Sunday, January 17, 2010

I'm OK, You're Nuts (Part 7 of Cognitive Biases)

“All the world old is queer save thee and me, and even thou art a little queer,” observed 19th social crusader Robert Owen. The question of whose thought is mainstream and whose is on the fringes is often quite contentious. As usual, it’s also influenced by cognitive bias.

A cognitive bias is a pattern of deviation in judgment that occurs in particular situations, and boy howdy, are there a lot of them! Links to the first six installments are provided below.

Today’s episode is brought to you by the letter “F.”

False consensus effect

I spent my teenage years deep in the heart of Red America: Decatur, Alabama. As late as the 1960s, it was the largest American community that still practiced prohibition. It wasn’t until several years after I left high school that the possession of alcoholic beverages in your own home was decriminalized. Decatur schools did not desegregate until my junior year. Just about everyone around me was extremely conservative and held some version of fundamentalist or evangelical Christian faith. Today, I live in Bethesda, Maryland, made famous in Bobos in America as the spiritual capital of Blue (liberal) America. Montgomery County, Maryland, went 3-1 for Obama in 2008. And we’re in the more liberal part of the county.

In both settings, I’ve noticed the same phenomenon: a presumption that all normal, right-thinking people share the same basic outlook on life. In Alabama, where I was very much the exception, I noticed it very clearly. Here, where my personal and political values are comparatively mainstream, I notice it as well.

The false consensus effect is the degree to which you overestimate how much other people agree with you and see the world the same way. Whether your information sources tend toward NPR or toward Fox, it’s easier today than ever before to get all the news that fits your perspective. The more you see your own values front and center, the more they’re validated as normal — and the more out of touch and fringe-extremist people on the other side appear.
But that’s an illusion.

Although according to the Gallup organization, self-identified conservatives outnumber self-identified liberals by 40% to 21%, the combination of moderates and liberals tips the balance to 51% the other way. (As liberals know, there is no actual liberal party in the United States; in the Democratic Party, self-identified moderates outnumber self-identified liberals. Fully 22% of Democrats call themselves conservative, as opposed to 3% of Republicans who self-identify as liberal.)

In other words, no matter what you believe, at least half the nation disagrees with you. Although very conservative and very liberal perspectives both get a lot of press (often generated by the other side), only 9% of the American public self-identifies as “very conservative” and 5% as “very liberal.”

False consensus accelerates because people tend to live near and associate with those who agree with them on core issues, leading people to conclude that the universal attitude around them (whether it’s Bethesda or Decatur) must extend beyond the city borders. But there are a significant number of conservatives in Bethesda, and more liberals in Decatur than you’d think. (Several Alabama counties — not Decatur’s, mind you — consistently vote blue, though the state as a whole is clearly red.)

The false consensus effect dramatically complicates communication. People talk past one another, each unaware the other operates from a different paradigm. When people are confronted with evidence that the consensus is indeed false, the normal reaction is to conclude that those who do not agree are defective — blind, immoral, corrupt, under undue influence. Ad hominem abuse seems reasonable enough under such circumstances, and the cycle of viciousness rolls forward.

There’s a related bias known as pluralistic ignorance, in which people openly support a norm or belief they privately reject, for reasons ranging from the desire to fit in to fear of negative consequences for violating the norm. This, of course, provides even more reinforcement for false consensus. Over the last 40 years, I’ve had more than one classmate tell me that they agreed with far more of my political positions than they ever let on. That may be pluralistic ignorance, or it could be…

False memory (Confabulation)

There’s lying, and then there’s confabulation. In confabulation, your mind has created false memories about yourself or your environment. Sometimes imagination has been confused with memory, and sometimes one memory is confused with another. A person with a false memory isn’t telling the truth, but has no intent to lie.

Obviously, in significant degrees this can be a sign of psychological or neurological impairment, but most of us star in our own private Rashomon.

A number of cognitive biases affect your memory.
  • Consistency bias (remembering your past attitudes and behavior as resembling your present ones)
  • Cryptomnesia (mistaking imagination for memory, covered in Part 5)
  • Rosy retrospection (rating past events as better than they appeared at the time)
  • Suggestibility (ideas suggested by a questioner are mistaken for memory)
Cognitive biases also adjust the memory to fit preconceptions or other fixed ideas.

