Bias: it’s not a bug, it’s a feature

“Kahan’s argument about the woman who does not believe in global warming is a surprising and persuasive example of a general principle: if we want to understand others, we can always ask what is making their behaviour ‘rational’ from their point of view. If, on the other hand, we just assume they are irrational, no further conversation can take place.”
http://aeon.co/magazine/psychology/we-are-more-rational-than-those-who-nudge-us/

How cultural commitments damage your ability to reason

start counting. Source: unlistedsightings/flickr

When people don’t accept the scientific evidence, it may be useless to present them with yet more evidence. They are not stupid. They are simply protecting their cultural identity.

Here’s the journalism:

Science confirms: politics wrecks your ability to do math

And here’s the original study, Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government

Kahan, Dan M., Peters, Ellen, Dawson, Erica Cantrell and Slovic, Paul, Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government (September 3, 2013). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=

Abstract: 
Why does public conflict over societal risks persist in the face of compelling and widely accessible scientific evidence? We conducted an experiment to probe two alternative answers: the “Science Comprehension Thesis” (SCT), which identifies defects in the public’s knowledge and reasoning capacities as the source of such controversies; and the “Identity-protective Cognition Thesis” (ICT) which treats cultural conflict as disabling the faculties that members of the public use to make sense of decision-relevant science. In our experiment, we presented subjects with a difficult problem that turned on their ability to draw valid causal inferences from empirical data. As expected, subjects highest in Numeracy—a measure of the ability and disposition to make use of quantitative information—did substantially better than less numerate ones when the data were presented as results from a study of a new skin-rash treatment. Also as expected, subjects’ responses became politically polarized—and even less accurate—when the same data were presented as results from the study of a gun-control ban. But contrary to the prediction of SCT, such polarization did not abate among subjects highest in Numeracy; instead, it increased. This outcome supported ICT, which predicted that more Numerate subjects would use their quantitative-reasoning capacity selectively to conform their interpretation of the data to the result most consistent with their political outlooks. We discuss the theoretical and practical significance of these findings.

Apparently, “Science Confirms The Obvious: Strict Parents Raise Conservative Kids”

“Science Confirms The Obvious: Strict Parents Raise Conservative Kids” – http://pulse.me/s/eC9fb If so, would it be possible to conduct similar experiments to test whether parents with a particularly strong cultural bias raise their children to have a similar bias? So, for example, do Fatalist parents raise Fatalist kids? My guess here is that the social setting is what’s at stake. It might be more appropriate to speak of, an Egalitarian family (ie. a social organisation) than of an Egalitarian parent. But maybe not if you happen to be a psychological researcher. In other words, the methodological individualism in psychological research necessitates the discovery of political or cultural biases in the individual’s head – because (apparently) there is no where else for those biases to reside. But a complimentary approach might be to investigate the ways these biases are constructed and maintained between people – in the their institutions (including the family), in their rules etc.

Selling the Sizzle

English: Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Resized,...
Image via Wikipedia

Every salesperson has learnt that you don’t sell the sausage, you sell the sizzle.

Sizzle: “the desirable, tempting and enticing sounds and aroma that convince you to eat what is basically a dead pig.”

Sausages are only the start, of course. Wouldn’t you love more time? This new dishwasher will give you what you want! A dishwasher is what you have to offer, but the promise of more time is what you actually sell.

Don’t you long to stay young forever? This new cream/car/drink will make you look as young as you feel! The promise of eternal youth is so desirable, tempting and enticing that it can be used to sell almost anything.

This approach has been highly successful at selling dishwashers, cars, creams and drinks as well as sausages, but can it work with social issues? The social marketing movement certainly thinks it can, and it has some great ideas for improving communication (think Hillary Clinton vs. Obama, or the old Hillary versus the new).

But like all simplifying processes, it misses out something important. The sizzle approach assumes we all desire the same thing, that our needs and wishes are simple and fairly undifferentiated. In the background to all this is the highly influential hierarchy of needs established by Abraham Maslow in the 1950s. In short, Maslow claimed we all look for food and shelter before worrying about status and self-actualization. We only seek the higher order needs once our basic needs have been met. Seems obvious, but research carried out at Goon Park showed that primates don’t actually work like that: those baby rhesus monkeys sought out maternal comfort [even though fake] before basic food and water. Harry Harlow wrote, “Certainly, man does not live on milk alone.”

The secret to selling the sizzle of social progress is to recognize that the sizzle comes in four distinct varieties. Not one. Not two. Sure, four is harder to deal with than one, but the good news is it’s not ten – or fifty. If you can get your head around just four varieties of sizzle – four alternative storylines – then you can sell refrigerators to Eskimos and to everyone else for that matter.

Jonathan Haidt has a new book out which goes some way towards explaining the significance of emotions and intuition for moral reasoning. He says it much more elegantly, but the gist it that it’s not all sausage – a lot of moral reasoning is sizzle. However The Righteous Mind sticks to the traditional conservative/liberal distinction and so in my opinion misses some of the opportunities that a Cultural Theory perspective offers.

For more details read The beetroot lesson: the politics of disgust.

http://www.futerra.co.uk/downloads/Sellthesizzle.pdf

Willful Blindness

Willful Blindness by Margaret Heffernan

Margaret Heffernan has written a book on willful blindness [excerpt] and there’s a great article in New Statesman. Here’s just one of the telling quotations Heffernan uses to illustrate her case. It comes from the economist Paul Krugmann, speaking of the blind spots in his own economic modelling:

“I think there’s a pretty good case to be made that the stuff that I stressed in the models is a less important story than the things I left out because I couldn’t model them.” [Paul Krugmann]

We all risk seeing only part of the story – the part we want to see. It’s really important to notice this and try to do something about it. I’ve written before now that Cultural Theory is one attempt at trying not to fool yourself. It seeks to understand how our social contexts effectively do some of our thinking for us. They make some thoughts easy and others hard. They make some things easy to see and render others invisible. Margaret Heffernan cites the example of Richard Fuld, the former head of Lehman Brothers. Before that company’s collapse Fuld would get to work by helicopter and chauffeured limo in such a way as to avoid seeing anyone. The point is that while he may have made the bubble in which he lived, nevertheless the bubble also made him.

The subtitle to Willful Blindness is “Why we ignore the obvious at our peril” .  Surely part of an answer is that the obvious is less obvious than it should be. It is our institutions, not just our brains, that make it so.

More reading:

Flaw in the model

Switching Strategies

How to spot a model

Models, reality and the limits to growth

Everyone loves a quiz

How Risky is it, Really?Everyone loves a quiz and Psychology Today magazine has a cultural cognition quiz for you, courtesy of David Ropeik.

Roepik is the author of How Risky is it, Really? Why our fears don’t always match the facts. His website offers exerpts from the book and -wait for it –

more quizzes!

While you’re here, though, you could take our little fourcultures quiz just to the right of this page. How much is there?

You know you want to.

…and if you really can’t get enough quiz in your life, why not try the cultural theory quiz posted at the OK Cupid website (no, really). According to its creator, ” The test items are taken from Gunnar Grendstad and Susan Sundback’s paper “Socio-demographic effects on cultural biases” published in Acta Sociologica, vol. 46, no. 4, 2003, pp. 289-306.”

Maybe one day I’ll get round to writing about my scepticism of these kinds of tests. There, I said it.