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The Sartre Fallacy Part II: Is It Inevitable?
If we know that we are bad at predicting and can account for the underlying psychology then why do we continue to make bad predictions?
Years before my run in with Monseiur Sartre I landed a summer job in the painting business. If you’ve painted houses perhaps you ran into the same problem I did: poor planning. One summer I discovered that a one week job took closer to two weeks; a three week job lasted about a month and a half, and so on. I devised a rule of thumb: double your completion date. The problem is I didn’t stick to this heuristic even though I knew it was true. Why? Experience and knowledge do not necessarily improve judgment; we’ve seen, in fact, that sometimes the opposite occurs. The mind is stubborn – we stick to our intuitions despite the evidence.
Let’s go beyond the anecdote. In the spring of 2005 Bent Flyvbjerg, Mette K. Skamris Holm, and Søren L. Buhl published an article in Journal of the American Planning Association that presented “results from the ﬁrst statistically signiﬁcant study of trafﬁc forecasts in transportation infrastructure projects.” The paper gathered data from rail and road projects undertaken worldwide between 1969 and 1998. They found that in over 90 percent of rail projects the ridership was overestimated and that 90 percent of rail and road projects fell victim to cost overrun. Worse, although it became obvious that most planners underestimate the required time and money their accuracy actually declined over the years. Today a sizable engineering feat completed on time and within budget is an imaginary one.
In Thinking, Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman describes the planning fallacy as “plans or forecasts that are unrealistically close to best-case scenarios.” Two dramatic examples come to mind. In 1957 The Sydney Opera house was estimated to cost $7 million (Australian dollars) and the completion date was set for early 1963. It opened in 1973 with a price tag of $102 million. Boston’s Big Dig was nearly one decade late and $12 billion dollars overpriced. The one exception that I can think of from the engineering world is New York’s Empire State Building, completed in 410 days, several months ahead of schedule, at $24.7 million, which is close to half of the projected $43 million.
Around the time I was painting houses I discovered more examples of the planning fallacy in other domains. I eventually landed on this question: If we know that we are bad at predicting and can account for the underlying psychology then why do we continue to make bad predictions? Kahneman suggests that to improve predictions we should consult “the statistics of similar cases.” However, I realized that the two biases that contribute to the planning fallacy, overconfidence and optimism, also distort an effort to use similar cases to generate more objective projections. Even when we have access to the knowledge required to make a reasonable estimation we choose to ignore it and focus instead on illusionary best-case scenarios.
This idea returns me to my last post where I coined the term the Sartre Fallacy to describe cases in which acquiring information that warns or advocates against X influences us to do X. I named the fallacy after de Beauvoir’s lover because I acted like a pseudo-intellectual, thereby living less authentically, after reading Being and Nothingness. I noticed other examples from cognitive psychology. Learning about change blindness caused participants in one study to overestimate their vulnerability to the visual mistake. They suffered from change blindness blindness. The planning fallacy provides another example. When planners notice poor projections made in similar projects they become more confident instead of making appropriate adjustments (“We’ll never be that over budget and that late”). This was my problem. When I imagined the worst-case scenario my confidence in the best-case scenario increased.
After I posted the article I was happy to notice an enthusiastic response in the comment section. Thanks to the sagacity of my commenters I identified a problem with the Sartre Fallacy. Here it is; follow closely. If you concluded from the previous paragraph that you would not make the same mistake as the participants who committed change blindness blindness then you’ve committed what I cheekily term the Sartre Fallacy Fallacy (or change blindness x3). If you conclude from the previous sentence that you would not commit the Sartre Fallacy Fallacy (or change blindness x3) then, mon ami, you’ve committed the Sartre Fallacy Fallacy Fallacy (or change blindness x4). I’ll stop there. The idea, simply, is that we tend to read about biases and conclude that we are immune from them because we know they exist. This is of course itself a bias and as we’ve seen it quickly leads to an ad infinitum problem.
