September 5, 2013

Flawed Reasoning and Failures in Cognition, the wrap-up

 - Part 3 of 3

Over the past couple of days we established the negative outcomes resulting from confirmation bias and the resulting flawed reasoning. We further defined some of the fine subdivisions of confirmation bias. Today define a few more of those subdivisions and wrap up our discussion.

Bandwagon Effect might also be called the “mob effect” or “mob behavior”. While we are often unaware of it, humans have a strong tendency to go with the flow. When the masses start to pick a winner or a favorite, that's when our individualized brains start to shut down and enter into a kind of "groupthink" or hive-mind mentality. But it doesn't have to be a large crowd or the whims of an entire nation; it can include small groups, like a family or even a small group of office co-workers. The bandwagon effect is what often causes behaviors, social norms, and memes to propagate among groups of individuals — regardless of the evidence or motives in support. This is why opinion polls are often maligned, as they can steer the perspectives of individuals accordingly. Much of this bias has to do with our built-in desire to fit in and conform, as famously demonstrated by the Asch Conformity Experiments.

Projection Bias makes it difficult for us to “walk a mile in their shoes”, to project outside the bounds of our own consciousness and preferences. We are trapped inside our own minds and for this reason we mistakenly assume that most people think just as we do… often with little or no justification. This cognitive shortcoming often leads to the related effect of false consensus bias where we tend to believe that people not only think like us, but that they also agree with us. It's a bias where we overestimate how typical and normal we are, and assume that a consensus exists on matters when there may be none. This can also create the effect where the members of a radical or fringe group assume that more people on the outside agree with them than is the case. Or the exaggerated confidence one has when predicting the winner of an election or sports match.

The Current Moment Bias is the “things will forever be as they are now” bias. Humans find difficulty in imagining our future selves and resist altering current behaviors and expectations accordingly. Most of us would rather experience pleasure in the current moment, while leaving the pain for later. This is a bias that is of particular concern to economists (i.e. our unwillingness to not overspend and save money) and health practitioners. A 1998 study showed that, when making food choices for the coming week, 74% of participants chose fruit. But when the food choice was for the current day, 70% went for the chocolate.

Anchoring Effect, also known as the Relativity Trap, is the tendency to compare and contrast only a limited set of items. It's called the anchoring effect because we tend to fixate on a value or number that in turn gets compared to everything else. The classic example is an item at the store that's on sale; we tend to see (and value) the difference in price, but not the overall price itself. This is why some restaurant menus feature very expensive entrees, while also including more (apparently) reasonably priced ones. It's also why, when given a choice, the larger number of us will pick the middle option… not too expensive, and not too cheap.


Spend a bit of time, if you will, in some self-analysis. Looking at these definitions and comparing them to your own perspectives, how often do you find yourself guilty of feeding personal biases? Look at your friends. How many of these have political or religious beliefs mirroring your own?

The most passionate will recognize flaws in cognition only in those whom they oppose… and will never admit that they too might be viewing the world through glasses tinted by bias. The truth is that all humans are subject to the bias traps and the sooner we recognize the flaws within ourselves within… the quicker we will be able to adapt.

Adapt we must. We find ourselves in already very polarized positions and suffering from the political divides in which such polarization inevitably results. Both the far left and the far right can be observed lumping any position more centrist into the far opposing camp. Thus we hear the acronyms “RINO” and “DINO” casually bandied about.

The truth is that both extremes have abandoned reason and neither can recognize the danger in such posturing. The reasonable must self-diagnose these failures and debug our systems. There must be enough reasonable voices to outvote and overwhelm passionate partisanism. There is truth to be found in every perspective and good can come even from some of the more extreme views, but both extremes must also learn that the final adaptation will be in the drift back to the center. 
REV: 20130831-0500

H/T to George Dvorsky