Confirmation Bias

29 January 2010

“The kids are crazy today it must be a full moon.”    This and other similar notions are widely held.  For example, people working in Emergency Departments (ED) assume that spikes in ED admissions are linked to the phase of the moon.  Again, the thinking is that the full moon brings out the craziness in people’s behavior.  Similar links are firmly held about the relationship between the consumption of sugar and bad behavior in children.  They believe that when children eat sugar, it is like consuming an amphetamine – they get wild!

 

Such cause and effect notions are easily dismissed when you look closely at the laws of physics or the biological plausibility of the effects of sugar on behavior.  Further, if you actually look at the numbers of ED Admissions or behavior problems in schools and the phases of the moon or sugar consumption, there are no relationships. PERIOD! End of story!  Yet, these beliefs are firmly held despite the evidence; which is not necessarily widely available.  Why is it that we hold onto such notions?

 

The answer is Confirmation Bias.  We are inclined to take in, and accept as true, information that supports our belief systems and miss, ignore, or discount information that runs contrary to our beliefs.  For example, a full moon provides a significant visual reference to which memories can be linked.  And because there is a widely held mythical belief that full moons affect behavior, we also remember those confirmations more clearly.  We are less likely to remember similarly bad days that lack such a strikingly visual reference point and that do not support our beliefs.  As a result, we are less likely to use that data to challenge the myth.

 

This bias is not limited to full moons and sugar.  It transcends rational thought and is pervasive throughout the human race.  It shapes our religious and political beliefs, our parenting choices, our teaching strategies, and our romantic and social relationships.  It also plays a significant role in the development of stereotypes and the maintenance of prejudices.  These beliefs, good or bad, when challenged, tend to elicit emotional responses (this is a topic all its own).  Much has been written about these phenomena, pertaining to issues related to how and why this occurs.  There are other factors as well that play a role in this erroneous thought process (e.g., communal reinforcement, folklore, the media, attribution error, expectancy effect, and Spinoza’s Conjecture); however, my goal is to raise your awareness of this bias, because knowing that we are prone to it may help us avoid drawing mistaken conclusions. Bottom line – it may help us open and widen our minds to different ideas and maybe even challenge some long held mistaken beliefs.

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Spinoza’s Conjecture

22 January 2010

Last week I discussed fundamental attribution error, leaving confirmation bias and Spinoza’s Conjuncture left to explore.  Today I’m going to delve into the latter.  Benedict Spinoza, a 17th-century Dutch philosopher, wrote with great insight that “mere comprehension of a statement entails the tacit acceptance of its being true, whereas disbelief requires a subsequent process of rejection.”  What this suggests is that we are likely to accept, as true, a statement that makes immediate sense to us. But we can also infer from this statement that we are, in general, unlikely to critically scrutinize such logical statements.  A further implication is that we are likely to reject statements that don’t make immediate sense to us.

 

Sam Harris, a noted neuroscientist and author, and several colleagues at the University of California recently published the results of a study noting that we tend to process understood information very quickly while we process false or uncertain statements more slowly.  And what is even more interesting is that we process ambiguous or uncertain statements in regions of the brain (specifically: the left inferior frontal gyrus, anterior insula, and dorsal anterior cingulate) that are associated with processing pain and disgust.  Hmmm, critical thinking hurts!  This is just one example of much evidence that suggests that our brains work this way.

 

We all look at the world through our personal lenses of experience.  Our experiences shape our understanding of the world, and ultimately our understanding of the world then filters what we take in.  The end result is that we may reject or ignore new and important information simply because it does not conform to our previously held beliefs.  Subsequently, we may not grow or expand our understanding of the world and we may become intellectually or professionally stagnate.

 

It is important to remember this tendency when we are taking in novel information. New ideas that run contrary to long-held beliefs are hard to embrace regardless of the degree of merit. And we are disinclined to question the legitimacy of new information particularly if it fits our preconceptions. Challenging and/or ambiguous information, like quantum mechanics may, in some people, elicit feelings similar to pain or even disgust. Perhaps this also explains that uneasy feeling that many people experience when they think about such mind blowing concepts as our size and importance relative to the vastness of time and space. The slowed, arduous, and perhaps even painful process of thinking about such ambiguous or incongruous information may certainly discourage the endeavor. Perhaps the cliche “no pain – no gain” reasonably applies.

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Attribution Error

15 January 2010

In my Cognitive Biases piece last week, I briefly introduced three common errors in thinking. In today’s post I am going to expand upon Attribution Error.  Before I explain this cognitive bias, let’s look at some situations where such erroneous thinking occurs.

