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 has 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. 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 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, as I’ve repeatedly noted, was not able to reanimate his own 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 adapative 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 peope aare concerned with maintaining authority in a group, and preventing subversion to that authority. (Having authority also requires a compensory duty to help take care of the society.)
  • The Sanctity/Degradation axis: how much peope aare 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 on 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 to issues 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.

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 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 best selling 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 hot-bed 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 Bagenat 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.”

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 weight lifter who “held the record for power squatting, 560 pounds.”

Where progressives see themselves as compassionate and advocates for justice and the underdogs, conservatives disdain what they perceive as our weakness. They believe in the law of the jungle — even though there are many more examples of cooperation in nature than most people believe. Strength is what is admired. Strength and discipline.

How Progressives and Conservatives are both Wrong on the Second Amendment

For example, the Second Amendment. The debate over whether Americans have an individual right to bear arms ended with the 2008 case of District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570, bolstered in 2010 by the case of McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U.S. 3025. The Heller case firmly enshrined the notion that Americans have an individual right to carry arms based on the Second Amendment. Heller applied that principle to the federally-controlled District of Columbia; McDonald applied it further to the individual states. The Second Amendment, lest we forget, is remarkably short and reads in its entirety as follows:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

I would argue that the Heller and McDonald case were incorrectly decided: the well-regulated militia, in a common sense reading of this single sentence, is clearly the precondition for the right to bear arms. We do, in fact, have well-regulated militias, and they are, in fact armed. I’m talking, of course, of the state militias. About half the states have them, and the ones that don’t certainly could have them. (The state militias should not be confused with the closely-related national guard, which are part of the militia of the United States.)

One of the ironies of the Second Amendment is that it was a way to arm citizens against outside invaders, not a way to arm citizens to take arms against their own government.

But regardless of what I think, the case is closed. Heller and McDonald have been decided, and under the principle of stare decisis, it is very unlikely that they will be “undecided,” especially while the court remains essentially conservative. Of course, neither Heller nor McDonald stand for the proposition that there can be no regulation of firearms, as some of the more radical pro-gun elements would have you believe. (If they did, then the average American could also buy shoulder-fired anti-tank or anti-aircraft missiles, as those would be much more effective in a war against the American military.)

Conservatives are wrong in their belief that the Second Amendment does not allow for the regulation or limitations on firearms. They are wrong when they suggest that to have to register firearms will lead to those firearms being taken away anymore than having to register a car will lead to the car being taken away. What it may lead to is to have the firearm taken away if you misuse it, which is exactly what’s true for cars as well. Conservatives are also wrong to believe that taking guns off the streets wouldn’t increase public safety. That can be demonstrated by the example of Australia, which in response to the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre — in which Martin Bryant killed 35 people at the historic Port Arthur site for reasons that have never been clearly established — initiated strict controls on semi-automatic rifles and all semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns, and a tightly restrictive system of licensing and ownership controls, as well as a gun buy-back program that destroyed an estimated 631,000 firearms. These preventive actions did measurably reduce both homicides and suicides through gun use, although the exact amount if, of course, a matter od debate between pro- and anti-gun factions. But it doesn’t matter if this was successful in Australia; because it’s never going to happen here. It’s never going to happen here because the Heller and McDonald cases have already been decided.

But progressives are also wrong about gun control. We’re wrong about two things: first, we’re wrong in our belief that preventing those with mental health issues from being able to obtain guns will prevent the kind of massacres that happened in Newtown; second, we’re also wrong in our belief that new restrictions on semi-automatic rifles and high capacity magazines will do much to prevent these kind of massacres, although the scope of the disasters may become a little bit circumsribed.

First to the mental health issue: those with expertise in mental health forensics will tell you that while the shooters in these massacres — the Adam Lanzas and Seung-Hui Chos, the Eric Harris and Dylan Klebolds of this world — all have common personality and mental health characteristics, they also share those characteristics with thousands upon thousands of young men (and women) who never grow up to be a shooter. The problem is that our mental health system is still in its infancy, really not much more progressed than our medical system was when doctors were still doing bloodletting. The mental health system is notoriously bad at predicting future behavior, and not that much better at alleviating mental health issues, with some notable exceptions. Drugs have helped in some cases, but they’re still a blunt instrument. Until drugs can be genetically engineered for individual patients — also known as “personalized” medicine, and still some years away from practical applications in the general populace — that lack of efficacy will likely continue.

Second, to the question of whether restrictions on semi-automatic rifles and high capacity magazines will do much to prevent future massacres: the prevailing evidence is that it won’t. These school shooters are typically very intelligent guys who engage in a great deal of planning ahead of time. See, for example, Anders Behring Breivik, the extreme right-wing nationalist who killed 69 teenagers at a summer camp in Norway back in 2011. Norway, is of course, exactly the kind of progressive social democracy that conservatives in the United States hate. It has strict gun control laws, although, because of its history with hunting and sport shooting, does have a significant number of guns in circulation. (A 2007 analysis of gun ownership world-wide indicated that Norway had about 31 guns per 100 residents, whereas the Uniter States had 89.) None of Norway’s gun regulations kept Breivik from purchasing guns legally and over the Internet, and purchasing some other weapons supplies in Poland. In short, with the number of weapons in circulation here and the inconsistency of both laws and their enforcement, it would not likely be that difficult for a dedicated sociopath to acquire whatever supplies he (or she) needed for a massacre.

But the level of planning also illuminates the insanity of Wayne LaPierre’s proposal, in response to Sandy Hook, to have armed guards stationed at every school in the United States. Take, for example, the case of the Kaufman County murders: on January 30, 2013, Mark Hasse, a Chief Assistant District Attorney for the Kaufman County Criminal District Attorney’s Office, was murdered out in broad daylight while walking from his car to the courthouse. His boss, District Attorney McClelland, already licensed as a gun owner, took to wearing his gun at all times, including inside his house. Nevertheless, he was surprised on the morning of March 30, 2013 by the same assassin — who turned out to be the wife of a former Judge, convicted of crimes while in office! — and both McLellan and his wife were murdered.

This is what those who think that owning a gun will protect them don’t understand: it almost never protects them, because the attacks virtually always come as a complete surprise. That’s why in a pro-gun state like Arizona there was nobody to protect Gabby Giffords from Jared Lee Loughner. That’s why in a pro-gun state like Colorado there was no one to protect fans of “The Dark Knight Rises” from James Eagan Holmes. And that’s why armed guards in schools would be completely ineffective. Because the guards would be bored to tears waiting for something to happen at the approximately 133,000 public and private schools in the United States. And when something finally did happen at one of these schools, they wouldn’t be ready for it because they wouldn’t be expecting it. That’s human nature.

But hoping for a rational debate on gun control is more than we can expect. Gun rights advocates are notoriously zealous — and often “one-issue” voters — whereas gun control advocates are notoriously indifferent once the immediate impact of a massacre fades away.

Continue to a discussion of the Politics & Religion

1 Response to On Cognitive Biases

  1. shanakant says:

    Great read! It’s not too often that I come across a blog post of this caliber, one that invites academic/intellectual discussion. This piece has my mind racing (and it honestly brings me back to being an IB student 😂). Whether one agrees with your stance on the topic or not, you make a fair argument. Nicely done.

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