Posts Tagged ‘cognitive biases’

In evolution, plasticity leads to diversity (all you have to do is find a niche).  For example, large horned beetles with large horns have reproductive success (by winning fights).  However, being small and hornless can lead to success too:

..small males may simply wait next to tunnel entrances for opportunities to temporarily gain access to females while the guarding male is distracted, for instance by fighting off a second intruder. Studies have provided evidence consistent with the hypothesis that hornlessness increases maneuverability inside tunnels, suggesting that the absence of horns may be adaptive in the particular behavioral niche inhabited by small, sneaking males

Similarly, there are social network niches for every belief in internet space.  We get a big social reward for being part of a group.

However, you  have probably noticed that if you want to discuss policy or politics, the worst people to talk to are people who strongly identify with a political party and spend a lot of time in the corner of the blogosphere with other like-minded people.

It goes something like this:  you have some opinion; you begin to identify yourself as an __ist; you find other __ists in your personal life and online; you all reinforce each others’ beliefs; when someone presents evidence against your beliefs, it has the effect of ‘rallying the troops’ (you and your __ists bond over trashing the evidence; backfire effect); this all leads to you believing in some difficult-to-defend-outside-of-your-social-circle ideas.

So how do we prevent folie à plusieurs while still getting the social reward?

I think it is best to avoid having strong belief-based identities.  But to the extent that you consider yourself an __ist, it is probably best to not exclusively hang out with other __ists.  For example, feminists are probably better off talking to economists, evolutionary biologists, and moral philosophers, rather than other feminists exclusively (otherwise you end up with stuff like this).

An alternative  is to identify yourself by your interests and not your beliefs.  For example, find a corner of the blogosphere with people who identify as liking to discuss politics, rather than with people who identify with a political party.  Or, find people who identify as liking to discuss the bible, rather than people who identify as christian or atheist. You and your group can be just as passionate about truth seeking in some area as other people are about particular beliefs.

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Everyone dissociates to varying degrees. For example, to take a break from the normal stresses of life, individuals might read a book, watch a movie, listen to a song, or daydream while driving. In these cases, the normal stresses of life are allowed back into the conscious mind at any point. As trauma gets more severe, the risk of dissociating becomes greater. Suppose a child witnesses a murder. They might forget the murder and never be able to recall it.  Most people exist on a continuum somewhere between the two extremes.

While people who experience the most severe types of abuse might have a mind that is less integrated, we all have modular minds.  As Robert Kurzban put it in his book Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind: “the large number of parts of the mind can be thought of as, in some sense, being different ‘selves,’ designed to accomplish some task.”  How ‘integrated’ these selves are, to some extent, seems to depend on factors such as how much trauma one has experienced.  All humans are expected to suffer from some baseline level of trauma. The typical person will be physically and emotionally hurt by a variety of people.  Getting picked on, bullied, and rejected is considered a normal part of childhood.  What we consider to be child abuse is trauma that exceeds normal levels by a significant margin.  Similarly, dissociative identity disorder has to do with unusually less well intergrated modules.  However, we all suffer and we all dissociate.

Suppose an important person in my life violates my trust in a pretty severe way.  Initially, I will be furious.  I will be sure that I will never trust this person again.   However, after a few days or weeks the intensity of the feelings will decrease.  I will remember that it happened, but I will largely forget how it felt.  I might start to think that I was too hard on this person.  I might even trust them again.

Someone who experiences the most extreme kinds of traumas that we can imagine might dissociate to such an extent that they do not even remember that it happened.  A person who had a less traumatic experience might just forget the intensity of the pain.

Perhaps, on average, the more severe the trauma, the more the experiences are dissociated.  That might partially explain why people remember their life up to this point as more pleasant than they found it real time.

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Whether or not you should weigh past expenditures in your judgment depends on the question you want to answer.

Sometimes you should ignore sunk costs, like when deciding whether to continue playing Farmville (link):

The urge to stay the course and keep your farm flourishing gets more powerful the more you invest in it, the more you ask others for help, the more time you spend thinking about it. People set alarms to wake up in the middle of the night to keep their farm alive. You continue to play Farmville not to have fun, but to avoid negative emotions. It isn’t the crop you are harvesting, but your fallacies. You return and click to patch cracks in a dam holding back something icky in your mind – the sense you wasted something you can never get back.

Farmville players are mired in a pit of sunk costs. They can never get back the time or the money they’ve spent, but they keep playing to avoid feeling the pain of loss and the ugly sensation waste creates.