 

Where I work, at a preschool for children with substantial developmental delays, many of the children display persistently difficult behaviors.  I occasionally hear from less seasoned staff comments suggesting that they believe that a child’s “bad” behaviors are the result of inadequate parenting.  Parents are also sometimes admonished for sending their sick child to school or for sending in an inadequate lunch.

 

Attribution Error occurs when we negatively judge the unfortunate actions of others as a reflection of internal attributes (such as personality traits, abilities, ethics, etc.) rather than as a result of external situational factors.  In other words, we often underestimate the situational circumstances that cause a person to behave as they do and overestimate the impact of their personal attributes. This error in thinking is so ubiquitous and so easy to make that it is commonly referred to as Fundamental Attribution Error.

 

What is even more interesting is that when we think about our mistakes we tend to overestimate the external situational factors that lead to our behavior and undervalue our internal attributes.  In a nutshell, others’ mistakes are a result of their personal weaknesses, but our mistakes are due to other factors unrelated to our personal weaknesses.  Stepping back and really looking at it, it becomes evident that this is not quite equitable.

 

We have to ask ourselves – do we really have the whole picture?  Do we really understand that person’s life circumstances? Are we really aware of the resources available to them?  For example, in the situation noted above, is the parent able to afford a sick day? Does she get paid sick days? Did unforeseen bills make it impossible to purchase all the makings of a fully balanced lunch?

 

Perhaps, before judging, we could step back, think, and apply the same criteria we use to evaluate ourselves.  This is difficult because we rarely fully grasp the intimate and circumstantial details of another person’s life.  This is why we are most likely to make this error regarding people we don’t know well.  If we accept that we lack a complete understanding of the entire picture, it is best not to fill in the blanks with speculation about the person.  I am certain you would appreciate this from others when your conduct is on the line?  I know I do.

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Awesome!!

11 January 2010

The word awesome, in my opinion, is overused.  There are rare moments, however, that truly inspire a response worthy of the word.  It is easy to take for granted such moments and assume that they will happen again.  I have found that appreciating such moments, as they are happening, enhances the wonder and makes them all the more meaningful.  I experienced one of those moments on Saturday 1/9/10 at Allegany State Park.  Driving into the park, ascending the winding tree lined road to the Summit is often quite beautiful. On this particular day, the jubilant anticipation of skiing was far surpassed by the shear splendor of what unfolded before my eyes.  It had snowed the night before and all the trees above 2000 feet were completely encased with silky white snow.  What made it all the more spectacular was the backdrop of the cloudless sapphire blue sky.  The depth of color was reminiscent of the blue I had only previously witnessed at high altitude in the Rocky Mountains.  It was truly awesome!  The entire cross country ski trail system wound its way through this magical zone.  I cherish this memory – it was time very well spent.

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Cognitive Biases

8 January 2010

Did you know that you are likely to accept as true those pieces of information that make immediate sense to you? On a similar vein, did you know that you are more likely to take in information that supports your beliefs and to reject or ignore information that runs counter to your beliefs?  Lastly, did you know that you are likely to use entirely different criteria to evaluate someone else’s behavior than you use to evaluate your own?

 

These three tendencies are pervasive cognitive biases.  They are so universal that it seems that they are hard wired into our brains.  I want to spend some time exploring these biases because they commonly lead to mistakes or at least the maintenance and/or promulgation of misinformation.  Over the next several weeks I will delve into these biases, one at a time, and hopefully help you avoid the erroneous trappings of your own neurology.

 

The first bias is known as Spinoza’s Conjecture.  The 17th-century Dutch philosopher Benedict Spinoza’s wrote that “mere comprehension of a statement entails the tacit acceptance of its being true, whereas disbelief requires a subsequent process of rejection.”  Sam Harris, a noted neuroscientist, has written that most people have difficulty tolerating vagueness.  On the other hand he has stated that “belief comes quickly and naturally.”  The end result is that “skepticism is slow and unnatural.

 

The second bias known as Confirmation Bias refers to a type of selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one’s beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one’s beliefs (Skeptic’s Dictionary).  In other words we hear what we want to hear.

 

The third bias is Fundamental Attribution Error.  This bias refers to our tendency to over estimate the influence of the internal or personal attributes of an individual and underestimate the external or situational factors when explaining the behaviors of others.  This is particularly true when we don’t know the other person very well.  So other people mess up because they are stupid or lazy.  We make mistakes because we are tired, stressed, or have been short changed in some way.

