Monday, January 30, 2012

affect bias

The affect bias refers to our tendency to make judgments based on feelings of liking or disliking with little input from deliberative reasoning.

Our judgment regarding the costs and benefits of items is often significantly influenced by a feeling evoked by pictures or words not directly relevant to the actual cost or benefit. For some, the good or bad feeling they have just prior to making a decision is a bias that influences that decision and renders it irrational. For example, many people are willing to pay more for airline travel insurance that covers death from just terrorist acts than they would pay for insurance that covers death from all possible causes (Gardner 2008: p. 73). The expression "terrorist acts" has strong negative emotive content, which apparently leads many people to an irrational willingness to pay more for less coverage.

 "The psychologist Paul Slovic has proposed an affect heuristic in which people let their likes and dislikes determine their beliefs about the world" (Kahneman 2011: p. 103). 

The affect bias hinders our ability to see the potential negative consequences of our own position and the potential positive consequences of an opponent's position.

Paul Slovic has found that people underestimate the lethality of all diseases except cancer, which is overestimated (Gardner: p. 72). This misperception may be due in part to the strong negative emotive content that the word 'cancer' carries, compared to the emotive meaning of less-charged words like 'diabetes' and 'asthma.'

The affect bias is at work in attracting people to detoxify their bodies with colonic irrigations and other unnecessary "cleansings" of organs that do not need cleansing. The idea of poison arouses fear and leads many people to an emotionally based decision to undergo pointless detoxification treatments. Similar tactics are used in the advertising of “feminine hygiene” products to remove “offensive odors” from “down there.”

Advertisers bank on affect bias when they pay top dollar to beautiful celebrities to hawk their products. When Michael Jackson was young and famous as a singer and dancer he was in demand as a branding icon. I once overheard a young man say to a clerk: "Give me a Michael" instead of "Give me a Pepsi." Jackson was once a spokesman for Pepsi-Cola.

Pollsters should understand that affect bias will affect the responses they receive. They should know that they will get different results depending on whether they ask people if they favor preferential treatment of women and minorities (rather than affirmative action) or if they are against abortion (rather than for freedom of choice).

Anyone who has taken a speech class knows that the best way to get an audience on your side—besides packing the room with family and friends—is to tell a joke or a funny story. Laughing usually makes people feel good. An audience that feels good is more likely to be receptive to your message than one that is in a bad mood. The best sales people are often the ones who know how to get a customer to relax and feel good (Levine 2003).

Clever speakers can manipulate the unwary with words that arouse positive or negative feelings. On one side are what Jamie Whyte calls hurrah words: peace, love, victory, happiness, security, safety, protect, innocent, freedom, liberty, justice, democracy, courage, confidence, and tax relief. If you’re trying to arouse sympathy to your viewpoint, no matter how obnoxious, deceptive, or pernicious that viewpoint might be, sprinkle your speech with plenty of hurrah words. On the other side are the boo words. If you’re trying to arouse opposition to others be sure to include several boo words in your speech: hate freedom, hate liberty, terrorize, attack, barbarity, murdered, threat, cowards, evil, kill, extremists, radical, tyranny, dictator, arrogant, woo-woo, pseudoscience, and liberal. Boo words arouse sympathy by provoking contempt. Of course, different audiences respond differently to the same words. The word socialist, for example, may arouse either positive or negative feelings, depending on the audience. Lately, it seems that many Republicans use the word 'government' as a boo word. Both Republicans and Democrats seem to be using 'create jobs' as a hurrah expression. The expression as used in political debates has a definite positive aura but seems to have little cognitive meaning.

