Monday, May 28, 2012

law of truly large numbers

Humans are very good at finding meaning or significance where there is none. Psychologists call the process of validating words, initials, statements, or signs as accurate and personally meaningful and significant subjective validation. Since most of us are innumerate, we often find significance in purely coincidental events. If you think of all the pairs of things that can happen in a person’s lifetime and add to that our very versatile ability to find meaningful connections between things in ambiguous situations, it is likely that most of us will experience many meaningful coincidences, but we are the ones who give them meaning. Given the fact that there are billions of people and the possible number of meaningful coincidences is millions of billions, it is inevitable that many people will experience some very weird and uncanny coincidences every day. Put another way, with a large enough sample size, just about any possible weird coincidence will happen. This is sometimes called the law of truly large numbers.

In their article on coincidences in The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal, Persi Diaconis and Frederick Mosteller write about a woman who won the New Jersey lottery twice. The New York Times called her chances of doing so "1 in 17 trillion." However, statisticians Stephen Samuels and George McCabe of Purdue University calculated the odds of someone winning the lottery twice to be something like 1 in 30 over a four month period and better than even odds over a seven year period. Why? Because players don't buy one ticket for each of two lotteries, they buy multiple tickets every week.

Most people are surprised when they discover that In a random selection of twenty-three persons there is a 50 percent chance that at least two of them celebrate the same birth date. Bruce Martin provides the calculations, for those who are interested.

Mathematician John Littlewood (1885-1977) defined a miracle as something deemed to have special significance and occurring with a probability of one in a million. Littlewood calculated that a typical person would experience about ten miracles a year during his or her lifetime. He based his calculation on assuming that the typical person is awake and alert about eight hours a day and that events occur at the rate of about one per second.

The odds of something happening at a million to one might strike you as being so large as to rule out chance or coincidence. However, with over 7 billion people on Earth, a million to one shot will occur frequently. Say the odds are a million to one that when a person has a dream of something happening, soon afterward something similar happens. With 7 billion people having an average of five dreams, there should be about 35 billion dreams each night. That many of those dreams can be matched up with real events isn't that surprising. Each person has thousands of thoughts and experiences each day. That some of them can be found to match up to real events seems more likely than not, especially if one considers that we are not too stringent in setting criteria for what counts as a dream come true.

When we think of coincidences as meaningful, we should remind ourselves that the meaning or significance of events is provided by us, not by the events themselves or by any "Event Planner in the Sky." It is natural to think magically, to think that events which we connect in some meaningful way happen for a reason. For many people, it is nearly impossible to accept that most of the time stuff just happens.

Monday, May 21, 2012

motivated reasoning

We're all familiar with the kind of biased perception that occurs in players and their fans during sporting events. Everybody sees the same play--say a close play on a runner in baseball trying to beat out a bunt--but one side sees the runner as safe, the other side sees the runner as out. Whatever the umpire sees, his judgment--as well as his ancestral lineage--will be called into question by one side or the other. This kind of biased perception might be called motivated perception because of its similarity to what social psychologists call motivated reasoning.

Motivated reasoning takes confirmation bias to the next level. Ordinary confirmation bias makes it cognitively easy to recognize data that support what we already believe. And ordinary confirmation bias makes it difficult for us to perceive data that disconfirm what we believe. Motivated reasoning takes disconfirming data and turns it into confirming data. For example, in a study of "30 committed partisans during the U.S. Presidential election of 2004," Drew Westen et al. "presented subjects with reasoning tasks involving judgments about information threatening to their own candidate, the opposing candidate, or neutral control targets." Even though the evidence was made up and presented equally to the partisan subjects, they took evidence against their own candidate and made it favorable and they took evidence favorable to the opposing candidate and made it unfavorable. Other studies have found something similar: when we have a strong emotional commitment to a belief, we don't just dismiss disconfirming evidence, we rationalize it and twist it so that it becomes confirming evidence. This all happens, of course, at the unconscious level. Consciously, we think we are being objective and unbiased in our evaluations. Psychologists call this the illusion of objectivity.
Consider the following research on the death penalty. People who either supported or opposed capital punishment on the theory that it deterred crime (or didn’t) were shown two phony studies. Each study employed a different statistical method to prove its point. Let’s call them method A and method B. For half the subjects, the study that used method A concluded that capital punishment works as a deterrent, and the study that used method B concluded that it doesn’t. The other subjects saw studies in which the conclusions were reversed. If people were objective, those on both sides would agree that either method A or method B was the best approach regardless of whether it supported or undermined their prior belief (or they’d agree that it was a tie). But that’s not what happened. Subjects readily offered criticisms such as “There were too many variables,” “I don’t think they have complete enough collection of data,” and “The evidence given is relatively meaningless.” But both sides lauded whatever method supported their belief and trashed whatever method did not. (Mlodinow, Leonard. 2012. Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior. Kindle Locations 3800-3809. Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.) 
This is disconcerting. We think we're unbiased and objective, but unconsciously we are being driven to evaluate data to confirm what we already believe and further disconfirm what we already believe is wrong, regardless of the nature of the evidence.