The question facing my commentators and me is if the Sartre Fallacy is inevitable. For the automatic, effortless, stereotyping, overconfident, quick judging System 1 the answer is yes. Even the most assiduous thinkers will jump to the conclusion that they are immune to innate biases after reading about innate biases, if only for a split second. Kahneman himself notes that after over four decades researching human error he (his System 1) still commits the mistakes his research demonstrates.
But this does not imply that the Sartre Fallacy is unavoidable. Consider a study published in 1996. Lyle Brenner and two colleagues gave students from San Jose State University and Stanford fake legal scenarios. There were three groups: one heard from one lawyer, the second heard from another lawyer, and the third, a mock jury, heard both sides. The bad news is that even though the participants were aware of the setup (they knew that they were only hearing one side or the entire story), those who heard one-sided evidence provided more confident judgments than those who saw both sides. However, the researchers also found that simply prompting participants to consider the other side’s story reduced their bias. The deliberate, effortful, calculating System 2 is capable of rational analysis; we simply need a reason to engage it.
A clever study by Ivan Hernandez and Jesse Lee Preston provides another reason for optimism. In one experiment liberal and conservative participants read a short pro-capital punishment article. There were two conditions. The fluent condition read that article in 12-point Times New Roman font; the disfluent condition read the article in an italicized Haettenschweiler font presented in a light gray bold. It was difficult to read and that was the point. Hernandez and Preston found that participants in the later condition “with prior attitudes on an issue became less extreme after reading an argument on the issues in a disﬂuent format.” We run on autopilot most of the time. Sometimes offsetting biases means pausing, and giving System 2 a chance to assess the situation more carefully.
One last point. If the Sartre Fallacy was inevitable then we could not account for moral progress. The Yale psychologist Paul Bloom observes in a brief but cogent article for Nature that rational deliberation played a large part in eliminating “beliefs about the rights of women, racial minorities and homosexuals… [held] in the late 1800s.” Bloom’s colleague Steven Pinker similarity argues that reason is one of our “better angels” that helped reduce violence over the millennia:
Reason is… an open-ended combinatorial system, an engine for generating an unlimited number of new ideas. Once it is programmed with a basic self-interest and an ability to communicate with others, its own logic will impel it, in the fullness of time, to respect the interest of ever-increasing numbers of others. It is reason too that can always take note of the shortcomings of previous exercises of reasoning, and update and improve itself in response. And if you detect a flaw in this argument, it is reason that allows you to point it out and defend an alternative.
When Hume noted that, “reason is, and ought to be, only the slave of the passion” he was not suggesting that since irrationality is widespread we should lie back and enjoy the ride. He was making the psychological observation that our emotions mostly run the show and advising a counter strategy: we should use reason to evaluate the world more accurately in order to decide and behave better. The Sartre Fallacy is not inevitable, just difficult to avoid.
Image via Wikipedia Commons
A new study finds that dogs fed fresh human-grade food don't need to eat—or do their business—as much.
- Most dogs eat a diet that's primarily kibble.
- When fed a fresh-food diet, however, they don't need to consume as much.
- Dogs on fresh-food diets have healthier gut biomes.
