We are still Hunter-Gatherers, largely!

from the The Flintstones, an American animated sitcom series

“Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself.” — Ludwig Wittgenstein

Welcome to this week’s blog. As has been alluded to in one of the previous blogs (), one way to understand factors that influence our decision making is to categorize them into internal (or bottom-up) and external (or top down). The aim of this blog is to develop an understanding of the bottom-up category. It seems like this category received significant scientific rigour in the last few decades — in any case, it caught broader public attention in the last decade or two. This bottom-up category of factors refers to the array of cognitive heuristics that direct and dominate our behaviour.

Most of our current behaviour has been wired into our “physiological essence” (I also weighed the following words — “visceral”, “instinct”) during the last couple of million years of evolution, largely as hunter gatherers. Our primary evolutionary imperatives were survival and reproduction. Most of our behaviour can be explained by these core imperatives. In the last ten thousand years or so, ever since we started living pastoral lives, gradually the imperatives have changed. “Survival” and “reproduction” may still be our primordial imperatives but the behavioural traits to achieve these have changed.

During the long years of evolution, we used to be caught up in the “here” and “now”. We never stayed at a place for more than a couple of nights (if that), we did not have refrigerators to store food, we did not have strong walled houses to keep us safe from the wild animals and the elements of nature, wrong or slow steps usually led to loss of life (a rustle in a bush nearby meant bolting away from there as quickly as possible without investigating if a tiger was lurking around), we found protection in numbers (we had to be part of the clan or group, typical size of ten to fifteen but sometimes as large as fifty or more) — who got thrown out did not survive for long, there was competition for mates (women and men looked for different things in their mates) etc. This resulted in the evolution of certain behavioral traits like short (or immediate) term orientation, fear, risk aversion, quick and approximately correct decision making, compelling need to belong to our social group etc.

However, in the last ten thousand years, we learnt to settle down. Food was produced in plenty and hence was required to be stored for future use, we started living in good strong houses, culture and various vocations materialized and continue to evolve, success is not anymore proportional to the effort or action but to the quality of thinking and decisions, dealing in abstraction has become a daily requirement (like use of fiat currency, use of numbers beyond ten etc), compounding has started to matter — so approximately right decisions in the short term may turn out being vastly wrong decisions in the long run etc.

“We admit that we are like apes, but we seldom realise that we are apes.” — Richard Dawkins

We have not developed and hence do not have intuition for abstraction (large numbers, probability, statistics etc), objectivity, long term thinking, and dealing with uncertainty, contrarian thinking etc. Ironically, these are the exact set of factors that are required today for sustained excellence in any field.

Many times, decision making turns out to be struggle against our fundamental instincts — no wonder it is exhausting.

There is one other factor that also affects the quality of thinking but in an indirect way. The need for agency in our actions, in other words, need to protect our (fragile) ego — this need essentially comes in the way of assessing our decisions and hence hinders us from learning from outcomes.

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” — Daniel Patrick Moynihan

All this is good but how do you safeguard yourself from these internal factors dragging down the quality of your decisions. I’m not entirely sure but here is what helped me: learn about how our brain/thinking evolved when we were hunter gatherers, learn about the dominant cognitive heuristics in human brains — particularly with regards to how they may be getting applied inappropriately in the modern societal settings. Because of their inappropriate applications, they are being popularly referred to as biases.

It is hard to recognize these factors in our own thinking — so I think it will benefit enormously if you try to recognize these in others’ thinking. Over time, the act of recognizing such biased thinking, could help in reducing bias in your own thinking.

Here are a few examples of the more consequential mental heuristics:

Confirmation bias

Anchoring and framing bias

Social Proof

Authority bias and Halo effect

Reciprocity bias

Illusion of certainty

Story bias

Regression to Mean

Thinking in Averages (ergodicity)


Linear Thinking

Action Bias

Productivity obsession Base probability neglect

Recency Bias

I will go into few of these in a bit more detail in my next blog to give you a sense of how they may be affecting your decisions adversely.


“When a man finds a conclusion agreeable, he accepts it without argument, but when he finds it disagreeable, he will bring against it all the forces of logic and reason.” — Thucydides

Our cognitive thinking routines (heuristics) have evolved in long years of our evolution as hunter gatherers and they continue to have dominant effect on how we think and go about making decisions. These heuristics have served us well during our evolutionary history but given the fundamental changes in the last ten thousand years or so with regards to how we organize our lives, many of these heuristics are not always suitably employed by our brains, leading to sub-optimal and sometimes, downright erroneous thinking. Most of our decisions are overly influenced by shades of fear of the unknown, need for certainty, propensity for the tangible, instant gratification etc. To improve our decisions and elevate their outcomes, it is critical that we recognize and limit these biases in our thinking. The need for this has become even more urgent as move from industrialization era to the “cyber” era where our success depends even more on our mental acuity rather than on our physical prowess.


Thanks for taking time to read this. In this newsletter, I share my learnings that could help you improve your decisions and make meaningful progress on your goals and desires. I share stuff that I have personally experienced or experimented with. If you find this newsletter worthwhile, please do share it with others — of course, only if you do not mind it.

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