Saturday, October 8, 2016

Cognitive Bias

Not long ago I wrote a column about the work of Dr. Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist, that included a link to a video interview (1). The subject of the column, and the interview, was Mr. Haidt's take on why Depublicans and Republicrats, conservatives and liberals, sheesh, everyone, have become so polarized.

It's occurred to me that I didn't make mention of one of Mr. Haidt's observations that I find to be not only true but also particularly important. It conveniently confirms my position that the Information Age has a huge, honking downside, its alter ego so to speak, the Dizzinformation Age, that was the subject of another fairly recent column. So, that must mean I was right, right?


Cognitive bias is a widely documented and accepted phenomenon by psychologists that simply refers to the fact that when we take in information we're more likely to process it subjectively than objectively. This is what I've dubbed gut first, brain later (GFBL). Most of the time we're not the highly rational creatures we imagine ourselves to be and that we tend to react to information, at least at first, in a biased way. We may or may not change our minds when/if we step back and at least try to decide what's what, objectively speaking.

Scholarly studies aside, this seems like common sense to me. For example, I don't know about you but I know that I have a strong tendency to form opinions about others within moments of meeting them that I can't justify rationally. I quickly label and classify them in spite of the fact that I resent it when I'm aware of someone else doing the same thing to me. And, of course, in spite of the fact that I'm um, occasionally wrong when do it. It would seem that first impressions are indeed as important as often claimed.

I take solace from the fact that this sort of thing makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. I, your dilettante about town, know that science explains our innate biases as a survival mechanism. When wandering around the jungle, hunting and gathering lunch, you and the gang have a better chance of not being hunted and gathered by someone or something else if you're wired to react quickly to the snap of a twig rather than to stop and call a committee meeting to discuss its ramifications.

Mr. Haidt points out that the internet is the most effective tool for the promotion of cognitive bias ever invented.

For example, if I google the question, "Do bigfeet exist?' I will be supplied (after being asked if I meant to say bigfoot, so many things to fix once I'm king...) in short order with the answer. Yes, definitely, and no, definitely not. Take your pick.

Now -- keep in mind the power of cognitive bias due to its long history as a successful survival strategery.

Also --  keep in mind that it's been scientifically demonstrated why it's so difficult to change someone's mind, which requires an entire column or for you to go a-googling. (I refuse to go into it any further just now as I hold this is self-evident to anyone that interacts with anyone, that is, everyone.)

Also -- you've no doubt noticed there's no point in arguing with a conspiratorially-minded person (except for fun) because they will shrug off your alleged facts as being just the bonkercockie THEY want you to believe.

Which is why --  I maintain most people will click on the links that look like they will supply the answer that they wanted in the first place.

Furthermore -- if they don't find what they were hoping to find in the first place, they will keep clicking till they do, or, give up in disgust and try to forget about it. Not you and me of course, but most people.

Haidt points out that the internet, our Information Machine (can I get a shout out for Mr. Peabody and the WABAC machine?), makes it possible to "prove" anything. In spite of the fact we have access to vastly more information (and here's more, and here's some more...) than at any time in human history, more info can, but doesn't necessarily, solve a given problem/question/argument. In fact, it can make things worse via bias confirmation. We can easily find what we want to find (and here's some more.)

Walk with me, talk with me. Let's take a brief detour down Digression Ave., we'll be back in just a sec'.

The phrase, "90% of world's data generated over last two years", or something like it, can be found all over the internet. Consistent with my stated mission, to provide enlightened infotainment, I went a-googling to try and discover the source of this information about information. According to ("Your source for the latest research news") this factoid can be attributed to a research/development entity called SINTEF (.no) -- "Applied Research, Technology and Innovation" -- as of 5.22.13.

At this point, I could've kept going and tried to discover yet more information about how fast information is accumulating but -- I have a life, I'm a dilettante, and I'm certain (as I'm sure you are) that I would find no shortage of contradictory information about information.

However, ya' gotta love the irony. I went looking for information about a commonly used alleged factoid about information and discovered that the two-year window schtick that I keep running into was posited three years ago. So for all we know, two years may now be two months, or two days. If I went  looking for more up to date statistics they would probably be out of date, and disputed, before I finished writing this column.

And we're back! What have we learned, Dorothies?

Relatively easy access to the Information Machine has and will continue to change the world at light speed in wonderful/awful ways. But, some things will never change. We need to cultivate an open mind, we need to commit to at least trying to find out what the truth actually is, not just what we would like it to be. We need to find the fine line between compromise and selling out/walking out. This is an attitude which would also give us more families with both a mom and a dad on site but that's not what this column is about so I won't bring it up.

Have an OK day.

© 2016 Mark Mehlmauer

(1) Jonathan Haidt Explains Our Contentious Culture