Political columnist David Brooks captured the power of the affect bias when he wrote: "Most people just want somebody who can articulate their hatreds, and [Republican presidential candidate Newt] Gingrich is demagogically happy to play the role." Gingrich has been providing this service for many years.
When Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, wanted to arouse sympathy for the Republican Party prior to the 2006 November elections he created a new political enemy: “San Francisco left-wing activists.” If you haven’t heard of these folks, they are the ones who have “San Francisco left-wing values.” These are people with liberal values who run with the elite media. They want to raise taxes and either “cut and run” or “run and hide” from Iraq. They represent “the failed policies of higher taxes, more regulation and bloated bureaucratic structures of the past.” They support policies of appeasement and defeatism. According to Mr. Gingrich, “If you think you have too much money in your family budget, then you have a party to vote for, because Democrats will gladly raise your taxes shifting your money from your family to Washington bureaucrats.” And, “if you want to go back to high taxes, high interest rates, high inflation, slower economic growth, more unemployment, fewer savings, shorter vacations and more bureaucracy, then you have a party in the Democrats.” Shorter vacations? Yes, according to Mr. Gingrich, the Democrats can even shorten your vacation if elected. That’s how evil and powerful those San Francisco liberal, radical, left-wing Democrats are. (Carroll 2011: Kindle Locations 932-941).
Finally, music is one of the great mood changers. Changing someone's mood is often the quickest way to get them to agree to an idea they might otherwise find boring or unpleasant. If I am in a grouchy mood and you want to bias me in the direction of some plan of action, playing Mark Knopfler's "Wild Theme" from Local Hero will usually do the trick. And those of us with some life experience have known a few Proustian moments involving agreeable odors or tastes that not only triggered pleasant memories and feelings but also made us susceptible to accepting an irrational proposition or two.


Friday, January 27, 2012

representativeness bias

Many of our judgments involve classifying or categorizing individual persons or things. The representativeness bias manifests itself when we take a few traits or characteristics of someone or something and fit them to a stereotype or model. For example, when told only that a man is quiet, shy, reserved, and self-effacing, and forced to guess whether he is a salesman or brain surgeon most people would probably choose brain surgeon because their stereotype of a salesman is of an outgoing, gregarious person. But the odds of any given man being a salesman are much higher than the odds of his being a brain surgeon, so the probability is greater that the fellow is a salesman. This example is representative of the examples of representativeness presented by Tversky and Khaneman. In real life, a snap judgment about a person's occupation based on knowing about that person only a few personality traits would be hasty and unwarranted. A reflective judgment would require at least some assessment of the accuracy of the reported traits (how reliable is the source of information?) and the base rate for salesmen and brain surgeons. Most people would not know what percentage of the population are salesmen and what percentage are brain surgeons, but most people would know that the base rate for salesmen is much higher than that for brain surgeons.

If told only that a woman is quiet, shy, reserved, and self-effacing and forced to guess whether she is a sales clerk or a brain surgeon, I think many people would guess that she's a sales clerk because their stereotype of a brain surgeon is of a male and their stereotype of a sales clerk is of a female. The guess would be right most of the time, but for the wrong reason.

When I was in graduate school in the late 1960s at the University of California at San Diego, the philosophy department hired its first black teacher. I arrived there about the time Angela Davis was finishing up her work with Marxism scholar Herbert Marcuse and the daily news was filled with stories about civil rights and anti-war protests. Students were coming from all over the world to study political philosophy with Marcuse and Stanley Moore. I remember how most of the graduate students assumed the new black teacher would be coming to teach political philosophy and would be radical like Bobby Seale or Eldridge Cleaver. He didn't fit the model at all. I don't remember his name, but I remember he came from Ohio State and his interest was in analytic philosophy, much to our shock and dismay. He didn't fit our stereotype at all.

The key to avoiding the representativeness bias is to be open to the possibility that the case before you isn't typical. Force yourself to consider other possibilities. Jerome Groopman, M.D., gives the example of a doctor who failed to diagnose a cardiac problem with a patient because the patient did not fit the model of a person likely to have a heart attack. The patient complained of all the things a person with angina would complain of, but he was the picture of health. He was in his forties, fit, trim, athletic, worked outdoors, didn't smoke, and had no family history of heart attack, stroke, or diabetes. The doctor wrote off the chest pains the patient complained of as due to overexertion. The next day the patient had a heart attack.

