Friday, July 24, 2009

Eight biases - the first four

Emily Pronin's paper, "The Bias Blind Spot," describes three studies which attempt to identify the reason that people consistently view others as more biased than themselves. The first study began with having participants read a booklet describing eight specific biases. Some I recognized, some I didn't. So here are brief descriptions of four of the eight biases described in the booklet (I'll do the next four another time):

1. The self-serving bias - attributing one's successes to one's own personal attributes or effort, but one's failures to external forces beyond one's control. "I avoided the accident because I am a good driver and reacted quickly. I had the wreck because the rainy street was slick."

2. Choice-supportive bias - remembering mainly the positive qualities about a choice made and mainly the negative qualities about the choice not made. "I stayed home Friday night because I was really tired. It felt good to just relax for a change. I had a great weekend because I had a lot of energy. The party I chose not to go to was too far away. Several of the people who were going to be there are annoying and boring. I would have spent most of Saturday morning with a hangover if I'd gone." (Reduces the dissonance of the possibility that the choice not made would have actually been better. Coulda been a great party.)

3. The halo effect - the tendency to see additional positive qualities in a person or object after noticing one positive quality (or additional negative qualities after noticing one negative one). If someone strikes you as friendly or attractive on first meeting, you're more likely to judge them as intelligent, or talented, or industrious, etc. than if the first thing you noticed about them was that they are physically unappealing, or have a snobbish attitude. Even though an ugly or snobbish person may be as intelligent, talented, or industrious (or even more so) as the friendly, attractive person.

4. Pronin calls the fourth bias "biased assimilation of new information." I think she is referring to what is commonly called confirmation bias. (One of my favorites.) New information that confirms one's current opinions or understanding is considered to be very important, highly relevant, and is remembered for a long time. Information that contradicts one's beliefs is dismissed as unimportant or the rare exception - and often promptly forgotten. One particularly interesting effect of this bias is that when people are presented with (true) information that reveals that a deeply held belief is, in fact, false, more often than not they will not only not change their (false) opinion - they will embrace it more strongly.

Monday, July 20, 2009

And also

When I said I could spend a year thinking about this paper, I should add that this paper, too, is an essential part of what Pronin has to say.

How We See Ourselves and How We See Others

You know, I really love the internet. I mean, I really love it. I'm one of those who thinks it will change everything in ways that we are just beginning to glimpse. And that, overall, those changes will be for the better.

But one of its effects is to make it hard for me to write. I expect I'm hardly unique in this, but I have no way to be sure - yet.

Decades ago, I'd have what I thought was a brilliant idea or a profound insight and I couldn't wait to write it down. Such brilliance must be preserved!

But now . . . whatever I'm thinking, before I have a chance to write it down, I discover that someone else already has. And furthermore, they've thought it out in much more depth and expressed it much better than I could. So I lose interest in writing my own thoughts. I mean, what's the point of saying something that's unoriginal, poorly expressed, and shallow - that is, my thoughts on the matter.

I started this particular blog to have a place to write down my thoughts on how we see each other, the stories we tell ourselves about the people around us and how that affects what we choose to do. And how those choices shape our lives and the lives of those same people that we make stories about.

Then I come across How We See Ourselves and How We See Others.


I could spend a year thinking about this paper.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

It’s all about the narrative

Sometimes I end up with a phrase stuck in my head that seems to answer a question that I’ve been thinking about, puzzling over, vexing myself to try to figure out for a long time – years even. There’s an aha! That’s IT!

For a long time it was, “The one thing that trumps everything else is the need to feel special.” Maybe I’ll make another blog about that one some day.

But right now, I’m fixated on The Narrative. Or narratives. That is, the stories we tell ourselves. The ones that make sense out of whatever we’re experiencing or thinking. That have a beginning, middle, and end. A plot. That have prototypical characters. Stories that “come out.” As in, “how did it come out?” Did it have a happy ending? Did the good guys win? Or was it one of those bleak ones, where you can’t win, and the point of the story is to make clear that you can’t?

The essential part is that the story makes sense. It’s logical.

And of course, it’s almost always wrong.

As my sister Fredda said, “Well, if it’s about people, and it makes sense, it’s guaranteed to be wrong. People don’t make sense.”

What she said.