Four diets were tested<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTU5ODI1MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NjY0NjIxMn0._w0k-qFOC86AqmtPHJBK_i-9F5oVyVYsYtUrdvfUxWQ/img.jpg?width=980" id="1b1e4" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="87937436a81c700a8ab3b1d763354843" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="960" />
Credit: AntonioDiaz/Adobe Stock<p>The researchers tested refrigerated and fresh human-grade foods against kibble, the food most dogs live on. The <a href="https://frontierpets.com.au/blogs/news/how-kibble-or-dry-dog-food-is-made" target="_blank">ingredients</a> of kibble are mashed into a dough and then extruded, forced through a die of some kind into the desired shape — think a <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_extrusion" target="_blank">pasta maker</a>. The resulting pellets are sprayed with additional flavor and color.</p><p>For four weeks, researchers fed 12 beagles one of four diets:</p><ol><li>a extruded diet — Blue Buffalo Chicken and Brown Rice Recipe</li><li>a fresh refrigerated diet — Freshpet Roasted Meals Tender Chicken Recipe</li><li>a fresh diet — JustFoodforDogs Beef & Russet Potato Recipe</li><li>another fresh diet — JustFoodforDogs Chicken & White Rice Recipe.</li></ol><p>The two fresh diets contained minimally processed beef, chicken, broccoli, rice, carrots, and various food chunks in a canine casserole of sorts. </p><p>(One can't help but think how hard it would be to get finicky cats to test new diets. As if.)</p><p>Senior author <a href="https://ansc.illinois.edu/directory/ksswanso" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Kelly S. Swanson</a> of U of I's Department of Animal Sciences and the Division of Nutritional Sciences, was a bit surprised at how much better dogs did on people food than even refrigerated dog chow. "Based on past research we've conducted I'm not surprised with the results when feeding human-grade compared to an extruded dry diet," he <a href="https://aces.illinois.edu/news/feed-fido-fresh-human-grade-dog-food-scoop-less-poop" target="_blank">says</a>, adding, "However, I did not expect to see how well the human-grade fresh food performed, even compared to a fresh commercial processed brand."</p>
Tracking the effect of each diet<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTU5ODI1OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3NjY1NTgyOX0.AdyMb8OEcjCD6iWYnXjToDmcnjfTSn-0-dfG96SIpUA/img.jpg?width=980" id="da892" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="880d952420679aeccd1eaf32b5339810" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="960" />
Credit: Patryk Kosmider/Adobe Stock<p>The researchers tracked the dogs' weights and analyzed the microbiota in their fecal matter.</p><p>It turned out that the dogs on kibble had to eat more to maintain their body weight. This resulted in their producing 1.5 to 2.9 times the amount of poop produced by dogs on the fresh diets.</p><p>Says Swanson, "This is consistent with a 2019 National Institute of Health study in humans that found people eating a fresh whole food diet consumed on average 500 less calories per day, and reported being more satisfied, than people eating a more processed diet."</p><p>Maybe even more interesting was the effect of fresh food on the gut biome. Though there remains much we don't yet know about microbiota, it was nonetheless the case that the microbial communities found in fresh-food poo was different.</p><p>"Because a healthy gut means a healthy mutt," says Swanson, "fecal microbial and metabolite profiles are important readouts of diet assessment. As we have shown in <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jas/article/92/9/3781/4702209#110855647" target="_blank">previous studies</a>, the fecal microbial communities of healthy dogs fed fresh diets were different than those fed kibble. These unique microbial profiles were likely due to differences in diet processing, ingredient source, and the concentration and type of dietary fibers, proteins, and fats that are known to influence what is digested by the dog and what reaches the colon for fermentation."</p>
How did kibble take over canine diets?<p>Historically, dogs ate scraps left over by humans. It has only been <a href="https://www.thefarmersdog.com/digest/the-history-of-commercial-pet-food-a-great-american-marketing-story/" target="_blank">since 1870</a>, with the arrival of the luxe Spratt's Meat Fibrine Dog Cakes—made from "the dried unsalted gelatinous parts of Prairie Beef", mmm—that commercial dog food began to take hold. Dog bone-shaped biscuits first appeared in 1907. Ken-L Ration dates from 1922. Kibble was first extruded in 1956. Pet food had become a great way to turn <a href="https://www.dogfoodadvisor.com/choosing-dog-food/animal-by-products/" target="_blank">human-food waste</a> into profit.</p><p>Commercial dog food became the norm for most household canines only after a massive marketing campaign led by a group of dog-food industry lobbyists called the Pet Food Institute in 1964. Over time, for most households, dog food was what dogs ate — what else? Human food? These days more than half of U.S. dogs are <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/03/magazine/who-made-that-dog-biscuit.html" target="_blank">overweight or obese</a>, and certainly their diet is a factor.<span></span></p><p>We're not so special among animals after all. If something's healthy for us to eat—we're <em>not</em> looking at you, chocolate—maybe we should remember to share with our canine compatriots. Not from the table, though.</p>
New study suggests the placebo effect can be as powerful as microdosing LSD.
- New research from Imperial College London investigated the psychological effects of microdosing LSD in 191 volunteers.