In my view, there are two main ways that motivated reasoning manifests itself: by selective use of evidence and by giving improper weight to various kinds of evidence. I discuss this problem in chapter eight ("The Fallacy-Driven Life") of Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed! Many times, these two drivers work together. For example, many anti-vaccination folks not only give more weight to anecdotal evidence than to scientific studies, they ignore all anecdotes that are contrary to their beliefs. The only evidence some people need to convince them that vaccinations cause autism is that their child or some child they've read about was diagnosed with autism some time after getting a vaccination. They not only ignore the scientific studies that have found no link between vaccinations and autism, they also ignore both the individual cases of children who were vaccinated and never developed autism and the individual cases of children who were not vaccinated but developed autism anyway.

People who make a living claiming to get messages from the "spirit" world depend on believers ignoring both individual errors from so-called psychics and scientific studies that fail to confirm psychic abilities. There are also those who will appeal to scientific studies to support their belief in psychic powers, regardless of the quality of those studies; these believers will also ignore all the studies that don't support their beliefs.

Young Earth creationists (YECs) provide an excellent example of motivated reasoning. To maintain their position, YECs must reject nearly all science and confabulate new laws of nature and rules of logic and evidence, and subject themselves to ridicule for their willful ignorance and irrational adherence to the myths of an ancient, pre-scientific people. Anti-evolutionists who accept that the universe is billions of years old are another example of motivated reasoning, though their rationalizations need not be nearly as convoluted as those of the YECs.

Anthropogenic global warming deniers demonstrated motivated reasoning when they put more weight in the views of 31,000 scientists--few of whom were climate scientists--than in the views of the vast majority of climate scientists. It would not take much investigation to find out that what motivates the deniers is not the evidence but their political and economic beliefs. (Here we are not talking about disagreements over policy, but over whether human behaviors and practices are largely responsible for global warming.)

Nobody is immune to motivated reasoning. Worse, it is often accompanied by an attitude of mistrust regarding the motives of those who disagree with us. Combine motivated reasoning with our own sense of being unbiased and objective, while being sure that our opponent is biased and not objective, and you have a recipe for predictable obstinacy. It's amazing anybody ever changes his mind about anything he feels strongly about! Yet, it happens.

Psychiatrist Dr. Robert Spitzer (b. 1932), a proponent of "reparative therapy," the treatment of homosexuals aimed at changing their sexual orientation, changed his mind about this highly emotional issue. Spitzer not only changed his mind, he issued a public apology to the gay community:
I believe I owe the gay community an apology for my study making unproven claims of the efficacy of reparative therapy. I also apologize to any gay person who wasted time and energy undergoing some form of reparative therapy because they believed that I had proven that reparative therapy works with some “highly motivated” individuals.
In 2001, Spitzer delivered a paper before the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and claimed his study of 200 homosexuals found that 66% of the men and 44% of the women had achieved "good heterosexual functioning" through therapy.* The APA officially disavowed the paper and when it was published in the peer-reviewed journal Archives of Sexual Behavior in 2003, the paper was heavily criticized in the psychiatric community for its sampling method and for the criteria used to measure success. Spitzer now (April 2012) admits that his critics were right. His apology was published in the same journal as his original paper. In part, he writes:
The Fatal Flaw in the Study – There was no way to judge the credibility of subject reports of change in sexual orientation. I offered several (unconvincing) reasons why it was reasonable to assume that the subject’s reports of change were credible and not self-deception or outright lying. But the simple fact is that there was no way to determine if the subject’s accounts of change were valid.
So, it is possible to change one's mind about issues one has a deep emotional investment in. Why some people change their minds when they re-examine the evidence while others are determined to die with their biases on is puzzling. It is doubtful the answer will come by doing fMRIs on the Robert Spitzers of the world and their new opponents. In any case, we know that some people do change their minds about highly emotional issues and that many people are on the fence about many such issues. This should give hope to those of us who engage in public argumentation on these kinds of topics that our efforts are not in vain.

Monday, May 14, 2012

illusion of control

One thing is certain: most of our thoughts and actions occur under conditions of uncertainty and the more uncertainty in our lives, the more anxiety we have. Anxiety is a state that most of us try to minimize. We avoid people or situations we know from experience cause us anxiety, unless we expect some big payoff for the added stress. We'll get on an airplane even though we don't want to because the reward of two weeks in Italy is deemed worth the psychic cost. But when we're on that airplane it will not help to remind ourselves that we are in a metal tube 30,000 feet above the ground and that we have no knowledge of the pilot or any of the people who pieced together the parts of the airplane or who fueled it, provided maintenance, and reviewed it for security. You also don't want to dwell on the fact that you will soon have to make your way through an airport terminal where your language is not the language of the people or the signs you might look to for help. And before you embark on that trip of a lifetime, you do not want to think about the time you will spend being treated like a suspected terrorist as you pass through various levels of "airport security."

