Posts Tagged ‘Availability heuristic’

Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People

January 25, 2019

The title of this post is the same as the title to an informative and important book by Mazarin R. Banaji & Anthony G. Greenwald. Dr. Banaji was a doctoral student to Dr. Greenwald when he was at Ohio State University. Dr. Greenwald has since moved on to Washington University in Seattle.

Blindspot refers to something we cannot see. We all have a blind spot in each of our eyes. The blind spot occurs where the optic nerve enters the retina. We are unaware of this blind spot because our mind fills in this gap for us. A demonstration of this blind spot can be found by going to the wikipedia. There are blind spots on each side of our cars. Fortunately, technology is available to help us fill in these blind spots.

The authors use the term mindbugs to explain mental blind spots. Mindbugs are ingrained habits of thought that lead to errors in how we perceive, remember, reason, and make decisions. Two famous mindbugs, identified by the psychologists Kahneman and Tversky are availability and anchoring. Examples of the availability heuristic follow.
Consider the following the question: Each year do more people in the United States die from cause (a) or cause (b)?

1, (a) murder (b) diabetes
2. (a) murder (b) suicide
3. (a) car accidents (b) abdominal cancer

When instances of one type of event come more easily to mind than those of another type, we tend to assume that the first event must also occur more frequently in the world. Murder is more likely to receive media attention than both suicide and diabetes, so it is more likely to be judged as more frequently occurring. Similarly car accidents receive more attention that deaths from abdominal cancer, a common cause of death

A behavioral economist at MIT, Dan Ariely, asked students to write down the last two digits of their Social Security number on a piece of paper. Then he asked them to estimate the price of a keyboard, a trackball, or a design book, items easily familiar to MIT students. Then he computed a correlation between their numbers and their price estimates. There was a significant correlation between their numbers and their estimates, a correlation that did not exist in objective reality. This is an example of anchoring. In the absence of anything better, these students were using their digits to make their estimates. The lower their numbers the lower the estimates for each object.

There are also social mindbugs, to which the remainder of the book is devoted. Other members of our species are significant to us in ways that little else in the physical world can compete with. And the primate brain has evolved to pay special attention to others of its kind, and one way in which we do this is to routinely try to predict what might go on in the minds of others.

New research suggests that selective brain regions appear to be active when we imagine the thoughts of another person (Does she believe in Christ the Savior?) and when we try to predict the actions of others (Will he allow our temple to be safe?). These same brain regions do not seem to care when we contemplate the physical aspects of others, such as their height, weight, or eye color. This suggests that the brain has evolved specific regions to help with the tasks of social thinking and feeling. In other words, minds matter to us enough that regions of neural real estate are uniquely engaged for the purpose of making social meaning.

Here’s an experiment you might do with six friends. Ask a group of three of these friends (randomly chosen from the six) to give three reasons why they love their romantic partners, and ask the other three friends to give nine reasons why they love their romantic partners. Then ask both groups of friends this single question: “How satisfied are you with your relationship” Research suggests the those asked to write only three reasons report greater happiness with their partner and their relationship than hose asked to write nine reasons. On second thought, since the result is already known, and you should not want to interfere in the relationships of your friends, do not do this experiment.

The explanation for this result is counterintuitive but simple: Which of us can easily come up with nine good qualities of a partner? The authors write, “Even canonization requires only two miracles!” Those asked to come up with nine reasons have to work harder to come up with them, and it prompts this thought: “Hmm, that was hard! Is it possible my partner isn’t as wonderful as I’d managed?” The researcher that actually conducted this experiment, Norbert Schwarz at the University of Michigan—found that even important and familiar affections are susceptible to the availability bias.

We constantly need to make such judgments such as is this person trustworthy? Will this person be competent for the job? Could this person be difficult to get along with? Using whatever we can to eke out from even the most trivial information, we make assessments within a few seconds or even fractions of a second, and without any visible discomfort at having to do so. We’re able to make these assessments because of social mindbugs.

Social mindbugs can give us both false feelings of faith in people we perhaps shouldn’t trust and the opposite—feelings of distrust towards those who we should trust.

Social mindbugs affect decisions not only about others but also about ourselves. Becca Levy conducted a study at Yale’s School of Public Health and found a stunning correlation. The negative beliefs about the elderly that elderly people themselves held when they were young predicted their vulnerability to heart disease than they became older. The authors write, “This result emerged even after controlling for other factors such as depression, smoking, and family history. We take such evidence as suggestive that stereotypes can be harmful not just to others we assess and evaluated, but also to ourselves.

School Shootings Are Rare. We’re Still Terrified

April 1, 2018

The title of this article is identical to the title of an article by David Ropek in the Outlook Section of the 11 March 2018 Washington Post. Mr. Ropek writes, “the murder of children in their classrooms has come to seem common a regular feature of modern American life, and our fears so strong that we are certain the next horror is sure to come not long after the last.

According to the Education Report approximately 50 million children attend public schools for around 180 days per year . Since Columbine, approximately 200 public school students have been shot to death while school was in session, including the recent slaughter at Marjory Stoneham Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, and a more recent shooting in Birmingham, AL. This means that the statistical likelihood of any given public school student being killed by a gun, in school, on any given day since 1999 is about 1 in 614,000,000.

Although the article’s author does not mention Kahneman’s Availability, heuristic, this is what underlies the fear. According to Kahneman, it is information that is available and accessible in memory that guides our judgments. Moreover, this is reasonable, given that objective facts are not readily available, and considerable effort is involved in gathering the data Mr. Ropek did to write this article.

Nevertheless, HM is grateful that the students and the public are reacting in this way. The Marjory Stoneham Douglas High School students have been highly articulate and active. May they continue their effort and be joined by the entire country.

The exact wording of the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution is
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
This amendment makes sense. Note that the justification for this is to maintain a well regulated militia. The NRA always omits this justification for the amendment. Today’s NRA is not the same our grandfathers’ NRA. In those days the NRA focused on gun safety. Today’s NRA seems to be focused on making every weapon available to everyone. It appears to be motivated by the fear that their guns might be taken away. As the prospect of their losing their guns is not on the horizon, this seems to be institutional paranoia. Unfortunately, a retired Supreme Court Justice appeared to be arguing for the repeal of the 2nd Amendment. This argument did nothing constructive and merely provided justification for the NRA’s paranoia.

Unfortunately, HM suffers from his own paranoia about the NRA. He asks why do they argue for weapons designed for combat? He remembers Charlton Heston, the actor, and HM believes a former president of the NRA, said that his rifle would need to be pried from his cold, dead hand. This leaves the impression that once some fear threshold is reached, the NRA will effectively declare war on the United States and need to be defeated militarily.

Clearly it is time for a sanity check. HM thinks that the majority of families do not have a gun in their homes. This would make gun owners a minority, and should be given the respect all minorities should be given. They have feelings, desires, and beliefs. This is not the time to think that it is morally superior to be anti-gun.

HM has also seen surveys of actual NRA members who seem to have moderate views on gun ownership. It seems that working with NRA members, reasonable gun laws could be passed. But it seems like the NRA is managed by paranoid lunatics. Moreover, they are heavily funded by gun manufacturers and perhaps by the Mercers, the Koch’s, and perhaps even the Russians. This group has essential bought the United States Congress. We can truthfully say that we have the best congress money can buy.

These students are trying to get Congress to pay attention not just to them, but to citizens at large. We all need to work with these students, including sane NRA members, uphold the 2nd Amendment, and assure the safety of all our citizens.

Please submit comments to correct any factual errors in this post.

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