Posts Tagged ‘bias’

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/28/opinion/28brooks.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=&st=nyt&oref=sloginfree registration to read if not registered…

Go with the as postulated in this NYT.com article, there are four steps to every decision…

  1. you perceive a situation
  2. you think of possible courses of action
  3. you calculate which course is in your best interest
  4. you take the action


If only it were that simple.

Over the past few centuries, public policy pundits, talking heads and some academicians have presumed that step three was the most important. Social science disciplines are premised on that presumption as well; despite the ink used to propagate altruistism at every opportunity, people calculate and behave in their own self-interest.

Greenspan’s quoted in the above article made that clear for his reign and for the country. His comments aside, none of the steps above are worth a lot without the others.

Most of the processing takes place without literal awareness. We behave and when pressed for why, we generate a story that fits that situation and puts us in a virtuous light. We don’t really perceive all that well. Thus, the step that seems most simple is the most complex. Looking at and perceiving the world is an active process of symbol meaning-making that shapes and biases the rest of the decision-making chain.

Psychologists have been exploring our biases for four decades with the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, and also with work by people like Richard Thaler, Robert Shiller, John Bargh and Dan Ariely. Now Brooks would have it that it is time for the economists to contribute. Gasp!

The desperation of the day may mean a new wave of behavioral economists and others who are next to bring pop psychology to the realm of public policy. These are the same pundits that used their antiquated assumptions to provide plausible explanations for why so many others are wrong about risk behaviors and globalization implications.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb for instance. In his books “Fooled by Randomness” and “The Black Swan” he explains it all in equally simplistic manner as the four rules above. As an astute colleague pointed out bluntly, we are asking the guy who coined the perception of “black swans” to predict black swans.” The irony is laughable. What gives a black swan example its value is that it is not obvious [read predictable]. While Taleb may have seen it coming, as stated in the above article, that precludes it from being an example of a “black swan” phenomenon. Irony for sure.

When Taleb gets on the philosophical diving board to spring into evolutionary causation decreeing that humanoids brains evolved to fit a less complex world I found myself gagging instead of gasping. His examples of the perceptual biases that distort our thinking are themselves century old prejudices.

1. Our tendency to see data that confirm our prejudices more vividly than data that contradict them

a. We recognize information due to its relation with exiting cues we have in our repertoire. We don’t see what we haven’t been reinforced to see; it is not self-deception any more than it is self enlightenment when we see what turns out to be correct. In that set of circumstances the correctness is not based on enlightenment but on relationships that were there all along but not focused on, recognized or reinforced by the environment.

b. That environment is the same one where superstition, myth, magic, mind and phenomenalism is considered valuable to be our “humanity” and, knock on wood, we sometimes guess right despite the reasons behind the guess.

2. Our tendency to overvalue recent events when anticipating future possibilities

a. the last 6 months is more like the next six months than the last 1000 years are like the next 6 months

3. Our tendency to spin concurring facts into a single causal narrative

a. if for no other reason, this site is the mainstay of the defeat of monocausality which haunts our culture, bolsters our superstitions and keeps us surprised at regular intervals

4. Our tendency to applaud our own supposed skill in circumstances when we’ve actually benefited from dumb luck.

a. We benefit from historical uniqueness and education that is more than smattered with scientific skepticism as opposed to boorish cynicism that ignores our strengths and panders to the voodoo in the caves.

b. See 1.-b above.

Errors of perception are everywhere when experimental analysis is NOT involved. Clearly, getting to our moon and beyond was due to experimental analysis and NOT interpretation of perceptions of pundits.

Without experimental analysis we’ll continually fail to perceive “what’s going on out there.” The relationships between a zillion things and another zillion things are to complex. While a four point decision tree helps us walk across the street in a small town, it is not the way to figure out how to navigate rules of this years tax code or interpret the Patriot Act I or II on any given Sunday. Who knew and who still knows which small events are linked to big disasters? Who knew that the mechanical Newtonian links were there as well as selected consequences of a billion factors coming together world [pick one] (cause – contribute – accompany) a social-political-economic unraveling? Experimental analysis was not involved. Interpretation of biases was.

Faulty perceptions are not the only reason or application for an experimental analysis. Relationships are complex, not caused by single small or an enormous events as you have been trained to think. We don’t have much training to recognize or understand what our own self-interests are in anything but localized strings of spatial-temporal events. Brooks’ towing with trusting government to become engaged in the process is folly. Just how much “help” can a country endure? What’s worse, it is lazy. Separating government and business is impossible but collusion is asking for our own demise handed to as a coupon toward irrelevance. While we regularly make poor decisions, the government is insensitive to making the correct one or those needing to be made in a timely fashion.

