Posts Tagged ‘Dan Jones’

Motivated Reasoning, Cognitive Dualism, and Scientific Curiosity

December 4, 2016

This post is based on a Feature Article by Dan Jones titled “Seeing reason:  How to change minds in a ‘post-fact’ world, in the December 3, 2016 issue of the New Scientist.   The article notes that politicians spin and politicians lie and that that has always been the case, and to an extent it is a natural product of a free democratic culture.  But Jones goes on to note, “Even so we do appear  to have entered a new era of ‘post-truth politics’, where the strongest currency is what satirist Stephen Colbert had dubbed ‘truthiness’:  claims that feel right, even if they have no basis in fact, and which people want to believe because they fit their pre-existing attitudes.”

However, facts are important, as Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College notes, “We need to have discussions that are based on a common set of accepted facts, and when we don’t, it’s hard to have a useful democratic debate.”  As Jones writes, “In the real world of flesh-and-blood humans, reasoning often starts with established conclusions and works back to find “facts” that support what we already believe.  And if we’re presented with facts that contradict our beliefs, we find clever ways to dismiss them.”  Psychologists call this lawyerly tendency motivated reasoning.

A Pew Research Center survey released  before the US election showed that compared with Democrats, Republicans are less likely to believe that scientists know that climate change is occurring, that they understand its causes, or that they fully and accurately report their findings.  They are also more likely to believe that scientists’ research is driven by careerism and political views.  Many liberals think this is a product of scientific illiteracy, which if addressed would bring everyone around to the same position.  Unfortunately, research by Dan Kahan at Yale University has shown that, in contrast to liberals, among conservatives it is the most scientifically literate who are less likely to accept climate change.  Kahn says, “Polarisation over climate change isn’t due to a lack of capacity to understand the issues.  Those who are most proficient at making sense of scientific information are the most polarized.

Kahan attributes this apparent paradox to motivated reasoning, the better one is at handling scientific information, the better one is at confirming his own bias and writing off inconvenient truths. For climate-change deniers studies suggest that motivation is often the endorsement of free-market ideology, which includes objections to government regulation of business that is required to address climate change.  Psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Bristol says, “If I ask people four questions about the free market, I can predict attributes towards climate science with 60% accuracy.”

Jones writes, “But liberal smugness has no place here.  Consider gun control.  Liberals tend to want tighter gun laws, because, they argue, fewer guns would translate into fewer gun crimes.  Conservatives typically respond that with fewer guns in hand, criminals can attack the innocent with impunity.”

In spite by the best efforts of criminologists, the evidence on this issue is mixed.  Kahan has found that both liberals and conservatives react to statistical information about the effects of gun control in the same way:  they accept what fits in with the broad beliefs of their political group, and discount that which doesn’t.  Kahn writes, “The more numerate you are, the more distorted your perception of the data.”  Motivated reasoning is found on other contentious issues from the death penalty and drug legalization to fracking and immigration.

The UK’s Brexit both provides another compelling case study on the distorting power of motivated reasoning.  Researchers at the Online Privacy Foundation found that both Remainers and Brexiteers could accurately interpret statistical information when it came to assessing whether a new skin cream caused a rash, their numeracy skills abandoned them when looking at stats that undermined rationales for their views such as figures on whether immigration is linked to an increase or a decrease in crime.

It is not just a matter of political ideology.  Although the bogus link between autism and the vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella is often portrayed as a liberal obsession, it cuts across politics.  Nyhan says, “There’s no demographic factor that predicts who is most vulnerable to anti-vaccine claims.”

It should not be concluded that myth-busting is a waste of time.   Nyhan and Reifler found that during the 2014 midterm elections in the US fact-checking improved the accuracy of people’s beliefs even when it went against ingrained biases.  Both Democrats and Republicans updated their beliefs after having a claim debunked.

Emily Thomson of George Washington University found that misconceptions of issues like how much of the US debt China owns, whether there’s  a federal time limit for receiving welfare benefits, and who pays for Social Security could be fixed by a single corrective statement.

Unfortunately the bad news is that myth-busting loses its power on salient and controversial issues.  Nyhan says, “It’s most effective for topics that we’re least concerned about as a democracy.  Even the release of President Obama’s birth certificate had only a limited effect on people’s belief that he wasn’t born in this country.”  Thomson has found that even when corrections work, for example getting to accept that a congressman accused of taking campaign money from criminals did no such thing—the taint of the earlier claim often sticks to the innocent target.  This phenomenon is termed “belief echoes.”

Graphical presentation of information can be more effective than verbal presentations, but this benefit requires that people be able to read graphs.  Many people have difficulty understanding graphs, so simple graphs have a higher likelihood of success.

Kahan calls the ability to hold two seemingly contradictory beliefs at the same time “cognitive dualism.”  Cognitive dualism was found in a recent Pew survey on climate change:  just 15% of conservative Republicans agreed that human activity was causing climate change, but 27% agreed that if we change our ways to limit carbon emissions it would make a big difference in tackling climate change.  This same dualism was found among US farmers.  A 2013 survey found that only a minority accepted climate change as a fact.  Yet a majority believed that some farmers would be driven out of business by climate change, and the rest will have to change current practices and buy more insurance against climate-induced crop failures.  By buying crops genetically engineered to cope with climate change and purchasing specialist insurance polices, many of them already have.

