Monday, September 24, 2012

hindsight bias

"The mind that makes up narratives about the past is a sense-making organ. When an unpredicted event occurs, we immediately adjust our view of the world to accommodate the surprise."--Daniel Kahneman
Hindsight bias is the tendency to construct one's memory after the fact (or interpret the meaning of something said in the past) according to currently known facts and one's current beliefs. In this way, one appears to make the past consistent with the present and more predictive or predictable than it actually was. When a surprise event occurs and you say "I knew it all along," you probably didn't. Hindsight bias may be kicking in.

Hindsight bias accounts for the tendency of believers in prophecies and psychic predictions to retrofit events to past oracular claims, however vague or obscure (retroactive clairvoyance). For example, after the Challenger space shuttle disaster that killed seven U.S. astronauts on January 28, 1986, hindsight bias was used by followers of Nostradamus to claim that he had predicted it in the following verse:

Monday, September 17, 2012

recency bias

Recency bias is the tendency to think that trends and patterns we observe in the recent past will continue in the future. Predicting the future in the short term, even for highly changeable events like the weather or the stock market, according to events in the recent past, works fine much of the time. Predicting the future in the long term according to what has recently occurred has been shown to be no more accurate than flipping a coin in many fields, including meteorology, economics, investments, technology assessment, demography, futurology, and organizational planning (Sherden, The Future Sellers).

Doesn't it strike you as odd that with all the intelligence supposedly going on that such things as the breakup of the Soviet Union, the crumbling of the Berlin wall, the former head of Sinn Fein meeting with the Queen of England, the worldwide economic collapse of recent years, the so-called Arab Spring, the recent attacks on U.S. embassies in several Muslim countries, and a host of other significant historical events were not predicted by the experts? Wait, you say. So-and-so predicted this or that. Was it a lucky guess or was the prediction based on knowledge and skill? If the latter, we'd expect not just one correct prediction out of thousands, but a better track record than, say, flipping a coin. Find one expert who's consistently right about anything and we still have a problem. How can we be sure that this sharpshooter isn't just lucky? If thousands of people are making predictions, chance alone tells us that a few will make a right call now and then. The odds in favor of prediction success diminish the more events we bring in, but even someone who seems to defy the odds might be the one a million who gets lucky with a string of guesses. You flip the coin enough times and once in a while you will get seven heads in a row. It's not expected, but it is predicted by the laws of chance. Likewise with predicting how many hurricanes we'll have next year or what stocks to buy or sell  this year.

Monday, September 10, 2012

shoehorning

Shoehorning is the process of force-fitting some current affair into one's personal, political, or religious agenda. So-called psychics frequently shoehorn events to fit vague statements they made in the past. This is an extremely safe procedure, since they can't be proven wrong and many people aren't aware of how easy it is to make something look like confirmation of a claim after the fact, especially if you give them wide latitude in making the shoe fit. It is common, for example, for the defenders of such things as the Bible Code or the "prophecies" of Nostradamus to shoehorn events to the texts, thereby giving the illusion that the texts were accurate predictions.

A classic example of psychic shoehorning is the case of Jeanne Dixon. In 1956 she told Parade magazine: "As for the 1960 election Mrs. Dixon thinks it will be dominated by labor and won by a Democrat. But he will be assassinated or die in office though not necessarily in his first term." John F. Kennedy was elected and was assassinated in his first term. This fact was shoehorned to fit her broad prediction and her reputation was made as the psychic who predicted JFK's violent death. In 1960 she apparently forgot her earlier prediction because she then predicted that JFK would fail to win the presidency. Many psychic detectives take advantage of shoehorning their vague and ambiguous predictions to events in an effort to make themselves seem more insightful than they really are.

Monday, September 3, 2012

confabulation

Have you ever told a story that you embellished by putting yourself at the center when you knew that you weren’t even there? Or have you ever been absolutely sure you remembered something correctly, only to be shown incontrovertible evidence that your memory was wrong? No, of course not. But you probably know or have heard of somebody else who juiced up a story with made-up details or whose confidence in his memory was shown to be undeserved by evidence that his memory was false.

Confabulation is an unconscious process of creating a narrative that is believed to be true by the narrator but is demonstrably false. The term is popular in psychiatric circles to describe narratives of patients with brain damage or a psychiatric disorder who make statements about what they perceive or remember. The narratives are known to be either completely fictional or in great part fantasy, but they are believed to be true by the patients.