We should remember the representativeness bias when we read things like the following:

Atheists are one of the most disliked groups in America. Only 45 percent of Americans say they would vote for a qualified atheist presidential candidate, and atheists are rated as the least desirable group for a potential son-in-law or daughter-in-law to belong to.
When people are polled about "atheists" (or "Christians," "Jews," or "Muslims") the concept that comes to mind for those words will differ depending on what stereotype is at work. Many people who say they would not vote for an atheist might actually vote for an atheist. Why? Because the atheist that runs for president will be a real human being, not a stereotype. There will, of course, be many people who cannot overcome their prejudices against atheists, gays, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, adulterers, etc., and no amount of empirical data or experience will change their minds. But not everyone who thinks of a stereotype when asked a question about a group by a pollster is hidebound and bigoted. Some will be open to changing their minds as they find out more about an individual who is an atheist, gay, Christian, Mormon, adulterer, etc.

Will Gervais of the University of British Columbia, the one whose study found that 45% of Americans say they wouldn't vote for an atheist running for president, thinks atheists are not trusted as much as theists. I would temper this comment with a reminder that this opinion applies to stereotypes not to real individuals. If a corrupt Christian were running against an upright atheist, I suspect that many people who trust "theists" more than "atheists" would vote for the atheist. But many people can't be trusted when they answer poll questions and it would not be surprising to find that many religious people who say they trust  African-Americans more than adulterers would vote for the adulterer rather than the African-American in certain circumstances.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

ad populum fallacy

The ad populum fallacy is the appeal to the popularity of a claim as a reason for accepting the claim. The number of people who believe a claim is irrelevant to the truth of the claim. Fifty million people might believe the Sun revolves around the Earth, but how many people believe or don’t believe something is not relevant to whether what they believe is true. The ad populum fallacy is also referred to as the bandwagon fallacy, the appeal to the mob, the democratic fallacy, and the appeal to popularity.

It is not always irrelevant to identify how many people make a claim. When the majority of experts in a technical field such as climate change agree on something that the average citizen does not understand, it is not a fallacy to accept the consensus viewpoint. Of course, the majority of scientists could be wrong about an issue, but it is not irrelevant to cite the consensus viewpoint of experts in a technical field as a good reason for accepting a claim. Presumably, the scientists agree because of the overwhelming evidence for their position. This is quite different from the case where non-experts agree on something traditional, such as the existence of devils or ghosts. Claiming that ghosts or devils must exist because millions of people believe they exist would be an ad populum fallacy.

Advertisers are fond of this fallacy. So are defenders of alternative health practices or CAM, complementary and alternative medicine. Apparently the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) thinks that CAM becomes more respectable if large percentages of people use one or more of its modalities. NCCAM claims that 38% of American adults used some form of CAM in 2007. The problem is that some of the modalities it considers as CAM are a bit odd. The NCCAM lists dieters, exercisers, and people who practice Yoga as using CAM. At one time, NCCAM included prayer as a CAM modality. The fact is that CAM is not that popular: most American adults don’t use acupuncture, energy healing therapy, reiki, naturopathy, Qi gong, Tai chi, or homeopathy. NCCAM exaggerates the popularity of CAM to validate not only the various modalities it lists, but to validate its own existence. The fact that nothing worthwhile has issued from NCCAM despite the 2.5 billion tax dollars it has spent in its more than two decades of existence might make a citizen question the continued funding of the agency. The fact is that CAM modalities do not become validated by how many people use them, but by whether they have been shown to have a positive effect on health that is superior to doing nothing or to placebo effects. 

Politicians are also fond of the ad populum fallacy. They love to point out that their views are popular or to point out that their opponents are out of step with public opinion. The fact is that public opinion is often out of step with reality.

Monday, January 16, 2012

anchoring effect

Are you as annoyed as I am when you're told by the grocery cashier how much money you just saved? In your head, you know you didn't save anything. In your heart, though, you want to believe that that bottle of wine you paid $12 for was really worth the $16 that was posted as the price for non-members of the "Savings Club." If there were just one or two items on sale, you might believe you really did save some money. But when just about everything in the store has two prices--one for the "members" and another higher price for the "others"--you probably realize something fishy is going on. You're right. The grocery markets are using the anchoring effect to make us think we're saving money. If we save money, we'll like them and come back. But it's all a con. Each one of the higher prices that the non-members pay is an anchor point that the grocer is hoping you will use to buy things that did you not plan on buying. But, at such a bargain, how can you pass it up? You can tell your friends that you saved $4 on a bottle of wine you didn't intend to purchase in the first place. Isn't that great?