Treat your memory with skepticism. Interrogators of all stripes know that eyewitness accounts are hugely unreliable, confessions often meaningless, and detailed accounts subject to huge bias.

If it’s important, you need to confirm your memory with other sources. Just because you remember it clearly doesn’t mean it’s true.

Forer effect (Barnum effect)

One year at a SkillPath trainer’s conference, there was a speaker who could communicate with departed loved ones, and he put on quite an impressive show involving one member of the audience, who was blown away by how accurate the speaker was.

Even skeptics have moments in which a random astrology squib in the daily newspaper seems accurate, and I’ve had a few fortune cookie experiences that are nothing short of amazing. (My favorite: “You have great power and influence over women. Use it wisely.”)

Meet the Forer effect.

The Forer effect explains why mass-market astrology, personality tests, and fortune telling have such an avid audience of true believers. This cognitive bias makes people tend to give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality that are supposedly tailored specifically for them, but are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people.

In 1948, psychologist Bertram R. Forer gave a personality test to his students, then gave each one a “unique” analysis based on the test results. Each student got the same thing, which read:

You have a great need for other people to like and admire you. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a great deal of unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others' statements without satisfactory proof. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. Security is one of your major goals in life.

When asked to rate how well this described them, the average rating was 4.26 out of 5.0.

These kinds of generic statements that appear to have insight are known as Barnum statements, after P. T. Barnum. Further research has shown you can improve the accuracy rating people give by making sure the following three things are true:
  • The subject believes that the analysis applies only to him
  • The subject believes in the authority of the evaluator
  • The analysis lists mainly positive traits

Fundamental attribution error (Correspondence bias, Attribution effect)

People on the left experienced the joys of schadenfreude when Rush Limbaugh was accused of illegally obtaining prescription drugs after having himself spent years arguing that those convicted of drug crimes should be sent to jail.

How did he and his supporters rationalize the different treatment for himself? Well, Rush Limbaugh is a fine citizen. He simply suffered from severe back pain and became addicted to prescription painkillers. It was the situation, not the man himself.

But all these other drug users whom we don’t know, well, their problem is more likely to be a moral defect. Their personalities and characters lead them into terrible behavior, and we as a society have no choice but to make them pay for their crimes.

The cognitive bias known as fundamental attribution error is our tendency to ascribe our own bad behavior, or bad behavior in those we like, to the circumstances or situation. We tend to believe, however, that bad behavior on the part of those we dislike or don't know is related to some attribute of personality or character. This creates circular logic loops that are difficult to break. “The reason so many [group] are unemployed is that they're lazy. That's why I don't hire them.”

When the unemployed Alfred Doolittle in Pygmalion talks about the difference between the “deserving poor” and the “undeserving poor,” he adds:

I'm one of the undeserving poor: that's what I am. Think of what that means to a man. It means that he's up agen middle class morality all the time. If there's anything going, and I put in for a bit of it, it's always the same story: “You're undeserving; so you can't have it.” But my needs is as great as the most deserving widows that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband. I don't need less than a deserving man: I need more. I don't eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more. I want a bit of amusement, cause I'm a thinking man. I want cheerfulness and a song and a band when I feel low. Well, they charge me just the same for everything as they charge the deserving. What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything.

Alfred Doolittle is a delightful caricature, but real people are complex mixtures of character and environment. Attributing 100% of behavior to one or the other, except in the most extreme of circumstances, is a dangerous and hurtful mistake. Error is often unavoidable, so my own goal is to err on the side of generosity.

Previous Installments

Part 1 — Bias blind spot, confirmation bias, déformation professionnelle, denomination effect, moral credential effect
Part 2 — Base rate fallacy, congruence bias, experimenter’s bias
Part 3 — Ambiguity aversion effect (Ellsberg paradox), choice-supportive bias, distinction bias, contrast effect
Part 4 — Actor-observer bias, anchoring effect, attentional bias, availability cascade, belief bias
Part 5 — Clustering illusion, conjunction fallacy, cryptomnesia
Part 6 — Disposition effect, egocentric bias, endowment effect, extraordinarity bias

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