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10 Problems With How We Think
We can never totally escape our biases, but we can be more aware of them, and, just maybe, take efforts to minimize their influence.
By nature, human beings are illogical and irrational. For most of our existence, survival meant thinking quickly, not methodically. Making a life-saving decision was more important than making a 100% accurate one, so the human brain developed an array of mental shortcuts.
Though not as necessary as they once were, these shortcuts -- called cognitive biases or heuristics -- are numerous and innate. Pervasive, they affect almost everything we do, from the choice of what to wear, to judgments of moral character, to how we vote in presidential elections. We can never totally escape them, but we can be more aware of them, and, just maybe, take efforts to minimize their influence.
Ross Pomeroy summarizes ten widespread faults with human thought at Real Clear Science. You can read the original here.
1. Sunk Cost Fallacy
Thousands of graduate students know this fallacy all too well. When we invest time, money, or effort into something, we don't like to see that investment go to waste, even if the task, object, or goal is no longer worth the cost. As Nobel Prize winning psychologistDaniel Kahneman explains, "We refuse to cut losses when doing so would admit failure, we are biased against actions that could lead to regret."
That's why people finish their overpriced restaurant meal even when they're stuffed to the brim, or continue to watch that horrible television show they don't even like anymore, or remain in a dysfunctional relationship, or soldier through grad school even when they decide that they hate their chosen major.
2. Conjunction Fallacy
Sit back, relax, and read about Linda:
Linda is thirty-one years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in antinuclear demonstrations.
Now, which alternative is more probable?
1. Linda is a bank teller, or
2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.
If you selected the latter, you've just blatantly defied logic. But it's okay, about 85 to 90 percent of people make the same mistake. The mental sin you've committed is known as a conjunction fallacy. Think about it: it can't possibly be more likely for Linda to be a bank teller and a feminist compared to just a bank teller. If you answered that she was a bank teller, she could still be a feminist, or a whole heap of other possibilities.
A great way to realize the error in thought is to simply look at a Venn diagram. Label one circle as "bank teller" and the other as "feminist." Notice that the area where the circles overlap is always going to be smaller!
Renowned psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman once rigged a wheel of fortune, just like you'd see on the game show. Though labeled with values from 0 to 100, it would only stop at 10 or 65. As an experiment, they had unknowing participants spin the wheel and then answer a two-part question:
Is the percentage of African nations among UN members larger or smaller than the number you just wrote? What is your best guess of the percentage of African nations in the UN?
Kahneman described what happened next in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow:
The spin of a wheel of fortune... cannot possibly yield any useful information about anything, and the participants... should have simply ignored it. But they did not ignore it.
The participants who saw the number 10 on the wheel estimated the percentage of African nations in the UN at 25%, while those who saw 65 gave a much higher estimate, 45%. Participants' answers were "anchored" by the numbers they saw, and they didn't even realize it! Any piece of information, however inconsequential, can affect subsequent assessments or decisions. That's why it's in a car dealer's best interest to keep list prices high, because ultimately, they'll earn more money, and when you negotiate down, you'll still think you're getting a good deal!
4. Availability Heuristic
When confronted with a decision, humans regularly make judgments based on recent events or information that can be easily recalled. This is known as the availability heuristic.
Says Kahneman, "The availability heuristic... substitutes one question for another: you wish to estimate... the frequency of an event, but you report the impression of ease with which instances come to mind."
Cable news provides plenty of fodder for this mental shortcut. For example, viewers ofEntertainment Tonight probably think that celebrities divorce each other once every minute. The actual numbers are more complicated, and far less exorbitant.
It's important to be cognizant of the availability heuristic because it can lead to poor decisions. In the wake of the tragic events of 9/11, with horrific images of burning buildings and broken rubble fresh in their minds, politicians quickly voted to implement invasive policies to make us safer, such as domestic surveillance and more rigorous airport security. We've been dealing with, and griping about, the results of those actions ever since. Were they truly justified? Did we fall victim to the availability heuristic?
5. Optimism Bias
"It won't happen to me" isn't merely a cultural trope. Individuals are naturally biased to thinking that they are less at risk of something bad happening to them compared to others. The effect, termed optimism bias, has been demonstrated in studies across a wide range of groups. Smokers believe they are less likely to develop lung cancer than other smokers, traders believe they are less likely to lose money than their peers, and everyday people believe they are less at risk of being victimized in a crime.
Optimism bias particularly factors into matters of health(PDF), prompting individuals to neglect salubrious behaviors like exercise, regular visits to the doctor, and condom use.
6. Gambler's Fallacy
On August 13, 1918, during a game of roulette at the Monte Carlo Casino, the ball fell on black 26 times in a row. In the wake of the streak, gamblers lost millions of francs betting against black. They assumed, quite fallaciously, that the streak was caused by an imbalance of randomness in the wheel, and that Nature would correct for the mistake.
No mistake was made, of course. Past random events in no way affect future ones, yet people regularly intuit(PDF) that they do.
7. Herd Mentality
We humans are social creatures by nature. The innate desire to be a "part of the group" often outweighs any considerations of well being and leads to flawed decision-making. For a great example, look no further than the stock market. When indexes start to tip, panicked investors frantically begin selling, sending stocks even lower, which, in turn, further exacerbates the selling. Herd mentality also spawns cultural fads. In the back of their minds, pretty much everybody knew that pet rocks were a waste of money, but lots of people still bought them anyway.
