On Cognitive Biases

Cognitive biases have fascinated me for a long time. Like cognitive dissonance. Eliot Aronson and Carol Tavris, in their brilliant book, “Mistakes Were Made (But not by Me),” demonstrate how cognitive biases can work in the context of a child abuse investigation. The prosecutors, the therapists, the social workers involved in one of these investigations are deeply invested in protecting children. It’s part of their core identity. Child abuse, as we know, can devastate the life of the victim. But if the wrong person is prosecuted, when an innocent person is convicted, that can also devastate the life of the alleged perpetrators. Time and experience have shown that child abuse prosecutions are especially tricky. Children have proven to be enormously suggestible. Memory has proven to be remarkably error prone. Yet, even when there is overwhelming evidence that someone previously convicted is innocent ” like the McMartin Pre-School Trial, or the “wilding” youth in the Central Park Jogger case, prosecutors, police, investigators, therapists and social workers, are generally highly resistant to changing their minds.1 The reason is cognitive dissonance: the conflict between seeing themselves as protectors of the weak and vulnerable, and the coming to understand that they have participated in perpetrating an injustice.

Cognitive dissonance, of course, is just one of many cognitive biases that we can have. The list is extensive, and there is no universal agreement on which biases should be included in the list. Some of my favorite cognitive biases include:

Attentional bias: the tendency to pay attention to emotionally dominant stimuli in one’s environment and to neglect relevant data that is less emotionally stimulating.

Backfire effect: the tendency to react to disconfirming evidence by strengthening your preexisting belief.

Bandwagon effect: the tendency to do or believe things because many other people do or believe the same.

Confirmation bias: the tendency to search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.

Frequency illusion: the illusion in which a word, a name or other thing that has recently come to one’s attention suddenly seems to appear with improbable frequency shortly afterwards.

Gambler’s fallacy: the tendency to think that future probabilities are altered by past events, when in reality they are unchanged. (Winning the lottery, for example, makes it no more or less likely that you’ll win the lottery again.)

Zero-sum bias: the tendency to intuitively judge a situation to be zero-sum (i.e., that gains and losses are the same)

While we are all subject to our own biases — and usually more of them than we care to admit — it can and does help to be conscious of these kind of biases, and to step back now and then to try and catch yourself in the act of subjectively distorting perception.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

There is one cognitive bias that I want to give special attention to in the age of Trump, and that is the Dunning Kruger effect. Imaginatively named after social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, the effect, it describes a phenomenon where certain populations have a much higher estimation of their own abilities than they actually have.

A great example of this is when it comes to driving. Almost all of us believe ourselves to be better than average driver. But mathematically, that is, of course, impossible. We can’t all be above average. Statistically, some of us must be average, and a whole cohort of us have to be below average.

But to be a little bit more technical, what Dunning and Kruger found is that people who are highly competent are more likely to assess themselves realistically, whereas people with low skill sets are more likely to overestimate their skills. Or in the language of social science, they found that “the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.”

The Dunning-Kruger effect may be particularly important in the age of Trump, and may also be helpful in explaining support for Donald Trump. In a series of surveys intended to measure both the extent of someone’s political knowledge — names of cabinet members, the length of term limits for members of Congress, and the names and functions of programs that the U.S. government spends money on — and the extent of their confidence in their political knowledge, those with poor knowledge had disproportionate amounts of confidence. This was especially true for Trump supporters. Other studies have found that 45% of Republicans believed that the Affordable Care Act included “death panels,” and that 54% of Republican primary voters believed then-president Barack Obama to be a Muslim.

People’s Inability to Calculate Risk

One of the places where people’s cognitive limitations frequently shows up is in our collective inability to calculate risk correctly. It’s well known that relatively few people are killed by sharks annually — averaging about 5 a year — but people get all crazed when the media reports on shark sightings. Clearly this taps into one of our primal fears. On the other hand, elephants and hippos do not tap into our primal fears, even though both kill about 500 people a year on average. Of course, we also don’t have elephants or hippos over here in the United States, so that’s part of the reason, although people still have a pretty primal response to lions and tigers. And they don’t live here either.

When it comes to animals who kill us, the statistics look something like this:

  1. Mosquitos: about 1 million people a year
  2. Snakes: about 50,000 people a year
  3. Dogs: about 25,000 people a year
  4. Tsetse flies and assassin bugs: about 10,000 people a year
  5. Freshwater snails (through the release of a parasite): about 10,000 people a year
  6. Scorpions: about 3250 people a year
  7. Ascaris roundworms (also through parasites): about 2500 people a year
  8. Tapeworms: about 2000 people a year
  9. Crocodiles: about 1000 people a year
  10. Hippos and elephants: about 500 people a year
  11. Lions: about 250 people a year
  12. Cape Buffalo: about 200 people a year.

