Tag Archives: cognitive bias

Partisan Innumeracy

In his memoir, China in Ten Words, writer Yu Hua recalled an event following the end of the cultural revolution. Literature had been banned for many years but the memory of its joys had lingered in much of the population. Hua’s formative years had been during the intellectually desiccated period. Emerging from a time when being seen with any book other than officially sanctioned volumes of or about Chairman Mao could have grave consequences, he and many others craved stories featuring relatable human characters and situations.

Eventually China loosened its intellectual restrictions and the word that bookstores would be opening spread like a prairie fire. Hua tells of a local bookstore that announced it would distribute coupons for two books each to the first few customers to come to the shop’s opening. Hua rose before dawn and was dismayed to find several hundred people already in line, many of whom had been in line all night.

To occupy themselves those waiting speculated on how many coupons the shop owner would hand out. The speculations fell into three general groups. Those who’d gotten in line the day prior were sure their proaction would be rewarded with coupons. Those who arrived later and comprised the middle of the line agreed among themselves there would be more coupons for such obviously high-quality people who’d been wise enough to arrive before the deadbeats behind them. Those like Hua, farther back in the line, reached a consensus there would be enough coupons for them. After all, all of them were clearly quality people for having the foresight and diligence to arrive so early. Hilariously, each person’s assessment derived not from any objective assessment, such as estimating the number of books visible through the shop window, but rather on an emotional assessment of how deserving they were for making the effort to be in the line and, tellingly, how undeserving those farther back in the line were, considering they were comparative slackers. When the shop door opened and the actual number of coupons—50—was announced, persons one through 50 smugly congratulated themselves while the remainders moaned and cursed. Person 51 felt auspiciously unlucky and the number ’51’ became shorthand for unlucky throughout the town.

It’s entertaining to poke fun at the sort of irrational innumeracy the Chinese villagers displayed but it’s a universal flaw in human thinking. Our estimates and judgments of others’ estimates and judgments skew sharply in keeping with our sense of identity. Logically, our sense of who we are, which involves ongoing comparisons of ourselves with others, is a psychological matter that has no bearing on quantifiable facts about the world.

Take the results of a recent Ipsos/Axios survey in which American’s belief in whether the reported number of COVID-19 deaths was accurate, under-reported, or excessive. Beliefs closely aligned with political perspectives (which are primarily sociological and psychological, not fact oriented). This does not mean objective facts cannot align with a group’s position on a matter. It means such alignment often has less to do with a group’s objectivity or rationality than with how convenient the facts are to a group’s claims about what is real or important.

As for a more facts-based approach to assessing COVID-19 related death counts, the article linked in the preceding paragraph provides objective reasons for why an undercounting scenario is likely:

  • Insufficient testing obscures many COVID-19 deaths.
  • Several states’ death rates are significantly higher than statistics for other causes would suggest, and are still increasing.

What’s important to most people, however, is not recognizing accurate facts or more valid reasoning but feeling they are true to their in-groups’ values and self-definition.

COVID-19 (Average) vs Other Causes of Death (Actual) in the U.S. – Animated Data Graph

Source: Covid vs. US Daily Average Cause of Death, Robert Martin on 8 Apr 2020

For those still saying influenza is a much bigger killer than COVID-19 (SARS-COV-2), the numbers don’t support that argument, especially considering there are many deaths that strongly appear to be due to COVID-19 that are not reported as such because the deceased are not tested. The animation conveys the speed with which an exponentially increasing infection rate overtakes other, relatively linear rates of expansion.

The Cognitive Bias Codex

Many (all?) cognitive biases are built-in features of the human attention-sensation-perception-memory-cognition chain of sense making processes. It would not be surprising to learn many of these biases have effects that are relevant to questions regarding how natural selection shaped humans for particular embodied functions in a particular environment. Much has been said and written about how the pre-modern environment evolution calibrated us to function within is in many respects quite different from our modern environment.

News startups aim to improve public discourse

A Nieman Reports article highlights four startups seeking to improve public discourse. Let’s hope efforts to create methods and technologies along these lines accelerate and succeed in producing positive outcomes.

AI-enabled software creates 3D face from single photo

I wrote on my blog about this development and more generally about the increasing ease with which AI tools can forge convincing media. Go see my creepy 3D face.

A dive into the black waters under the surface of persuasive design

A Guardian article last October brings the darker aspects of the attention economy, particularly the techniques and tools of neural hijacking, into sharp focus. The piece summarizes some interaction design principles and trends that signal a fundamental shift in means, deployment, and startling effectiveness of mass persuasion. The mechanisms reliably and efficiently leverage neural reward (dopamine) circuits to seize, hold, and direct attention toward whatever end the designer and content providers choose.

The organizer of a $1,700 per person event convened to show marketers and technicians “how to manipulate people into habitual use of their products,” put it baldly.

subtle psychological tricks … can be used to make people develop habits, such as varying the rewards people receive to create “a craving”, or exploiting negative emotions that can act as “triggers”. “Feelings of boredom, loneliness, frustration, confusion and indecisiveness often instigate a slight pain or irritation and prompt an almost instantaneous and often mindless action to quell the negative sensation”

Particularly telling of the growing ethical worry are the defections from social media among Silicon Valley insiders.

Pearlman, then a product manager at Facebook and on the team that created the Facebook “like”,  … confirmed via email that she, too, has grown disaffected with Facebook “likes” and other addictive feedback loops. She has installed a web browser plug-in to eradicate her Facebook news feed, and hired a social media manager to monitor her Facebook page so that she doesn’t have to.
It is revealing that many of these younger technologists are weaning themselves off their own products, sending their children to elite Silicon Valley schools where iPhones, iPads and even laptops are banned. They appear to be abiding by a Biggie Smalls lyric from their own youth about the perils of dealing crack cocaine: never get high on your own supply.

If you read the article, please comment on any future meeting topics you detect. I find it a vibrant collection of concepts for further exploration.

Seeing my blindfold

I’ve found some thought-provoking answers on the Q&A social media site, Quora. Follow the link to a perceptive and helpful answer to, “Can a person be able to objectively identify exactly when and how their thinking processes are being affected by cognitive biases?

The author provides some practical (if exhausting) recommendations that, if even partly followed by a third-to-half of people (my guestimate), would possibly collapse the adversarial culture in our country.

The religious brain and atheism

As much of the world settles into the spectacle and cozy embrace of culturally reinforced magical thinking, New Scientist has several interesting recent articles about the evolved intuitive nature of religious thinking as a cognitive by-product (of the value of assuming agency in environmental phenomena, for example) and delving into how atheism is and is not like religious thinking. I find the point interesting that religion and atheism (or any ism), as social constructs, cannot be studied and compared in the same ways that objectively real objects and phenomena can, but we can learn much from systematic approaches to investigating the underlying neurological functions and their probable evolutionary value.

https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23631561-000-effortless-thinking-the-godshaped-hole-in-your-brain/

https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21328562-000-the-god-issue-we-are-all-born-believers/

https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23431212-800-faith-of-the-faithless-is-atheism-just-another-religion/

If you don’t subscribe, Albuquerque Public Libraries carry New Scientist.