If you're like me, you have no idea what the true value of a bottle of wine is.There may be twenty zinfandels on the shelf priced from $5 to $50. Given a few variables such as the year of harvest, the size of the winery, and the distance to the source, you would think the cost of producing the various bottles on the shelf does not differ all that much. So, you might think that the price is set by some rational standard, such as supply and demand. The higher-priced wines are rarer than the lower-priced wines. Maybe the higher-priced wines have some superior quality that makes demand for them very strong. Maybe the lower-priced wines have an inferior taste and so the demand is low. On the other hand, maybe the pricing isn't rational at all. The seller picks a number, the retailer adds whatever profit he thinks the market will bear, and that is either the number you are given or, in the case of the "savings club" markets, you're given two numbers: one as an anchor point, the other as the price of the wine. In either case, there will be other bottles of wine priced from high to low near the one you're considering. Those other prices can serve as anchor points. Some of us will focus on the higher priced wines and pick the highest priced wine, thinking it is probably the best since it costs the most. Of course, we have no information that would validate this thinking. Or, we might use the top price as an anchor point and choose a wine that is marked down 20% from a price near the top. Again, we have no rational basis for this choice. Or, we might pick a medium-priced wine just because it is a medium-priced wine. Or, we might pick a wine that is one notch above the lowest-priced wine on the shelf on the grounds that it will probably be a better tasting wine for the value. For all we know, the retailer prices his cheapest and least attractive wine one notch above the lowest-priced wine to entrap thinkers like you. In any case, it seems like the only rational consumer of wine is the one who buys a wine he or she likes. My experience has been, both in the market and in the restaurant, that there is little correlation between the price of the wine and whether I'll like it. Some restaurants are pretty sophisticated at using anchor points in wine-list pricing, leaving me to conclude that maybe a rational person shouldn't buy wine. Let somebody else buy it for you.

Our judgment regarding the frequency, probability, or value of items is often determined by comparing the item to an anchor point. Often, the anchor is an irrational bias that determines a decision. The bias can be measured and expressed in percentages. For example:

In an experiment conducted some years ago, real-estate agents were given an opportunity to assess the value of a house that was actually on the market. They visited the house and studied a comprehensive booklet of information that included an asking price. Half the agents saw an asking price that was substantially higher than the listed price of the house; the other half saw an asking price that was substantially lower. Each agent gave her opinion about a reasonable buying price for the house and the lowest price at which she would agree to sell the house if she owned it. The agents were then asked about the factors that had affected their judgment. Remarkably, the asking price was not one of these factors; the agents took pride in their ability to ignore it. They insisted that the listing price had no effect on their responses, but they were wrong: the anchoring effect was 41%. (Kahneman, Daniel. 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow. p. 124.)

That is, the difference in lowest asking price between the low anchor group and the high anchor group was 41%.

If the label on a coat in a clothing store has a price tag with three different prices, the two highest of which are crossed out, you may think you are getting a bargain if you accept the highest price on the tag as an anchor.

Mentalists can exploit anchoring by knowing that when asked to pick a number "people tend to pick one close, or anchored on, any number with which they are initially presented or in the case of a scale one close to the midpoint" (Sutherland, Stuart. 1992. rev. 2nd ed. Irrationality. p. 168).

Robert Levine gives an example of how a cable company that was raising its rates used the anchoring effect to make it appear that they were saving people money. They announced that the rumor that rates were going to go up by $10 a month were completely bogus. "You can relax. It's not going to happen. The great news is...the rate for basic cable is only increasing by $2 a month" (Levine, Robert. 2003. The Power of Persuasion - How We're Bought and Sold. pp. 100-101).

