Archive for category Bias

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?” starts 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 »

1 Comment

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.

Leave a comment

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.

Leave a comment

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 »

Leave a comment

Want promotion? Don’t copy your boss.

An interesting round-up from BPS Research Digest describes a series of experiments that identify what is being called a social comparison bias. This seems to be a specific kind of self-serving bias, in which people choose to promote others whose strengths are different from their own. The researchers argue that this is a kind of defensive mechanism in which people try to preserve the importance of their individual strengths.

Leave a comment

Monkeys show loss aversion, too

Given a choice between a risky decision and a safe decision, people choose differently depending on whether the payoffs are described as a gain or losses. This is known as “loss aversion”. Laurie Santos and her colleagues worked out how to give monkeys a choice that could be presented either as a gain or loss. Their choice patterns matched the behaviour of humans, as she reveals in this TED talk which really gets going after about eight minutes. It turns out that “a monkey financial advisor is just as dumb as your human financial advisor.”

Leave a comment

Deliberate wrongness: a strategy to avoid confirmation bias

Continuing my coverage of the blogs that discuss confirmation bias, I’m pleased to see Scott H Young’s post “Why I’ve Decided to Be Wrong More Often”, in which he discusses what you can do to be less biased in life. He recommends deliberately seeking out contrary opinions.

I also leave myself open to being wrong, and seek out ideas that disagree with me. I try to read books from authors with whom I disagree with. I pay most attention to commenters who argue against an article I’ve written.

More central to his strategy is to accept that mistakes are inevitable, to prepare for them and to learn from them. This involves being open to the possibility of being wrong on quite fundamental things, including political or cultural beliefs that are tied up with personal identity. It also involves self-forgiveness: accept that you were wrong, learn and move on.

My goal is to be wrong about one big idea in my life, business or philosophy every month. I know if I’m not having big moments of wrongness at this frequency, it’s almost certainly because I’m ignoring other perspectives, not because I’m infallible.

There’s an analogy with being a venture capitalist: if all of the projects they back turn out to be viable, it suggests they would haven’t taken enough risk. Venture capitalists will aim to have a certain proportion of failures among the start-ups they back, though obviously at the time they don’t know which will succeed and which will fail.

Leave a comment

Confirmation bias and emergency medicine

I’ve been following with interest the discussion of confirmation bias on Twitter, blogs and Wikipedia discussion. My favourite of the blog posts is one by Rogue Medic which expands on and talks through the Francis Bacon quote which appears in the Wikipedia article. It highlights another area where confirmation bias can lead to disaster.

Leave a comment

Reflections on writing about Confirmation bias

A year ago, the Wikipedia article on Confirmation bias was in a poor state. Whoever had written it was well-intentioned but they’d been working from a small number of sources and perhaps hadn’t seen the big picture. I started a substantial rewrite. The community gave me a lot of help to make the text accessible, and a couple of weeks ago it reached the highest quality standard on Wikipedia: Featured Article. (“Confirmation bias” as it was on 10th August 2009 vs “Confirmation bias” now).

This week I learned it has been chosen as “Today’s Featured Article” for tomorrow (Friday 23rd July). A one-paragraph summary will appear on the front page, where it can be seen by around four million users. Around sixty thousand will click through to the article itself. It will also be seen through the dozen or so sites that mirror Wikipedia. With this new prominence, it is more likely the article will be translated into other languages (extracts have already been translated into Spanish and Catalan). The are also other delivery platforms: I’m already planning a spoken version of the article, but won’t have time to do it before tomorrow. Being naturally the first Google hit for “confirmation bias”, the article has a high prominence (getting nearly a thousand hits per day) and it is regularly recommended and discussed on blogs, online communities such as Reddit.

So, it’s fascinating to watch the ripple effect of this article to which I’ve contributed. Confirmation bias is something you’d definitely hear about if you do certain courses within a psychology degree, but it’s not exactly the sort of topic that you would expect to see stories about in the newspaper or the evening news. Hence it’s significant that perhaps millions of people will hear about it through this article.  To be honest, this provokes mixed feelings. Read the rest of this entry »

5 Comments

Slide show on cognitive biases: a health warning

This morning I have mixed feelings from seeing something I’ve worked on being heavily praised, but for the wrong reasons.

Erik Fernandez, a blogger, has created a slide show about cognitive biases. I haven’t examined it carefully, but it seems like all the text is taken, or at least lightly adapted, from two Wikipedia articles; Cognitive bias and List of cognitive biases. I know this because I recognise my own text in the slide show. Under the terms of the Creative Commons licence, Eric is entitled to copy this material and make derivative works, but not to pass it off as his own work.

These articles are a long way off finished, and in their partial state they can be actively misleading.  As one of the authors, this is partially my fault. It’s better than nothing, but they’re not ready for wide publicity.

That’s why I’m concerned that over the last couple of days, the slide show is getting a huge amount of attention by being featured on the high-traffic blogs BoingBoing and LifeHacker. These blog posts treat the slide show as an original work and make no mention (because Fernandez doesn’t) of where the text comes from. Read the rest of this entry »

1 Comment