974), pp. 1124- 1131

      Confirmation Bias: a ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises
      Raymond S. Nickerson
      Review of General Psychology, 2 (1998), pp. 175–220.

      Maps of Bounded Rationality: Psychology for Behavioral Economics
      Daniel Kahneman
      The American Economic Review, Vol 93, No. 5, (December 2003), pp. 1449-1475

      Kahneman and Tversky and the Origin of Behavioral Economics
      Floris Heukelom
      Tinbergen Institute Discussion Paper, TI 2007-003/1, (Sept 2006)

      From Mindless to Mindful Practice — Cognitive Bias and Clinical Decision Making
      Pat Croskerry, M.D., PhD.
      New England Journal of Medicine, 368;26, (June 27, 2013)

      A Neural Network Framework for Cognitive Bias
      Johan E. Korteling, Anne-Marie Brouwer and Alexander Toet
      Frontiers in Psychology, Volume 9, Article 1561, (September 2018)

      Previous post in this series:Mastering Internal Gongfu: Are You Ready? Activity Patterns

      Next post in this series:  Mastering Internal Gongfu: Are You Ready? Body Structure-Character

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