Monday, January 9, 2012

apophenia and pareidolia

Apophenia is the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness of unrelated phenomena. The term was coined by German neurologist and psychiatrist Klaus Conrad (1905-1961). Conrad focused on the finding of abnormal meaning or significance in random experiences by psychotic people. The term has found a place outside of psychiatry and is used to describe the natural tendency of human beings to find meaning and significance in random, coincidental, or impersonal data. Apophenia may be described as the tendency to find personal information in noise, e.g., happening upon an open safety pin and seeing the arms as a sign indicating the time your son committed suicide.

Photo by Phil Plait
Pareidolia is a type of illusion or misperception involving a vague or obscure stimulus being perceived as something clear and distinct. For example, in the discolorations of a burnt tortilla one sees the face of Jesus. Or one sees the image of Mother Teresa in the folds of a cinnamon bun or Vladimir Lenin in the soap scum of a shower curtain.

copyright Mark D. Phillips
Apophenia and pareidolia can occur simultaneously as in the case of seeing a birthmark pattern on a goat as the Arabic word for Allah and thinking you've received a message from god. Likewise, not only seeing the Virgin Mary in tree bark but believing the appearance is a divine sign brings together apophenia and pareidolia. Seeing an alien spaceship in a pattern of lights in the sky is an example of pareidolia, but it becomes apophenia if you believe the aliens have picked you as their special envoy. Seeing Satan in the smoke of a burning building slips from pareidolia to apophenia when the viewer starts thinking that Satan is giving the world a sign that he is alive and well.

Under ordinary circumstances, apophenia provides a psychological explanation for many delusions based on sense perception. For example, it explains many UFO sightings, as well as the hearing of sinister messages on records played backwards. Pareidolia explains Elvis, Bigfoot, and Loch Ness Monster sightings. Pareidolia and apophenia explain numerous religious apparitions and visions. And they explain why some people see a face or a building in a photograph of the Cydonia region of Mars.

Under clinical circumstances, some psychologists encourage pareidolia and apophenia as a means to understanding a patient, e.g., the Rorschach ink blot test.

According to Peter Brugger of the Department of Neurology, University Hospital, Zurich, "The propensity to see connections between seemingly unrelated objects or ideas most closely links psychosis to creativity ... apophenia and creativity may even be seen as two sides of the same coin." Some of the most creative people in the world, then, must be psychoanalysts and therapists who use projective tests like the Rorschach test or who see patterns of child abuse behind every emotional problem. Brugger notes that one analyst thought he had support for Freud's notion of penis envy because more females than males failed to return their pencils after a test. Another spent nine pages in a prestigious journal describing how sidewalk cracks are vaginas and feet are penises, and the old saw about not stepping on cracks is actually a warning to stay away from the female sex organ.

Soon after his son committed suicide, Episcopalian Bishop James A. Pike (1913-1969) began seeing meaningful messages in such things as a stopped clock, the angle of an open safety pin, and the angle formed by two postcards lying on the floor. He thought they were conveying the time his son had shot himself (Christopher 1975: 139).

Brugger gives examples of pareidolia and apophenia from August Strindberg's Occult Diary, the playwright's own account of his psychotic break:
He saw "two insignia of witches, the goat's horn and the besom" in a rock and wondered "what demon it was who had put [them] ... just there and in my way on this particular morning." A building then looked like an oven and he thought of Dante's Inferno.

He sees sticks on the ground and sees them as forming Greek letters which he interprets to be the abbreviation of a man's name and feels he now knows that this man is the one who is persecuting him. He sees sticks on the bottom of a chest and is sure they form a pentagram.

He sees tiny hands in prayer when he looks at a walnut under a microscope and it "filled me with horror."

His crumpled pillow looks "like a marble head in the style of Michelangelo." Strindberg comments that "these occurrences could not be regarded as accidental, for on some days the pillow presented the appearance of horrible monsters, of Gothic gargoyles, of dragons, and one night ... I was greeted by the Evil One himself...."
Brugger's research indicates that high levels of dopamine affect the propensity to find meaning, patterns, and significance where there is none, and that this propensity is related to a tendency to believe in the paranormal.