Sharks didn’t even make it into the top dozen. On the other hand, I had never heard of Ascaris roundworms or assassin bugs, and they kill about 12,500 people a year. Also, cows and horses each kill about 20 people a year. Deer kill a lot more than that, mostly by running out in front of cars. And speaking of cars, how many people are killed in cars annually in the United States? About 33,000.

When it comes to risk perception, there are several different elements which help to explain whether we consider something to be risky:

  1. Whether we are able to retain control of the risk (which explains in part why we fear flying more than driving).
  2. Whether the danger is immediate (such as a hurricane) as opposed to long-term (such as climate change).
  3. Whether we are making our own choices with respect to the risk or are having decisions imposed on us.
  4. Whether the risk is a familiar and traditional risk, or whether it is a new or unknown risk.

The Wilkomirski Affair and Other Fabrications

People may have an “experience” of Jesus or an experience of a spiritual encounter and believe it to be true. But, as anybody who has studied how the brain works knows, we can be easily fooled by our senses. Or by our memories.

Take, for example, the Wilkomirski Affair, which I also came to my attention through the Aronson and Tavris book. Binjamin Wilkomirski (real name Bruno Dössekker) was a Swiss orphan who genuinely came to believe that he was a child survivor of a concentration camp. He came to this belief through his work with a well-meaning therapist and her efforts at helping him “recover” his memories. What he actually recovered were not his memories but images from the War, from the Holocaust, from popular culture, that felt consonant with his own genuinely traumatic experiences. All of this would have remained unknown but for the fact that he authored a beautifully-written and well-received memoir entitled, “Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood.” The book received the 1996 National Jewish Book Award for autobiography and memoir in the United States; in Britain, the book won the Jewish Quarterly Literary Prize; in France, it won the Prix Mémoire de la Shoah; the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington sent Wilkomirski on a six-city United States fund-raising tour. In short, this small tome became an instant classic in the world of Holocaust literature, until discrepancies between the stories and Wilkomirski’s emerging biography led his publisher’s insurance company to undertake an investigation, the conclusion of which was that Wilkomirski’s tome was entirely fabricated.

Although fabricated, no one, including the insurance investigator who conducted the inquiry, ever accused Wilkomirski of the willful fabrication of his story; and Wilkomirski, who is still alive, will likely to go his grave still believing that he was a child in the Majdanek and Birkenau concentration camps.

Wilkomirski is hardly alone in allowing himself to be fooled by his senses or his memories. Another common example is the experience people have of alien abduction. For example, outside of Boston there lives a man named Will Andrews who is absolutely convinced that he was abducted by aliens; he has vivid memories of being experimented upon, and even claims to have fathered twin boys with an alien, boys whom he will, unfortunately, never see again. These kind of stories have been given the illusion of credibility by people like John Mack, a once respected Harvard psychiatrist who, having interviewed hundreds of “survivors” of alien abductions, has become to believe that they are true. Nor are Will Andrews or John Mack alone. One estimate is that there are over 1700 people who sincerely believe themselves to have been abducted by aliens and who have specific and vivid memories of their abductions. (The longer that Malaysia flight #370 isn’t found, the more convinced people will be that the entire aircraft was subject to an alien abduction. There are people who believe that already.)

It should be noted, by the way, that from a scientific standpoint, alien abductions are much more likely than that Jesus Christ is God and died for our sins. Aliens who have the technology to cross from wherever they originated to us, and to do so undetected, clearly would have to have technology far superior to our own. And this brings us to the realm of the unknowable; imagine, after all, what bronze age citizens would have to say about just the technology that we have now.

The third enticing belief is that related to the near death experience: the experience that people have from time to time when someone gets very close to passing away but somehow recovers. The number of people who report having had near-death experiences is startlingly high: according to a Gallup poll, at least, as many as eight million Americans report having had a near death experience. There are certain common elements that seem to characterize near-death experiences. These include the sense of being outside one’s physical body (including often watching doctors and nurses performing medical resuscitation efforts); a sense of peace, well-being or painlessness; a “tunnel experience” or a rapid movement toward and sudden immersion in a powerful light; and telepathic conversations with beings of light or angels, deceased relatives and pets, or religious figures such as Jesus Christ. From time to time there are people with a great deal of scientific credibility who report having a near death experience. One recent such example is Dr. Eben Alexander, a former resident and research fellow at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital, who had a near death experience in 2008, which formed the basis for his recent book, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife.