However, when assessing whether effort was ‘worth it’, you should take into account the pain and suffering (or benefit — sunk benefit is a concept too) that you have already experienced.  For example, suppose you slaved away at a job you hated for decades and were miserable the whole time, but now you are enjoying a nice retirement.  It would be easy to feel like it was worth it now, because you are no longer suffering.   But if you are advising a young person about whether they should follow your path, you need to take that cost into account.

Similarly, if you are an adult and thinking about whether you are glad you were brought into the world (and whether we should liberally add people to the world), it’s easy to discount the suffering you might have experienced as a teenager (since it’s in the past).

My impression is that people weigh past cost more heavily in the former scenario (farmville) than in the latter scenarios.

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I’ve argued previously that we were less happy in real time than we believe we were in retrospect.  I’ve also argued that we like optimists better than pessimists.  Thus, it would appear that we like people (including ourselves) to be biased towards a more favorable outlook of the world.  However, I think this theory needs refining, because a favorable outlook for one person might be unfavorable to another.

Self-deprecating vs self-aggrandizing

A friend pointed out that it is more enjoyable to spend time with someone who is more self-deprecating than self-aggrandizing.

Consider the following example.  Suppose we read a manuscript that an acquaintance of ours would like to publish.  Suppose we thought the book was good enough so that it was likely to get published, but not good enough to be a best seller or make the person famous.  Consider three possible attitudes of the acquaintance:

  1. they make it clear to you that they fully expect to get rejected by every publisher;
  2. they believe the book will likely get published, but will not be a best seller or make them famous;
  3. they believe the book will be a best seller, and they believe they will end up discussing it on shows like Oprah and Good Morning America

Which attitude is preferable?  Is modesty a virtue, even above accuracy (i.e., do we prefer 1 over 2?)?  If we have to choose between the two inaccurate views (from our perspective), which do we prefer? I think we would prefer attitude 1 over attitude 3, even though both are inaccurate (in our opinion).

If we like people who have an optimistic view of the world, then why do we not prefer attitude 3?

Paraphrasing my friend:  we worry that overconfident people will have no problem trying to overtly gain resources that we want.  We worry that others will be fooled and give them the money or fame or whatever we want for ourselves.

We do not like to hear about how great someone is, because we do not believe they are better than us, but we worry that other people might. Perhaps that’s why we even view boasting as worse than violence in some circumstances.

This is related to status welfare: status matters and is relative;  if a peer becomes successful our status might lower.  What is optimistic for our acquaintance might be pessimistic for our future status prospects.  Hearing about someone else’s prospects for future success is hearing about a future where we do not measure up to them.

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Charm was a scheme for making strangers like and trust a person immediately, no matter what the charmer had in mind.  -Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

We value social skills

Yesterday David Brooks gave a talk at Penn.  He said that he tries to interview 3 politicians a day.  He said one thing that stands out in talking with them is how extraordinary their social skills are.  I’m sure this does not come as a surprise.

It’s clear that we not only value those social skills, but we punish people who do not have them.

Bob Somerby commented:

People frequently make extemporaneous remarks which sound imperfect, odd or unfortunate. If you want to play the fool, you will wait until some such remark is uttered by some pol[itician] you aren’t supporting. You will then rise up in outrage. You will begin to paraphrase freely, mind-reading the speaker’s motive and outlook. You will thus establish yourself as a fool—and you may win a top spot on cable.

One unfortunate extemporaneous remark can ruin a career.  We expect politicians’ social skills to be perfect.  If they ever make a mistake, we mock them until they hide in shame.

Similarly, people with poor social skills are often laughed at and/or taken advantage of, regardless of how honest and talented they might be.  As Robin Hanson theorized, people pretend

“to mainly value overtly useful skills, while really greatly valuing covert conniving skills. Nerds tend to be much better at the former than the latter, and are often unaware that the latter skills exist. So the fact that nerds think well of themselves for their overt skills, but are largely unaware of how poor they are at covert conniving, is just hilarious.”

So, given that people value social skills so much, perhaps we should emphasize the importance of social skills to children.  However, an alternative to the we need to teach kids more social skills movement is to teach kids to value social skills a little less.  Perhaps valuing social skills to the extent we do has been to our detriment.

But should we?

One of my friends says she prefers socially awkward people, because she tends to not trust people who are too polished socially.  People with poor social skills are probably not skilled enough to be successfully manipulative.