Monday, January 2, 2012

ad hominem

The ad hominem fallacy occurs when one mentions things about a person in an attempt to show that the person’s argument is flawed.  An argument stands or falls depending on whether its premises adequately support its conclusion. (The premises are the reasons given as evidence; the conclusion is the claim the arguer is defending.) Characteristics, associations, past history, motives, etc. of the person making the argument are irrelevant to whether premises support a conclusion.

Fallacies are errors in reasoning. The error in the argumentum ad hominem is in attacking the person making an argument in an attempt to undermine that person’s argument. Arguments are refuted only by showing that the premises do not provide adequate evidence for the conclusion. No argument is refuted by showing that the arguer is flawed or biased. Good people with good intentions can argue fallaciously and bad people with evil motives can argue cogently.

The ad hominem fallacy has nothing to do with trying to undermine the credibility of a witness by providing evidence of his untrustworthiness. Testifying is not arguing. It is reasonable and relevant to question the motives or character of someone who is testifying. Testimony stands or falls on whether the claims made are believable. Jurors may draw conclusions based on testimony, but the one testifying is making claims not arguments. The ad hominem fallacy occurs only when one attempts to refute another person’s argument by focusing on the arguer rather than the argument.

Perhaps the most common ad hominem fallacy is to attack the motives of the person making the argument. Critics of judicial decisions often cite suspected motives of a judge that might bias his or her decision, as if the judge’s motives were relevant to the cogency of the judge’s argument for making the decision. Even a biased judge can make a cogent argument in defense of a ruling. In any case, you can’t refute an argument by accusing the arguer of being biased. The bias of the arguer is irrelevant to whether the premises support the conclusion. People with good motives sometimes make fallacious arguments, and people with bad motives sometimes make good arguments.

Another common ad hominem is to try to refute an argument by claiming that the arguer stands to profit from others accepting the argument. For example, pointing out that physicians are paid for giving vaccinations or that pharmaceutical firms profit from the sale of vaccines is irrelevant to refuting the argument that children should get vaccinated according to a standard recommended vaccination schedule because of the health benefits to both the children and others.

A favorite ad hominem of those who do not like the arguments of defenders of scientific medicine against the use of such practices as distant healing, homeopathy, or acupuncture is to claim that those who practice scientific medicine oppose alternative medicine because it cuts into their profits. The same fallacious appeal is often made by opponents of  so-called alternative health practices. Presumably, anyone who makes a living from providing health care expects to profit from it. So what?

There are times when it is relevant to refer to a person’s character, associations, occupation, hobbies, motives, mental health, likes or dislikes, but refuting an argument isn’t one of them. If I make an argument defending the claim that 9/11 was not an inside job by the Bush administration but the work of a conspiracy by a group of Islamic jihadists associated with the international terrorist group al-Qaeda, you do not refute my argument by making claims about me. It doesn’t matter whether your claims are true. I may be a supporter of Bush’s foreign policy, I may be an old man who wants to believe his pension is secure, I may not be an engineer or an explosives experts. But none of that matters when trying to refute my argument. To refute my argument, you must show that my evidence is insufficient, that it is based on false or questionable assumptions, that the evidence I present is irrelevant, that I’ve omitted important evidence, or that I’ve given improper weight to various pieces of evidence. An argument’s cogency depends on the evidence presented for the claims defended, not on the character, associations, interests, motives, beliefs, or anything else about the person making the argument.

It may be true that I’m a skeptic, an atheist, and a liberal, but none of those facts are relevant to whether any argument I make is a good one. Pointing out what one considers negative personal matters poisons the well; it suggests the argument is defective because the arguer is flawed. But even the most evil or stupid person in the world can make a good argument: it all depends on the premises presented and the conclusion defended. No argument ever became a good argument simply by putting it in the mouth of a good person. When attacking arguments, personal matters should be ignored.

A favorite form of poisoning the well is to sprinkle value judgments throughout one's rebuttal. For example: "I can't believe they let you teach critical thinking. Your standards are so low that you are a danger to your students."