What causes the near death experience is, at this point, still poorly understood and open to debate. Those who have faith see it as proof of an afterlife, as proof that the soul has existence outside of the physical body, and, in some cases — such as Dr. Alexander’s — as proof of heaven. Skeptics have argued, among other things, that brain activity can still be ongoing even when somebody “appears” to be dead; that the formation of these memories may occur either right before the near death experience or right after the “resuscitation”; that there are elements of what can happen near death that are similar to what happens in the brain during lucid dreaming; that certain chemicals are released in the brain around the time of a near death experience that could contribute to the sense of well-being; and that the chemical processes that happen in a brain under oxygen deprivation are known to share some characteristics with the effects of psychoactive substances.

It is, of course, very tempting to see the reports of these near-death experiences as proof of an after-life. But, there are some things that are suspicious. Probably first among these are the culturally specific elements in people’s self-reporting. So, for example, in Western Christian cultures the reports are much more likely to involve elements and imagery that suggest a heaven than one finds in the near-death experiences of Asians of Africans. But, in truth, we’ll never know. All I know is that nobody has literally come back from the dead, not even Jesus Christ, who was not able to reanimate his own physical body, whatever other miracles he might have worked.

How Progressives and Conservatives Think Differently

Aside from cognitive biases, I’ve also been fascinated in how and why progressives and conservatives think differently. If you’re a progressive and you follow a conservative argument to its conclusion — or conversely if you’re conservative and you follow a progressive argument’s to its conclusion — you will often find that the difference in the argument begins at the outset: that is to say, it begins with the assumptions that underlie the argument. The logical construct that is built on top of those arguments maybe solid, with or without cognitive biases. In any case, this is a question that has begun to be tackled recently, and several books have been written about the issue.

Initially, there is George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist, whose book Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, looks at exactly this question. Lakoff analogized people’s political thinking to their families, and in particular to the parenting styles used in their families: progressives believe in a “nurturing” parenting style and conservatives believe in an “authoritarian” (or strict father) parenting style. So, for example, in a nurturing family there is an ethos that all the family members should care for and be care for by other family members, with open communication and democratic decision making between all parties.  In contrast, the authoritarian family is built on the notion that parents must teach their children how to be self-reliant and self-disciplined through “tough love.” Some of the views that correlate with this model is that the world is fundamentally just; that temptation is all around us; that the primary vices are laziness, gluttony, and indulgent sexuality; that people usually get what they deserve.

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University, has taken a different approach to the same question. He has addressed the question from the perspective of morals theory, or what characteristics are important to voters in making the decision which candidate or issue to vote for. This is set forth in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt identifies six foundations that characterize some part of the moral spectrum. They are:

  • The Care/Harm axis: how much people are concerned that other members of society are taken care of, that no harm comes to them. (Evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of caring for vulnerable children; makes us sensitive to signs of suffering and need).
  • The Fairness/Cheating axis: how much people are concerned with fairness to all members of society, and that particular members are not cheating. (Progressives tend to be more concerned about equality while conservatives more about proportionality.)
  • The Loyalty/Betrayal axis: how much are people concerned with loyalty to their own group, and not being betrayed by members of it. (Traitors are often considered to be worse than enemies.)
  • The Authority/Subversion axis: how much people are concerned with maintaining authority in a group, and preventing subversion to that authority. (Having authority also requires a compensatory duty to help take care of the society.)
  • The Sanctity/Degradation axis: how much people are concerned with certain things being sacred or sanctified, and how much they’re concerned with preventing the degradation of sacred things. (Some things become “untouchable” in both good and bad ways.
  • The Liberty/Oppression axis: how much people are concerned with their own liberty, or that of their group, and with not being oppressed. (The foundation supports egalitarianism and antiauthoritarianism on the left and don’t-tread-on-me antigovernment anger on the right.)

Haidt argues that progressives put too much of an emphasis on the care/harm axis, and that libertarians put too much emphasis on the liberty/oppression axis. Conservatives, by contrast, have the most even distribution in their concern for all six of these aspects of morality (although if you believe Lakoff, they put a heavy emphasis on the authority/subversion axis, especially with their deep concern about the military). On the one hand, I think Haidt deserves a lot of credit for clearly identifying these moral concerns, and lining them up with progressives, conservatives and libertarians; on the other hand, what’s missing from his analysis is a discussion of what government should be concerned about. Not all six of these issues necessarily deserve equal weight in answering that question.