Kahan has discovered something interesting about people who seek out and consume scientific information for personal pleasure,  He calls this trait scientific curiosity.  He has devised a scale for measuring this trait.  He and his colleagues have found that, unlike scientific literacy, scientific curiosity is linked to greater acceptance of human-caused climate change, regardless of political orientation.  On many issues, from attitudes towards porn and the legislation of marijuana, to immigration and fracking,scientific curiosity makes both liberal and conservatives converge on views closer to the facts.

So exploiting cognitive dualism and fostering scientific curiosity appear to be the most promising avenues to pursue.  It is important to remember that it is scientific curiosity rather than scientific literacy that is important here.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Wise Psychological Interventions

April 29, 2016

Wise Psychological Interventions (WPIs) were the subject of an article titled “A mind trick that can break down your brain’s barrier to success” by Dan Jones in the March 12 2016 edition of the New Scientist.  “Mental unblocking” is at the heart of WPIs.  Entering “Wilson” into the health memory blog search block will take you to many examples of WPIs.  Entering “REDIRECT” into the search block will take you to many more.

Wilson is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and here is an example of one of his WPIs.  His goal was to help new college students cope better with worries about their academic performance.  His solution was inspired by attribution theory, which describes how people accept for events.  For example whether they blame failures and setbacks on enduring facts about themselves, or on external factors.  His goal was to get students think about the external situation, rather than to facts about themselves.  He presented the students with statistics tat showed the majority of new students start with disappointing grades but do better over time.  He also showed them videos of older students talking about their improving academic performance.   Students he received these presentations grades got better more quickly that those of students who did not receive these messages.  They were also less likely to have dropped out by the end of the second year.

The concept of growth mindsets is central to the message of the healthy memory blog.  The distinctions  between fixed and growth mindsets were well articulated by Carol Dweck in her best selling book “MIndset.”  People with fixed mindsets believe that their intelligence is fixed as to whether they are smart, stupid, or average.  People with growth mindsets believe that it is up to themselves to grow and improve.  The notion of growth mindsets is central to the basic message of the healthy memory blog.  We need to continue to grown our mindsets throughout our entire lifespan.  Enter “Dweck” and “growth mindsets” to read more posts on this topic.  Deck has found that when students were told about how the brain changes and learns, and that intelligence can be boosted. showed increased motivation in class and better test scores as compared to a control group.

Stanford psychologist Geoffrey Cohen has developed WPIs aimed at reducing the achievement gap between white and black university students.  An effective strategy  against stereotype threat is to get people to write about values that are important to the, which is a process called self affirmation.  He found that even a short session improve the grades of black students relative to controls.  I closed the achievement gap by 40%.  Two years later, after a few top-up sessions, the intervention was still having a clear effect.  Cohen has applied this same approach to the achievement gap between men and women in university science courses.

New students frequently feel alienated  and out of place when they arrive in a University setting.  Cohen and a colleague got first-year students to read a report summarizing a survey of older students experience at a university.  They report described how they felt out of place, at first, but that these feelings passed as they settled in and made new friends.  Reading this report not only improved the grades of black students, but also increased their self-reported happiness and health.  These effects persisted three years on, and they have been replicated by much larger studies.

WPIs go way beyond academic performance.  Iran Halperin of the Interdisciplinary Center in e Herizliya, Israel have been developing WPIs to reduce tensions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  He has demonstrated that nurturing a growth mindsets makes people on both sides more open to listening, more willing to compromise for peace, and more likely to forgive.

The Behavioral Insights Team (BIT) in the United Kingdom is a partly government owned firm exploring the potential of WPIs.  President Obama launched the US Social and Behavioral Sciences Team to develop WPIs in the U.S.  Similar unites have been established in Germany, Australia, Singapore, Finland, and the Netherlands.

So it appears that WPIs are catching on.

The Shortcomings of Empathy

October 7, 2015

Previous blogs have included many good comments on empathy.  Perhaps one of the primary ones, is that humans excel a empathy and computers are short on empathy.  Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University says that people who think that empathic concern is an unalloyed force for good are wrong.  The problem is that empathy is a spotlight and is very narrow.  It illuminates the suffering of a single person rather than the fate of millions.  It is more concerned with the here and now than with the future.  Bloom goes on to say, “It’s because of empathy that we care more about, say, the plight of a little girl trapped in a well than we do about potentially billions of people suffering or dying from climate change.”   According to the article, Morality 2.0 by Dan Jones in the September 26, 2015 New Scientist,  empathy’s shortcomings are compounded by the fact that we end up pointing its beam on cause that come into our field of view.  These are typically the most newsworthy moral issues rather than those where we can do the most good.

There is also a general belief that our brains are wired to be empathic.  This accounts for our success as a species.  But, again, the problem is the narrowness of our empathy beam.  Conflict among groups, be they tribes, nations, religions, or even professional organizations is the rule rather then the exception.  Our record is one of the abuse and even the enslavement of others who we believe “do not belong.”

The New Scientist article discusses a variety of means of prodding humans to make more meaningful moral choices.  It concludes with the following statement:  “Moral issues are complicated and hard, and they involve serious trade-offs and deliberation.  it would be be better if people thought more about them.”

It strikes me that non-empathic computer technology might be of considerable assistance. The problem of addressing the wide variety of moral needs in an efficient manner is an enormous computational task. one that is certainly beyond an individual human’s intellect, and is perhaps beyond the capacity of the collective intellect of humanity.  Humans could program their empathic concerns into computers.  Computers could then  compute enormous cost/benefit analysis.  Humans could then discuss and debate how resources could best be used to address these human and planetary needs.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.