 

As we will explore later, there are personal, organizational, and societal costs associated with each of these biases.  This is particularly true if we are unaware of these tendencies.  I’ll discuss this more next time.

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Perhaps the most valuable asset we have is Time.  Its value is set by the fact that we have a finite supply of it.  Equally influential is the reality that there are multiple competing demands for it.  These factors contend with one another, the outcome often being that aching feeling that we just don’t have enough of it.  Whether it is enough time for sleep, fun, socialization, reading, work, we generally wish we had more of it.

 

The finite nature of time is determined by the cosmological realities that there are only 24 hours in a day and 365 days in a year.  Our biological limiters include fatigue, the related need for sleep, and the ultimate reality of our impending mortality.  The contentious demands that vie for this precious asset include the all too real certainty that most of us have to work in order to survive.  Also heavy, are the demands that I refer to as life maintenance tasks: you know, like shopping for food, cooking it, washing the dishes, cleaning and maintaining the home, washing the clothes, paying the bills, etc. etc.  These demands, coupled with raising children put a tight and limiting strangle-hold on the typical parent’s time.

 

It is unnecessary to devote too much time to this discussion as the scenario is all too familiar to most of us.  It is the implication of this reality that deserves precious thought and consideration.  It is important because we can’t and won’t get a refund.  We can’t get time back!  The choices we make each day pertaining to how we spend our time deserve much more thought than we give them.  The time we are very, very fortunate to have, deserves the respect of forethought and proactive contemplation; otherwise, we are likely to squander it.

 

How is time squandered?  This, I suppose, is a matter of perspective.  One’s perspective is shaped by the choices made in living out one’s life. How are your priorities set?  Do you prioritize work [making a living] over, for example, time with family?  And do you prioritize life maintenance tasks over exercise?   There is a transient hierarchical list of priorities we all set, and the reality is that those values further down on the list are sacrificed to accomplish the higher order priorities, regardless of the true value of each priority.  The question that begs to be asked is “To what degree are you an active participant in setting your priorities?”  Too often I imagine, the urgent pressing “demands du jour’ take precedence over even highly valued ones.

 

It is not only profoundly important to take an active roll in establishing one’s own priorities, it is equally important to respect the time of other individuals.  This necessitates striking a careful balance, but, that respect is manifested by being punctual, following through on commitments (keeping one’s appointments), and considering the person’s own priorities and demands when tasking that individual.  Tardiness and failure to keep commitments is, in effect, valuing one’s own time over the value of those who have agreed to devote their limited and precious time to you.  With this in mind, it is fair to conclude that failure to keep such commitments is egregiously disrespectful, even selfish.  You are essentially saying, when you are late, that your time is more important than the person’s time with whom you have made a commitment.  The truth in this notion is demonstrated by the anger and downright resentment you likely feel when your time is squandered by another.  Time is a two way street.

 

So, how do we give Time its due respect, be it yours or another’s?  First, you have to look closely at your priorities; and task your life with the ever present notion that you will NOT get a refund.  The time you have is a limited and precious commodity with many competing demands.  You have the choice: in fact, a powerful cognitive capacity, to prioritize or reprioritize your time.  Ask yourself, “When this hour, when this day, weekend, or week, is up, will I have spent my time well?”  Ask yourself this, knowing that when it is up, you can’t get it back.  Will you have the feeling that the expenditure of this precious asset was really worth it.  Or was it squandered?  Keep in mind that you never really know when your time will be up – in fact it is unwise to assume that you still have a full lifetime to live.  Each day is precious and it brings you another day closer to your ultimate demise.

 

In your dealings with others, apply the golden rule.  Show respect for the limited time other’s have and demand respect from them for your’s.  However, if you do not proactively prioritize your time, DO NOT assume that others are likewise (for the lack of a better word) negligent.

 

It IS important to devote time to important tasks.  Work, life maintenance tasks, these are important – actually very important.  So too are, exercise, fun, relaxation, reading, learning, adventure, companionship, travel, and novelty.  The urgency of the former is a tyrannical should that minimizes and often overshadows the importance of the latter.  Give the latter their due respect and proactively prioritize them, OR they will fall victim to the deceptively “more pressing demands.”  Give priority to, or at least make a commitment to devoting a good portion of your time to those tasks that will build and expand your mind and strengthen your body.  Challenge yourself through adventure to be more.  Expect more from life than to be a worker drone tasking away until death comes.  Dare not to look back with regret at the lost and irretrievable time that you squandered.

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