8. Halo Effect
The halo effect is a cognitive bias in which we judge a person's character based upon our rapid, and often oversimplified, impressions of him or her. The workplace is a haven -- more an asylum -- for this sort of faulty thinking.
"The halo effect is probably the most common bias in performance appraisal," researchers wrote in the journal Applied Social Psychology in 2012. The article goes on:
Think about what happens when a supervisor evaluates the performance of a subordinate. The supervisor may give prominence to a single characteristic of the employee, such as enthusiasm, and allow the entire evaluation to be colored by how he or she judges the employee on that one characteristic. Even though the employee may lack the requisite knowledge or ability to perform the job successfully, if the employee's work shows enthusiasm, the supervisor may very well give him or her a higher performance rating than is justified by knowledge or ability.
9. Confirmation Bias
Confirmation bias is the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs. Even those who avow complete and total open-mindedness are not immune. This bias manifests in many ways. When sifting through evidence, individuals tend to value anything that agrees with them -- no matter how inconsequential -- and instantly discount that which doesn't. They also interpret ambiguous information as supporting their beliefs.
Hearing or reading information that backs our beliefs feels good, and so we often seek it out. A great many liberal-minded individuals treat Rachel Maddow or Bill Maher's words as gospel. At the same time, tons of conservatives flock to Fox News and absorb almost everything said without a hint of skepticism.
One place where it's absolutely vital to be aware of confirmation bias is in criminal investigation. All too often, when investigators have a suspect, they selectively search for, or erroneously interpret, information that "proves" the person's guilt.
Though you may not realize it, confirmation bias also pervades your life. Ever searched Google for an answer to a controversial question? When the results come in after a query, don't you click first on the result whose title or summary backs your hypothesis?
10. Discounting Delayed Rewards
If offered $50 today or $100 in a year, most people take the money and run, even though it's technically against their best interests. However, if offered $50 in five years or $100 in six years, almost everybody chooses the $100! When confronted with low-hanging fruit in the Tree of Life, most humans cannot resist plucking it.
This is best summed up by the Ainslie-Rachlin Law, which states, "Our decisions... are guided by the perceived values at the moment of the decision - not by the potential final value."
Image courtesy of Shutterstock
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.
- The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
- Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
- A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Two strategic blunders<p>Now, historians and mathematicians from York St. John University have collaborated to produce <a href="http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~nm15/bootstrapBoB%20AAMS.docx" target="_blank">a statistical model (docx download)</a> capable of calculating what the likely outcomes of the Battle of Britain would have been had the circumstances been different. </p><p>Would the German war effort have fared better had they not bombed Britain at all? What if Hitler had begun his bombing campaign earlier, even by just a few weeks? What if they had focused their targets on RAF airfields for the entire course of the battle? Using a statistical technique called weighted bootstrapping, the researchers studied these and other alternatives.</p><p>"The weighted bootstrap technique allowed us to model alternative campaigns in which the Luftwaffe prolongs or contracts the different phases of the battle and varies its targets," said co-author Dr. Jaime Wood in a <a href="https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2020/research/mathematicians-battle-britain-what-if-scenarios/" target="_blank">statement</a>. Based on the different strategic decisions that the German forces could have made, the researchers' model enabled them to predict the likelihood that the events of a given day of fighting would or would not occur.</p><p>"The Luftwaffe would only have been able to make the necessary bases in France available to launch an air attack on Britain in June at the earliest, so our alternative campaign brings forward the air campaign by three weeks," continued Wood. "We tested the impact of this and the other counterfactuals by varying the probabilities with which we choose individual days."</p><p>Ultimately, two strategic tweaks shifted the odds significantly towards the Germans' favor. Had the German forces started their campaign earlier in the year and had they consistently targeted RAF airfields, an Allied victory would have been extremely unlikely.</p><p>Say the odds of a British victory in the real-world Battle of Britain stood at 50-50 (there's no real way of knowing what the actual odds are, so we'll just have to select an arbitrary figure). If this were the case, changing the start date of the campaign and focusing only on airfields would have reduced British chances at victory to just 10 percent. Even if a British victory stood at 98 percent, these changes would have cut them down to just 34 percent.</p>
A tool for understanding history<p>This technique, said co-author Niall Mackay, "demonstrates just how finely-balanced the outcomes of some of the biggest moments of history were. Even when we use the actual days' events of the battle, make a small change of timing or emphasis to the arrangement of those days and things might have turned out very differently."</p><p>The researchers also claimed that their technique could be applied to other uncertain historical events. "Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealized possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates," said Mackay.</p><p>Using this technique, researchers can evaluate other what-ifs and gain insight into how differently influential events could have turned out if only the slightest things had changed. For now, at least, we can all be thankful that Hitler underestimated Britain's grit.</p>
Apple sold its first iPod in 2001, and six years later it introduced the iPhone, which ushered in a new era of personal technology.
A biologist-reporter investigates his fungal namesake.
The unmatched biologist-reporter Tomasz Sitarz interviews his fungal namesake, maślak sitarz – known in English as the Jersey cow mushroom.