It may seem that airlines are more concerned about adding fees for various services than they are about reducing passenger anxiety, but the industry really is aware of our travel anxiety and actively seeks ways to reduce our stress. Read this flyer's account of his experience on Singapore Airlines:
I was flying in economy class, but I still felt pampered. The flight attendants give you a hot towel at the start of the flight to refresh yourself. A nice thing given the long flight ahead and the ordeal to get to the airport and on the plane. It was also nice that they give out these Givenchy for Singapore Air toiletry bags with toothpaste, a toothbrush and a pair of socks.

The entertainment system is top notch. There are tons of movies to watch. American, European, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Indian and Arabic movies are all represented. The music CD selection is also internationally diverse. There are also TV shows, radio shows, short stories and games to keep you entertained. The only thing missing here is wi-fi, which I believe they are working on providing.*
What Singapore provides is more than in-flight entertainment. It provides something to take your mind off of other things that might stress you out. The passenger controls what movies to watch, when to watch them, when to pause them, etc. This is real control...over the entertainment device. It gives you no control over the airplane, but it reduces anxiety by giving you control of something.

We not only feel better when we are in control of something. We feel better when we know somebody else is in control. (Think of how your anxiety level would rise if somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean you found out that the plane had no pilot.) We also feel better when we think we are in control of things even when we aren't.

The illusion of control can not only make us feel better, it can drive us to accomplish things we otherwise might not accomplish. For example, there is an abundance of evidence that economic forecasting is a matter of chance, not skill. This has not prevented many economic forecasters and their followers from continuing to believe in their "system." If these folks admitted that luck, not skill, accounts for whatever success they have, they'd quit. Of course, some people who mistake luck for skill should quit: gamblers, for instance. But if everybody who realized that chance, not skill, accounts for what they accomplish, would we really be better off? Is there really any harm in wearing your lucky sweater when you take a test, in shouting commands to your in-flight golf ball, or in willing a red traffic light to turn green? What harm can come from making a wish before you blow out the candles on a birthday cake or say a prayer before taking a test you didn't study for?

There seems to be little harm in thousands of fans wearing their hats inside out and backwards in the mistaken belief that such action can influence the outcome of a baseball game. What harm is there in believing that an omnipotent being can be influenced to determine the outcome of a high school football game by having the team hold hands and utter an incantation? What harm can come from millions of people believing they can make global warming a hoax just by believing it is?

Control, whether illusory or not, makes us feel powerful, which is a good feeling. And feeling that there is a right order in the universe, that some being is in control of everything that happens is comforting to many people. What harm is there in believing that your prayers saved the astronauts or your aunt Hildie, or that some invisible being is controlling everything in the universe? Is it really a bad thing to believe that there are no coincidences, that everything happens for a reason? What's wrong with believing it was your prayers that led some god to change the direction of a tornado so that it spared your house while obliterating your neighbor's house and family? What's the harm in obliterating truth and reality in favor of what you want to be true as in the work of Andrew Schafley at that bastion of ridiculousness called Conservapedia?

On the other hand, a great deal of harm can come from deluding yourself that you can control your health or your wealth, or somebody else's health or wealth, by your thoughts and prayers or other superstitious actions. It is impressive that most of us can lift our arms when we want to, but it is delusional to think you can make other people's arms lift by your thoughts. Your headache may have gone away a few hours after you did twenty jumping jacks, but you are deluding yourself if you believe the exercise caused the headache to go away. I suppose we could make it a rule that the illusion of control isn't a bad thing as long as it doesn't lead to delusional thinking that results in harm to oneself or others. If we did make that a rule, what would we then say about financial advisers who convince their clients that their system of economic forecasting is a good bet? Are these folks in the same category as people who pray instead of having their child's diabetes treated by a medical doctor?

Monday, May 7, 2012

subjective validation

Most of us think we know ourselves better than anyone else could. After all, we're here in our head and everybody else is out there beyond the limits of our body. Only we have first-hand knowledge of what we experience and what thoughts are going on in our heads. So, who could know us better than we know ourselves?

On the other hand, how objective can we be when evaluating our own personalities? Is it possible that we are biased in predictable ways when asked to describe ourselves? In any case, very few people shy away from taking a personality test. Presumably, such tests reveal character traits such as introversion and extroversion, which you would think most of us already have noticed in ourselves. In any case, few people shy away from the opportunity to learn more about themselves, and psychologists have exploited this self-love by enticing generations of students to participate in experiments under the guise of giving them a free personality analysis. One such experimenter was psychologist Bertram R. Forer (1914-2000).

