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Hypocognition and the Importance of Concepts

Published 12/4/2019

Imagine for a moment that you don't have a concept for what a podcast is.

In today's episode, we're talking about shared concepts and the ideas that come out of a group of people who share the same concepts to meet a common goal. If you couldn't put a name to your experience, how can you communicate it?

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
Can you experience a feeling that you don't have a name for? Certainly the answer to this is probably yes, because when we're very young, when our vocabulary is limited, we have plenty of complex feelings without knowing exactly what the name is for that feeling. But once we have a concept, a framework for the feelings that we're experiencing, we can start to attach more meaningful information and memories to those feelings. So what exactly is happening here? And how does it relate to our work, our day in and day out experiences with our teams? That's what we're talking about in today's episode of Developer Tea. My name is Jonathan Cutrell and my goal on the show is to help driven developers like you find clarity, perspective, and purpose in their careers. So this idea, the idea that we can hang our experiences on concepts is critically important to understanding how we create memories, how we create knowledge, how we build up our conception of an idea. For example, imagine that you did not have a concept for podcasts. Perhaps you were brand new to podcasts and this actually has happened, and most likely in your lifetime, at some point podcasts were introduced to you. Now you can build this concept with reference to other concepts. For example, if you were like me, you already had the concept of radio talk shows and you could compare podcasts to the radio talk shows. And like podcasts, many of our concepts are shared broadly at a cultural level. Most people that you would talk to understand the concept of a one-on-one match. The idea that one person or one team is attempting to somehow beat another team. And similarly, we can imagine the concept of multiple individuals competing against each other, like an race. But very few people would have the encoded concept of a multi-team sport, more than two teams. Now let's set aside relay style sports and think more in terms of interaction with other players. There aren't many of these kinds of sports. But more recently, we can imagine in the eSports arena, this concept is taking shape more commonly. You can have multiple teams playing against each other in direct interaction with each other in a capture the flag style game. Many multiplayer shooters work this way. So why do these concepts matter? What do we do with them as humans? And how do they affect our day to day lives? Well as we go throughout our days, we're exposed to very stimuli. Whether that's in our jobs or our interactions with other people, even in our own imaginations. We have experiences that our brain is constantly decoding. And these concepts, they change the way that our brains decode and ultimately respond to that stimuli. We're going to take a break and talk about our sponsor. And then we're going to come back and talk about how these concepts matter to the way that our brain decodes are daily stimuli. Today's episode is sponsored by GiveWell. Giving is hard. When you donate your money, how do you know what a charity can actually accomplish with it? For example, imagine that you want to help children. You found two legitimately trustworthy organizations. But they run entirely different programs. One can save a child's life for every $300,000 donated. One can save a child's life for every $300,000 donated. If you could tell the difference up front, you donate to the one that was 100 times better than saving children's lives with your donated resources. Now this is exactly what GiveWell does. It's hard for you to know what charities will actually accomplish with your donation, but GiveWell spends 20,000 hours each year. And which charities can do the most with your money. They recommend a short list of the best charities they've found and share them with donors like you. And you can have a big impact. GiveWell's recommended charities work to prevent children from dying of cheaply preventable diseases and help people in dire poverty. You can learn how much good your donation could do by visiting givewell.org slash Developer Tea. Your recommendations are free for anyone to use and GiveWell doesn't take any cut of your donation. First time donors will have their donation matched up to $1,000 if they donate through GiveWell.org slash Developer Tea. Thanks again to GiveWell for sponsoring today's episode of Developer Tea. So we asked the question at the beginning of this episode of if you couldn't put a name to your experience, then can you really have that experience in its entirety? And it's a difficult question to answer, but we can look at the way that culture has propagated and it specifically has propagated through language and the representation of language. And so by creating concepts specifically around our language, we've been able to transfer a lot of information from one generation to the next. This information transfer is arguably responsible for most of our modern day experience as humans. But beyond this, our individual experiences are heavily dependent on the concepts that we already have in our minds. In a study that was published in October of this year, researchers Katie Wu and David Dunning identified hypokognition, this idea of something that is just out of reach of our cognitive abilities and linguistic representations that people don't have available to them, that this has a profound impact on our experience, specifically some of the study for example, showed that people tend to not recognize when they are experiencing an instance of a concept. What does that mean exactly? Well, for example, the two researchers presented exotic fruits to Americans and the ones who said that they knew what the fruit was reported to having seen that fruit multiple times more than the people who didn't know what the fruit was. In other words, if you didn't know what an apple was beforehand, even if you were exposed to the same number of apples as another person who did know what apples were beforehand, they would report having seen more than you did. Your ability to recognize the thing as something that you've encountered before and that you already have a concept for changes your experience, it changes the things that you're able to remember and then act on in the future. And here's why this is critical. In the same study, the two researchers point out that this has implications in the workplace, specifically with relation to developers who have more experience and developers who have less. Now, they didn't call out developers specifically, but we can extrapolate because we're talking about human cognition here. Novice developers who experience the same bugs or see the same code or watch the same tests running, they have different concepts available to them than a more experienced programmer. Now, this has implications for the way that we organize our teams, but it also has implications for those of you who are senior Developer Trying to understand why a novice developer can't seem to catch bugs before they go out into production. The reality is that our experiences, the times that we've experienced those bugs in the past, those are our concept builders. We create, for lack of a better term, surface area, for future experiences to be related to. Remember, we talked about having podcasts being related to radio talk shows. And the more experience we have, the larger our vocabulary gets, the more linguistic concepts we've built up, the more likely we are able to take it. Take advantage of the stimuli that we're receiving. You can imagine explicit examples of this. For example, trying to read a different language or even worse, trying to interpret symbols from a different alphabet. When we don't have those concepts available, we quite simply process information entirely differently than someone who does have those concepts available. As a final note, let's keep in mind that concepts are not just a function of experience and time, but also a function of context. This is why diversity on a team, and we mean this in the deepest sense of the word diversity, is critically important because everyone's concepts that they have built, that they can use as their way of seeing stimuli, all of those concepts are valuable and important. Thank you so much for listening to today's episode of Developer Tea. Thank you again to GiveWell for sponsoring today's episode. Remember, first time donors can have their donations matched up to $1,000. Head over to GiveWell.org slash Developer Tea. Today's episode wouldn't be possible without spec.fm and our wonderful producer Sarah Jackson. My name is Jonathan Cutrell and until next time, enjoy your tea.