- While microdosers experienced beneficial mental health effects, the placebo group performed statistically similar to those who took LSD.
- Researchers believe the expectation of a trip could produce some of the same sensations as actually ingesting psychedelics.
Psychedelics: The scientific renaissance of mind-altering drugs<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="92360c805fe66c11de38a75b0967f417"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/5T0LmbWROKY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>For the study published in eLife, the team recruited 191 citizen cosmonauts to microdose either LSD or a placebo over the course of several weeks and note the psychological effects. Volunteers were already microdosing LSD, so there was no true control. Each volunteer was given instructions on creating their own low-dose gel capsules, some containing LSD, others not. Then they mixed the capsules in envelopes so they didn't know if they were taking the real thing or not.</p><p>The trial design was ingenious: each capsule featured a QR code that was scanned after the addition of ingredients but before they were placed in the envelope so that researchers knew what they were ingesting.</p><p>The problem: volunteers sourced their own LSD. Lack of quality control could have had a profound effect on the results. </p><p>The results: LSD microdosers reported feeling more mindful, satisfied with life, and better overall; they also noticed a reduction in feelings of paranoia. </p><p>The catch: the control group felt the same thing, with no statistical difference between the groups. </p><p>Lead author Balázs Szigeti comments on the findings: "This suggests that the improvements may not be due to the pharmacological action of the drug but can instead be explained by the placebo effect." </p>
Credit: Alexander / Adobe Stock<p>Psychedelics are notoriously difficult to control for given the intensity of the experience. Yet there is precedent for the above findings. A <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00213-020-05464-5" target="_blank">2019 study</a> found that 61 percent of volunteers that took a placebo instead of psilocybin felt some psychedelic effects, with a few volunteers experiencing full-on trips.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Several stated that they saw the paintings on the walls 'move' or 'reshape' themselves, others felt 'heavy. . . as if gravity [had] a stronger hold', and one had a 'come down' before another 'wave' hit her."</p><p>The Imperial team believes the expectation of a trip might have been enough to produce similar results. Senior author David Erritzoe is excited for future studies on the topic, believing they tapped into a new wave of citizen science that could push forward our knowledge of psychedelic substances.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Accounting for the placebo effect is important when assessing trends such as the use of cannabidiol oils, fad diets or supplements where social pressure or users' expectations can lead to a strong placebo response. Self-blinding citizen science initiatives could be used as an inexpensive, initial screening tool before launching expensive clinical studies."</p><p>As investments into the psychedelics market explode, with one company <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-03-03/thiel-backed-magic-mushroom-firm-atai-hits-2-billion-valuation" target="_blank">reaching a $2 billion valuation</a>, a recurring irony appears in the long arc of psychedelics and research: the power of our minds might be enough to feel greater life satisfaction and a deeper sense of mindfulness. If that's possible with a placebo, we have to question why the rush to create more pharmacology is necessary. </p><p>This is, mind you, a separate conversation over the role of psychedelics and rituals for group bonding. The function of group cohesion around consciousness-altering substances will continue to play an important role in many communities. </p><p>Of course, we should continue to explore the efficacy of psychedelics on anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, PTSD, and addiction. <a href="https://bigthink.com/surprising-science/antidepressant-effects" target="_self">Pharmacological dependence</a> is a stain on the psychiatry industry. Whether or not psychedelics can be prescribed for daily use remains to be seen, but we know a moneyed interest is expecting a return on investment—the above company, ATAI Life Sciences, raised $157 million in its Series D round. </p><p>When it comes to wellbeing, some things money just can't buy. How we navigate the tricky terrain of mainstreaming psychedelics remains to be seen. </p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Facebook</a>. His most recent book is</em> "<em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08KRVMP2M?pf_rd_r=MDJW43337675SZ0X00FH&pf_rd_p=edaba0ee-c2fe-4124-9f5d-b31d6b1bfbee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy</a>."</em></p>
What makes some people more likely to shiver than others?
Some people just aren't bothered by the cold, no matter how low the temperature dips. And the reason for this may be in a person's genes.