Forer gave a personality test to many of his students, but he ignored their answers. He lied to them when he returned their "personal" results and gave each student the same evaluation. Worse, he took the evaluation from a newsstand astrology reading. He then asked the students to evaluate the evaluation on a scale of 0 to 5, with "5" meaning the recipient felt the evaluation was an "excellent" assessment and "4" meaning the assessment was "good." The class average evaluation was 4.26. He did his first test in 1948. The test has been repeated hundreds of times with psychology students and the average is still around 4.2 out of 5, or 84% accurate.

Furthermore, in many formal and informal tests of such disparate activities as psychic readings, palm readings, biorhythm chart readings, graphology readings, and tarot card readings, which claim to reveal personal information for a client, the accuracy assessments are consistently high. In short, people will validate a set of statements allegedly about themselves as highly accurate even if those statements were not generated by a scientifically validated personality test and were not based on any specific knowledge of the person. Psychologists call this phenomenon subjective validation. This tendency to find personal meaning and significance in statements not based on personal knowledge extends to words, symbols, initials, and objects as well. It's as if we humans are driven to find everything we experience centered on us. But there is more to subjective validation than just our tendency to be egocentric.

"Enough about me. What do you think about me?"

Some of the statements or other items we find personally meaningful--even when they're not--seem meaningful because of our desires. For example, Forer's astrological reading contains some statements that were validated by his students not because the students thought they were really true but because they wished they were true. I've italicized two statements that might fall into this category for many students:
You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others' statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic.

Who among us doesn't wish she had vast amounts of unused potential? Who doesn't want to think that they believe things because the evidence supports them? We might believe we have unused potential, but most of us would be hard-pressed to specify exactly what kind of potential we think we have, nor would be able to provide a great deal of evidence regarding that potential. We might think we're evidence-based inquirers, but do we really know why we believe the things we do?

Forer thought that people rate impersonal statements as highly significant to them because they're gullible. He thought that people tend to accept claims about themselves in proportion to their desire that the claims be true rather than in proportion to the accuracy of the claims as measured by some non-subjective standard. We tend to accept questionable, even false, statements about ourselves if we deem them positive or flattering enough.

Being gullible and prone to wishful thinking may partially explain the tendency to subjective validation. Another key element is selective thinking, the tendency to focus on and remember evidence that supports one's beliefs, while ignoring or forgetting the evidence that conflicts with one's beliefs. Some of the statements in the drugstore astrology reading may be false for you, but you ignore, downplay, or forget those statements when making your overall assessment of accuracy. Subjects who seek counseling from psychics, mediums, fortune tellers, mind readers, graphologists, etc., will often ignore false or questionable claims and, in many cases, by their own words or actions provide most of the information they erroneously attribute to such counselors. Many subjects will often believe that information they provided the counselor was profound and personal information that the counselor couldn't possibly have known.

Another important element in subjective validation is the natural human tendency to find meaning and significance. We will often give very liberal interpretations to vague, ambiguous, or inconsistent claims about ourselves in order to make sense out of the claims. In fact, we will often work hard to figure out some significance or meaning for statements that aren't even about us when told that they're somehow important. Mentalists and unscrupulous people claiming to be psychic take advantage of our desire to find meaning everywhere.

Ian Rowland, for example, makes his living as a mentalist, someone who entertains others by playing the role of psychic. Rowland has written the book (literally) on cold reading. In his Full Facts Book of Cold Reading 3rd edition, he lists 38 different ploys to use, eleven of which are designed to extract information from the client. He gives a telling example of the essence of cold reading in explaining "the push statement" (statements designed to be rejected by the client at first). He was demonstrating cold reading in a TV production meeting and used "the shoe and the party" push statement (a narrative about an impression involving a shoe and a party) and the name "Charles." Nobody in the meeting could connect the name with a shoe or a party. Ten minutes after the meeting ended, a young woman very excitedly told him that she now remembers a party from her teen years at which she broke her shoe while dancing with Charlie! She was very impressed that Rowland had perceived this detail from her past that even she could hardly remember. Rowland hadn't perceived any such thing, but no matter. The story exemplifies the essence of a successful cold reading: This works because our species is hardwired to find significance, and sometimes the brain works overtime in reading more into things than is there.

There is at least one more key to understanding subjective validation: motivation. Many people seek fortune tellers of all sorts or psychic mediums because they desperately desire to have someone tell them what lies in store for them or they desperately wish to make contact with a dead loved one. The following story illustrates how motivation drives the success of fortune tellers and psychics.