If you doubt that, don’t look in the rear view mirror as some would suggest. Follow the consequences of a potential decision and determine for yourself if you or an agent of an ideology is better suited to care for what is in your best interests. Government information feedback mechanisms are limited, broadly myopic, and mechanical; not timely. The very thing that got them away from the citizenry to be politicians has had ideology numb them contributing to an end to pragmatism. This bias, to be sure, is no better or worse than any other bias. They all can be replaced with an experimental analysis from science rather than the pop pap solutions we are offered.

As we’ve seen from recent crashes before the latest one this set of economic biases just keeps on giving. It keep on giving us the problems that government is content to continue to administer to; mindfulness, equality of everything not equal, brinkmanship over leadership and above, all, saying what works to get re-elected. As stated, this meltdown is a cultural event reminding us that we are perceptive beings, seeing things that aren’t there and not perceiving things that are there. (See previous blogs]

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Things are complicated out there. You may or may not be aware that your nervous system filters out the massive amount of data that your senses are exposed to. As a matter of conservation of energy (real and metaphorical) you are attending to very little of your environment based on your history and the current value you have for some segment of it.

Let me frame this for your consideration…

Due to our complexity as humans, when things are not there, we sometimes see things. (No, it is not the 60’s.) What’s more, when things are there in front of us and available for our experience, we don’t see them.

Two Experiments to consider…

1. In a recent paper in Science, Whitson and Galinsky (2008) found when individuals are unable to gain a sense of control objectively they will gain it perceptually through illusory pattern perception meaning they will identify “stuff” among a stimuli in their environment that don’t really exist. They are not hallucinating in the usual sense of the word. They are generating information to provide continuity linking what they can just as is sensory data is generated in sensory deprivation experiments.

Whitson, et.al, empirically found that people generate pattern perceptions to make sense of the events in their environment when they experience lack of control of the environmental events they are experiencing.

Now, consider what that means…

  • It means we don’t see the flaws in people we are connected to or that we see the flaws where none exist
  • it means that we see a conspiracy from a new boss when we don’t yet exist to the new boss
  • it means we identify objects in random noise images where there are none
  • it means we see mechanistic cause and effect relationships where no links exist
  • it means we see correlations in economic markets in companies we like
  • it means we don’t see how our behavior is like the behavior of someone we don’t like
  • it means we can’t tell why people like us or dislike us when they do
  • it means that we can’t see the flaws in our children as they lie dead with a needle in their arm
  • it means that we can be more than one kind of person every day of our lives
  • it means that people not like us are suspicious and people like us are allies

Staggering, isn’t it!

Examples of superstitious behavior in the modern world are countless – sports super heroes involved in astrology, learned rituals so complex that someone once referred to a baseball player as “his own seventh inning stretch” due to the time he took to address each pitch. Religion, prayer, sacrificial rituals, appeasements, holidays, traditions, incantations, etc. all come from making relationships where none exist.   Gasuntheit!

When you are uncertain about your environment and don’t perceive you have control, know what is going on, etc., it is disconcerting. In terms of how we learn, not perceiving you have control is an aversive stimulus equal to shock, rejection, pain, or other punishers. Faced with uncertainty, lack of control, people look for patterns [ah, the value of search] in their environments to re-establish control. When it is not there empirically, we try to establish it perceptually with vision playing the lead role.

With the dearth of information and conflicting data sets it is a constant challenge to understand what is related and what isn’t. In an election year the conspiracies exist for those that most not understanding why their candidate is losing since they see the relationships between them and the agenda as a citizen. The media, the polls, the moderators, the economy, the Jews, the youth, the women…etc. are all plotting to undo the trailing candidate.

2. The following video  is based on research by Simons and Chabris from Indiana University. It is very interesting for several reasons, all of which you’ll see if you FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS OF THE PRESENTER EXACTLY.

After you see it spend some time thinking how that affects what your life is like, how research is done and how the world works. After all that, come back write or respond with what you think the implications are of the research.


The lesson here isn’t simple. If we were to want a society free from magical thoughts, then we need expand the tolerance for people to live in ambiguity in some areas, educate people on how feelings and emotions are the exhaust of perceived contingencies and how the environment comes to control behavior via consequences.

J. A. Whitson, A. D. Galinsky (2008). Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception Science, 322 (5898), 115-117 DOI: 10.1126/science.1159845

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