The same skills are involved with both positive and negative social contact:

negative social contact takes skill, too. Do you want to intimidate someone? Insult them where it hurts? Figure out what they’re feeling, and how to use that to make them feel horrible? Seduce them into your car and murder them in your basement? You’re still going to need social skills. My stepfather, for example, who is a textbook sociopath…, knows exactly how to “push people’s buttons” to create a great deal of misery in the people around him, to intimidate people. When I lived at home, he was very perceptive that I was frightened of being worthless; so he called me worthless a great deal. When he wanted to be liked, he was. The neighbors thought he was a great guy, because he wanted them to think that. His social skills are highly refined; his morality is not.

Sure, you can accidentally say something that hurts someone. You can accidentally say something amusing that makes them laugh; you can accidentally say something that confuses them, frightens them, or comforts them. I’ve done all of those, purely accidentally. But, if you have clumsy, unpracticed social skills, you’ll have just as much trouble intimidating people deliberately as you have trouble deliberately charming them.

As a society, we seem to not like it when attractive people with fewer job-related skills are hired over less attractive people with more skills.  We know that we are biased in favor of attractive people, and, to some extent, actively try to prevent it.  I don’t see much difference between attractiveness and social skills.   It’s clear to me that we are very strongly biased in favor of people with strong social skills.  Maybe we should actively try to fight that bias.

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Real time experience vs. recollection

Imagine that every hour people had to record what their last hour was like on a misery – happiness scale.  Were they stressed, anxious, sad, having fun, happy?  Now, imagine that hourly data of this type accumulated over years.

Alternatively, suppose we only asked people every year (or maybe even 5 or 10 years) about their misery-happiness rating.  We ask them what their last year (or 5 years or 10 years) was like?  Were they mostly happy, sad, anxious, etc.?

I think it’s been well documented that people tend to selectively remember the good things, and have an overall rosier view of their

So, I expect that, if you look at someone’s hourly happiness data, you’d get a much different picture about what their life was like than if you look at people’s perceived happiness based on longer recall.  In real time their experience was worse than they think it was when they look back at it a year or more later.  Maybe that’s why we are nostalgic and yearn for the good ol’ days.

Genetic fitness

This seems quite useful from a fitness perspective.

If we were relaxed, happy, and carefree most of the time, we wouldn’t be vigilant enough.  Anxiety about status and protecting our families probably helps us and our offspring survive.

However, if we had an accurate memory and realized that most of our life we were stressed, worried, anxious and/or sad, we might think that live is too hard and miserable of a place.  We might not want to bring kids into the world.  We might not want to exist ourselves.

So, if we are worried and anxious in real time, but think that most of the time life is wonderful, we have a strong desire to live and reproduce, and also are always fighting for more security.

Depression and suicide

Is it possible that people who are depressed and/or suicidal have more accurate memories of their life experience and do not enjoy the benefits of rosy retrospection?

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We often hear (or make) statements like:

“I can’t believe Susie is 2 years old.  It seems like just yesterday she was born.”


“I can’t believe he is in 5th grade already.  It doesn’t seem long ago that he was in kindergarten.”


“I can’t believe I graduated 10 years ago. It doesn’t feel that long ago at all.”


“I can’t believe it’s August already. The summer has flown by.”

Similarly, in surveys, people often report events as having occurred more recently than they actually did. This type of memory bias is known as forward telescoping.   For example, if you ask someone “at what age did you have your first migraine headache?” they will likely believe it occurred more recently than it actually did.  The longer ago it was the larger the absolute bias.  If someone visited the doctor 8 months ago, they will likely think it was within the past 6 months.  8 months doesn’t feel like we think 8 months should feel.

I have two questions about this:

1. Why is the subjective (perceived) passage of time slower than the objective passage of time?

I’m specifically wondering whether there is an evolutionary (genetic fitness) advantage.  I can’t think of one.  Instead, I think it has to do with the fact that our environment is so different from the ancestral environment.  We live in a faster-paced world.  We experience more things.  As discussed previously, the subjective passage of time is faster when we are not bored.  It could be that we were better calibrated for slower-paced (forager; farming) environments.

2. Given that we all seem to have this bias, why don’t we all just recalibrate?

I think most of us are aware that we have this bias, since we are so often surprised by how much time has elapsed between events.  I’m wondering why we don’t just take whatever our instinct about elapsed time is and add some time to it.

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