Archive for category Research Papers

The friendship paradox

Reading today about illusory superiority to improve the Wikipedia article, I came across something tangential but intellectually delightful.

Most people have fewer friends than their friends (on average) have.

When I first read it, it sounded impossible, but it’s a practically inevitable fact.

It’s not specifically about friendship, but a mathematical fact about any relation which is symmetrical and which varies across a population. Read the rest of this entry »

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The biased search for confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is the bias to seek for, interpret and remember information in ways that confirm our existing beliefs rather than genuinely test them. In general, it’s an irrational preference for information that matches our expectations. This is one of the first biases I learned about, but recently I’ve been reading up on it in a more systematic way. I’m putting my notes direct into Wikipedia rather than improve my own site.

In what I’ve learned, there’s a massive irony that I’m surprised isn’t commented on. The term “confirmation bias” comes from the original pair of  experiments from the 1970s by Peter C. Wason. Since and because of them, it has become widely accepted that subjects seek to confirm their working hypotheses rather than subject them to falsification.

However, those experiments didn’t prove the existence of a confirmation bias. There were logical errors in the interpretation of the results, pointed out especially in a 1987 Psychological Review paper by Joshua Klayman and Young-Won Ha which is one of my all-time favourite academic papers (see the Wikipedia article for refs). Subsequent research has found genuine confirmation biases, but they’ve turned out to be specific to particular situations, rather than ubiquitous. When testing a hypothesis, people often seem to prefer a genuinely diagnostic strategy.

Despite this critique, there is still a lot of psychological writing that takes the Wason experiments as proving the reality of confirmation bias. Even Sutherland does so in “Irrationality”, his outstanding paperback round-up of bias research.

So why were these experiments accepted so easily as proof when, for a long time, the evidence was inadequate? Because it fit with expectations built up from informal observation: in other words, a clear case of confirmation bias.

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Why there are so many idiots on the road?

You know the experience. You’re in your car, just trundling along when, as you cross the junction… “WHOA! He just came out of nowhere! If I hadn’t braked, that would have been a collision. Why do they let these idiots on the road?”

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research
Some of the research on bias examines driving. In particular, there are experiments on how drivers perceive their own skills in relation to other peoples’. Read the rest of this entry »

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Homophobia and hypocrisy

From mentioning breasts earlier in the week, I now turn to penises. In a study that deserves a great deal of publicity, psychologists used a questionnaire to identify a group of men with strongly negative attitudes to homosexuality, and another group of men who were comfortable with it. The men watched various kids of erotic films while a rubber ring around their members, hooked up to a computer, monitored them for arousal.

“Both groups exhibited increases in penile circumference to the heterosexual and female homosexual videos. Only the homophobic men showed an increase in penile erection to male homosexual stimuli. […] Homophobia is apparently associated with homosexual arousal that the homophobic individual is either unaware of or denies.” Read the rest of this entry »

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Optimistic Bias

Some quotes on optimistic bias, taken from David A. Armor and Shelley E. Taylor (2002) “When Predictions Fail: The Dilemma of Unrealistic Optimism” in Thomas Gilovich (et al.) (Eds.) Heuristics and Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgement:

  • “Students expect to receive higher scores on exams, at least when those exams are still some time away, then they actually receive.” (Shepperd, Ouellette and Fernandez (1996))
  • “Most people expect they have a better-then-average chance of living long, healthy lives; being successfully employed and happily married; and avoiding a variety of unwanted experiences such as being robbed and assaulted, injured in an automobile accident, or experiencing health problems.” (Weinstein (1980))
  • Professional financial analysts “were reasonably able to anticipate periods of growth and decline in corporate earnings, but consistently overestimated earnings realised.” (Calderon (1993))
  • Newlyweds “almost uniformly expect that their marriages will endure a lifetime” despite the large proportion of marriages that end in divorce. (Baker and Emery (1993))
  • Vacationers “anticipate greater enjoyment during upcoming trips than they actually expressed during their trips.” (Mitchell, Thompson, Peterson and Cronk (1997)) Read the rest of this entry »


Irrational optimism ruins your health, work and life

I’ve just run into this paper: David Dunning, Chip Heath, Jerry M. Suls (2004) “Flawed Self-Assessment. Implications for Health, Education, and the Workplace”. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 5 (3), 69–106.

It’s a review paper summarising a range of research on superiority bias and other self-regarding biases and applying it to real-world decisions. As a paper summarising the effects of self-regarding biases, it supports the second of my four proposals. The summary is such a gem I can’t resist quoting it at length:

“In general, people’s self-views hold only a tenuous to modest relationship with their actual behavior and performance. […] On average, people say that they are “above average” in skill (a conclusion that defies statistical possibility), overestimate the likelihood that they will engage in desirable behaviors and achieve favorable outcomes, furnish overly optimistic estimates of when they will complete future projects, and reach judgments with too much confidence. Read the rest of this entry »


Scriptural Violence Can Foster Aggression

Lots of people are concerned at the effect screen violence has on viewers: does it make them aggressive in real life? Well, what about violence in the Bible, specifically violence sanctioned by the ultimate moral authority, God? The National Secular Society points to a controlled study in Psychological Science, finding that Scriptural Violence Can Foster Aggression, Especially In Believers.

This post was originally made on the Kewl Doodz’n’Chyx blog.

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