Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Lead Us Into Temptation (Part 16 of Cognitive Biases)

Our survey of cognitive biases has reached the letter "R," and today we'll look at reactance, the tendency to do the opposite of whatever you're told; the reminiscence bump, the tendency to remember some parts of your life more vividly than others; restraint bias, the idea that we can resist temptation; and rosy retrospection, the tendency to remember the past as better than it is.


Reactance is the bias to do the opposite of whatever you’re being pushed to do. It’s the impulse to disobey, to resist any threat to your perceived sense of autonomy. Reactance is what happens when you feel your freedom is threatened.

What turns it into a bias is when the reactance leads you to act in ways contrary to your own self-interest. Get pushed hard enough to get a good job and make some money, and you may ruin a big interview just to show you won’t be pushed around.

There are four stages to reactance:

  • Perceived freedom. Something we have the physical capability to do, or refrain from doing. This can be anything imaginable.
  • Threat to freedom. A force that is attempting to limit your freedom. This doesn’t have to be a person or group, again, it can be anything. People react against the laws of physics all the time.
  • Reactance. An emotional pressure to resist the threat and retain the freedom.
  • Restoration of freedom. This can be either direct (you win), or indirect (you lose, but you continue resistance or shift the area of battle).

There are some rules to this. A pretty obvious one is that the magnitude of the reactance grows depending on the importance of the freedom in question. The magnitude of the reactance also grows when a wider swath of freedoms are threatened, even if individually they’re less important. And the magnitude of the reactance depends not only on the freedoms being threatened today, but on the implied threat to future freedom loss.

Lowering the degree of reactance is the degree to which you feel the infringement of your freedom is justified and legitimate. Less confrontational approaches lower reactance in other people.

Reminiscence Bump

Another cognitive bias is the unequal distribution of memories over a lifespan. We begin with infantile amnesia, the tendency not to remember much before the age of four. We remember something of our childhoods, but we recall more personal events from adolescence and early adulthood than anything before or after, except for whatever happened most recently.

Besides personal events, the reminiscence bump affects the temporal distribution of public events (where were you when JFK was shot/the Challenger exploded/the Towers fell?), favorite songs, books and movies. It’s why, after all these years, I still can’t forget the lyrics to Herman’s Hermits “Henry VIII.”

Restraint Bias

“Lead us not into temptation,” says the Lord’s Prayer. The restraint bias is the extent to which we tend to overestimate our ability to show restraint in the face of temptation, and as the Lord’s Prayer suggests, we aren’t nearly as good at it as we think we are.

In a recent study at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, researchers studied the effects hunger, drug and tobacco cravings, and sexual arousal had on the self-control process, first by surveying people on their self-assessed capacity to resist temptation, then by actual temptation, and the results showed a substantial overestimation on the part of most people.

This is one of the ways people inadvertently sabotage efforts to change behavior, by overexposing themselves to temptation. Recovering tobacco smokers with more inflated degrees of restraint bias were far more likely to expose themselves to situation in which they would be tempted to smoke, with predictably higher rates of relapse in a four-month period.

Rosy Retrospection

Three groups going on different vacations were interviewed before, during, and after their trips. The typical emotional pattern was initial anticipation, followed by mild disappointment during the trip — and ending up with a much more favorable set of memories some time later!

The cognitive bias of rosy retrospection leads us to compare the present unfavorably when compared to the past, but the difference is that minor annoyances and dislikes, prominent in immediate memory, tend to fade over time.

Once again, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, our gurus of bias, come to the rescue with a technique called reference class forecasting. This corrects for rosy retrospection and other memory biases. Human judgment, they argue, is generally optimistic for two reasons: overconfidence and insufficient consideration of the range of actual likely outcomes. Unless you consider the issue of risk and uncertainty, you have no good basis to build on.

Reference class forecasting for a specific project involves the following three steps:
  1. Identify a reference class of past, similar projects.
  2. Establish a probability distribution for the selected reference class for the parameter that is being forecast.
  3. Compare the specific project with the reference class distribution, in order to establish the most likely outcome for the specific project.
The technique has been successful enough that it’s been endorsed by the American Planning Association (APA) and the Association for the Advancement of Cost Engineering (AACE).

More next week.

Previous Installments

You can find the bias you’re interested in by clicking in the tag cloud on the right. To find all posts concerning cognitive biases, click the very big phrase.

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

Part 7 — False consensus effect, false memory, Forer effect, framing, fundamental attribution error

Part 8 — Gambler’s fallacy, halo effect

Part 9 — Hawthorne effect, herd instinct, hindsight bias, hyperbolic discounting

Part 10 — Illusion of asymmetric insight, illusion of control, illusory superiority, impact bias, information bias, ingroup bias, irrational escalation

Part 11 — Just-world phenomenon, loss aversion, ludic fallacy, mere exposure effect, money illusion

Part 12 — Need for closure, neglect of probability, “not-invented-here” (NIH) syndrome, notational bias

Part 13 — Observer-expectancy effect, omission bias, optimism bias, ostrich effect, outgroup homogeneity bias, overconfidence effect

Part 14 — Pareidolia, planning fallacy, post-purchase rationalization

Part 15 — Projection bias, pseudocertainty effect, publication bias

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