Misunderstanding cognitive bias

It’s great to see the enthusiasm with which cognitive biases are discussed on social media. Occasionally, though, enthusiasm gets in the way of accuracy, and an explanation takes hold even though it isn’t quite right.

The latest example comes via the (normally excellent) I Fucking Hate Pseudoscience site and Facebook community. The post “Understanding Bias- What colour is this truck?”┬ástarts off well, pointing out that our judgement of the likelihood of getting attacked by a shark is biased by a number of factors: sensationalism in the media, the fact that the media are global rather than local, and the individual’s unconscious assumption that global information reflects local risks.

The sentence “The mental shortcut we use by making this assumption is an example of a heuristic.” is ambiguous, because the previous paragraph mentioned a bunch of processes, not all of which count as heuristics, but I’m happy to give the benefit of the doubt so far.

In the next paragraph, I start to question if the article is actually about heuristics and biases. This is where the picture of a truck comes in: Read the rest of this entry »

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Nice article from Cracked on biases

It’s not exactly known as an educational site, but Cracked.com often comes up with engaging and well-written articles on critical thinking and psychology, with pointers to the underlying scientific research. I was pleased to see this latest article on “5 logical fallacies that make you wrong more often than you think”.

The five “fallacies” they explain (really they mean biases rather than logical fallacies) are

  1. Confirmation bias
  2. Fundamental attribution error
  3. Neglect of probability
  4. The trust gap
  5. Argumentative theory of reasoning

The more I learn about critical thinking, the more I realise “logical fallacy” is a useless concept, and the concept of “bias” is the one that does the work, but more about that on another day.

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Elizabeth Loftus interview

I continue to be hugely impressed with the BBC Radio 4 series Mind Changers. They avoid “pop” psychology and go right into the science, interviewing outstanding researchers and explaining their pivotal experiments. The latest episode profiles Elizabeth Loftus, a major figure in the science of memory, whose work on the unreliability of memory was central to discrediting the Recovered Memory movement. Everyone should know about Loftus’ experiments, and this episode is a great introduction, interviewing colleagues as well as Loftus herself.

Lee Ross has featured in a couple of episodes and I hope he gets an episode to himself in future for his work on attribution theory and attitude polarisation.

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The plasticity of parental love

I’m looking at some sources on happiness and life events, partly so as to improve the relevant section on Wikipedia (if you’re going to tell the world something, why not tell it how to be happy?) Here I’ve come across an interesting overlap between happiness research and bias research. Read the rest of this entry »

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Who edits Wikipedia and why? (video)

Via the BBC’s Focus magazine, a video interview with myself and two Wikipedia colleagues. This was filmed at the Watershed on the day of Jimmy Wales’ visit to Bristol for the free encyclopedia’s tenth birthday.

My answers on the spot didn’t capture the true reasons why I contribute. A main factor is that people regard what they find in Wikipedia as fact, so I’m horrified that so much of it is incomplete or misleading. I’ve also come round to the view that this is a project that is genuinely changing the world for the better.

The Jimmy Wales interview filmed on the same day is a truly excellent overview of current issues facing Wikipedia: Read the rest of this entry »

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How to write a Psychology article for Wikipedia

I’ve put together an essay on How to write a psychology article which builds on my past experience getting an article to the front page.

The essay is aimed at other editors. It’s “behind the scenes”, not part of the encyclopedia itself. So it can be more informal – dare I say humourous? – than the articles themselves. My hope is that it will act as a guideline for other editors and may encourage people who are just starting to contribute, or just thinking of contributing, to the psychology articles.

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Interview about Scientology (audio)

I was interviewed last weekend on the topic of Scientology by the Strange Quarks podcast, hosted by Martin Robbins (the Guardian’s “Lay Scientist” columnist) and Michael Marshall (of the ten23 campaign and too many skeptic podcasts/groups to mention). The resulting episode is now available on the Guardian web site.

One commenter writes, “It’s very thorough and gives things from a UK perspective.” I can’t argue with that.

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