The six “foundations” that Haidt identified are the basis, after all, for both personal and public morality. There is a difference. Questions of sanctity and degradation naturally are more important in addressing questions of personal morality: they’re more important in questions of religious belief, and also questions related (along with liberty/oppression) to sexual behavior and its consequences. Also, the loyalty/betrayal and authority/subversion foundations are arguably different sides of the same coin. What Haidt has identified, one could argue, is more that conservatives have their private morality “bleed over” into their public morality in a way that’s more substantial than for progressives, who are more able to keep their private and public morality distinct. In any case, a foundation like the sanctity/degradation axis is not limited to conservatives: folks of the “new age” persuasion are also very concerned with sacred space and the sanctity of certain beliefs, objects and practices; you can see the “impurity avoidance” function of new age practices in natural food stores and the variety of products that promise to cleanse the purchasor of “toxins.” But again, the left doesn’t generally bring their spiritual beliefs into the public policy arena.

What I Learned from Jack Abramoff

For those of you who don’t remember, Jack Abramoff was the former super-lobbyist during the heyday of the Bush administration who was eventually caught and convicted of conspiracy, fraud, and tax evasion, among other charges, in several different scandals, that eventually led to the conviction of nineteen other people, including former House Majority Leader Tom Delay. In 2011, he published a book called Capitol Punishment. The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist, a narcissistic look at his lobbying career and what he has learned about the corruption in the American political system since his incarceration. The book is actually very interesting in many respects, and is worthwhile reading even for those coming from a progressive point of view. What I learned from reading the book is how much conservatives admire strength. Abramoff himself had loads of it: not only did he wrestle in high school, but he also was a weightlifter who “held the record for power squatting, 560 pounds.” Having compassion for the less fortunate is equated with weakness.

It’s well known that high-tax, traditionally Democratic states subsidize low-tax, traditionally Republican states, and have done so for many years. It’s also well known that the majority of food stamp (SNAP) recipients are white. So among the red states and their voters, many of whom do in fact receive some kind of public assistance, there is a certain amount of self-loathing. But that doesn’t keep their voters from voting against self-interest, such as the many deep red states that voted against Medicaid expansion.

Other Theories on Political Differences

Journalist and author Chris Mooney — who has written the decidedly partisan The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality — has another theory on the differences between progressives and conservatives. He believes, among other things, that conservatives are more rigid and progressives are more “open to experience.” In general, he asserts, progressives “tend to be more open, flexible, curious and nuanced,” and conservatives “tend to be more closed, fixed and certain in their views.”

Conservatives also tend to struggle more when their belief system is contradicted by scientific fact. Their discomfort can be so great, that in some cases, they invent an alternate reality: something such as the “Conservapedia,” the brain-child of Andrew Schlafly, the son of Phyllis Schlafly, the firebrand political conservative legendary for her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, among other things. Andrew Schlafly is a very bright, educated guy: he is a Harvard law graduate with an engineering degree from Princeton; he used to work both for Intel and for Bell Labs. As Chris Mooney notes, the problem is not that Schlafly, or other conservatives as sophisticated as he, “can’t make an argument.” Rather, the problem is “that when Schlafly makes an argument, it’s hard to believe it has anything to do with real intellectual give and take. He’s not arguing out of an openness to changing his mind. He’s arguing to reaffirm what he already thinks (his ‘faith’), to defend the authorities he trusts, and to bolster the beliefs of his compatriots, his tribe, his team.”

What’s the Matter with Kansas

In his bestselling 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas, the journalist and author Thomas Frank makes the case that conservatives have successfully redefined “Hollywood” and the “liberal elite” (mostly residing in universities and college towns) as the enemy of the hard-working blue collar people in the South and Midwest.  A state like Kansas was once a hotbed of social populism. Now, it is rock-ribbed conservative, and it’s mostly explosive issues like abortion — especially abortion — and gay marriage that have gotten us there.

A similar point is made by a third author and journalist, the recently-deceased Joe Bageant, in his book Deer Hunting with Jesus. The author goes back to his former hometown of Winchester, VA, and examines the lives and the politics of the inhabitants that still live there. As Steve Koss, a reviewer on Amazon notes, what Bageant finds in his old hometown is a place “where ‘average folks’ are uneducated, hopelessly parochial and uninformed, terrified of getting sick, and anesthetized by materialism, religious fundamentalism, and eight hours a day of television.”

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  1. Nobody seems to have been more resistant to changing his mind about the wilding case than Donald John Trump, who probably still believes that President Obama was born in Kenya.