Posts Tagged ‘Pew Research Center’

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 healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Trump and Behavioral Economics

June 2, 2016

On the June 6 & 13, 2016 “New Yorker” Financial Page there is an article by James Surowiecki.  He is the regular “New Yorker” correspondent for economics, business, and finance.  He has also written a book that Healthymemory would highly recommend, “The Wisdom of Crowds.”  His article is titled “Losers” and it is about how behavioral economics explains the attitude of Trump supporters.  The field of behavioral economics was founded by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. There have been many, many healthy memory blog posts on this topic and about these authors.   Prospect Theory is key to behavioral economics and resulted in a Nobel Prize being awarded to Kahneman.  Unfortunately Tversky had already passed away when the award was made.

Surowiecki notes that Trump plays to one of the most powerful emotions in economic life, which is what behavioral economics call loss aversion.  The basic idea is that people feel the pain of loses much more than they feel the pleasure of gains.  Empirical studies estimate that, in general, losing is twice as painful as winning is enjoyable. Consequently, people will go to great lengths to avoid losses, and to recover what they’ve lost.

Suroweicki notes that Trump’s emphasis on losing is unusual  even in bleak times.  But he believes that it has worked for him, because it resonates with what many Republican voters already feel.  A study by the Pew Research Center last fall found that 79% of those who lean Republican believe that their side is losing politically.  A RAND survey in January found that voters who believed that “people like me don’t have any say about what the government does” were 86.5% more likely to prefer Trump.  Trump supporters feel that they, and the country, are losing economically, too.  In the RAND survey, Trump did better  with the people who were the most dissatisfied with their economic situation, and exit polls from the Republican primaries show that almost 70% of those who voted for Trump were “very worried” about the state of the economy as compared to only forty-five % of all voters in Democratic primaries.

Surowiki notes some surprising things about all this.  The first is that, in objective terms, plenty of Trump supporters haven’t lost that much.  We’re familiar with Trump’s appeal among white working class voters, many of whom truly have seen wages stagnate and jobs dry up.  But Nate Silver has recently pointed out that the median Trump voter is actually better educated and richer than the average American.  But an important point of Kahneman and Tversky’s work is that people don’t look at their status objectively, they measure it relative to a reference point, and for many Republicans that reference point is a past time when they had more status and more economic security.  Kahneman argues that even people who simply aren’t doing as well as they expected to be doing feel a loss.  And people don’t adapt their expectations to new circumstances.  A study of loss aversion by Jack Levy concluded that, after losses, an individual will “continue” to use the status quo ex ante as her reference point.”  Suroweicki notes that Trump’s promise is precisely that he’s going to return America to the status quo ex ante.  He tells his supporters that he will will help recoup their losses and safeguard what they have.

Suroweicki goes on to say that the other surprising thing is that you might expect loss-averse voters to be leery of taking a risk on an unpredictable outsider like Trump, since loss aversion often makes people cautious:  offered the choice between five hundred dollars and a 50 % chance at a thousand dollars or nothing, most people take the sure thing.  However, loss aversion promotes caution only when people are considering gains; once people have sustained losses, impulses change dramatically.  Offered the choice between losing five hundred dollars and a 50% chance of losing a thousand dollars or nothing, most people prefer to gamble—opposite of what they did when presented with the chance to win a thousand dollars.  People are willing to run huge risks to avert or recover loses.  In the real world , this is why people hold falling stocks, hoping for a rebound rather than cutting their losses, and it’s why they double down after losing a bet.  For Trump’s voters, the Obama years have felt like a disaster.  Taking a flyer on Trump actually starts to feel sensible.

Suroweicki continues, noting that historical parallels are always tendentious, that loss aversion has been instrumental in the success of authoritarian movements around the world.   The political scientist Kurt Weyland has argued that it played a crucial role in the rise of such regimes in Latin American, where the fear of Communism drove putatively democratic societies toward the radical solution of strongman rule.  Suroweicki notes that Trump may not quite be an American Peron, but, to his his supporters, his unpredictability is a selling point rather than a flaw.

It is important to remember that the basis thesis of behavioral economics, a thesis that has ben consistently supported, is that humans do not behave or think rationally.  Rather they are driven by emotions.

Healthy memory feels compelled to note other facets of human cognition that contribute to flawed political decisions.  One is the success of the big lie and the continued persistence of these lies.  It is extremely difficult to correct these lies.

Another problem is  the fallibility of memory and how selective memory makes it difficult to correct erroneous beliefs.  Consider the Iraq war that the younger Bush took us into.  The weapons of mass destruction, on which the invasion was predicated, were never found.  France and Germany were urging Bush to delay an invasion until the inspection were completed and the existence of these weapons could have been ascertained.

It was also the case that the King of Jordan and Henry Kissinger warned Bush that an invasion would result in a broken country that would serve as a base for radical Islamist groups..  This is exactly what has happened.  So the costs of this war not just monetary, which added to the national debt, but more importantly human, produced a situation that is worse, not better, than what prevailed, before the beginning of the war.

People also seem to have forgotten the financial crisis left by the Bush administration that resulted in the very real possibility of a depression.  In spite of recalcitrant Republicans, Obama managed to prevent the depression and aid in an important economic recovery.  By most objective standards, the U.S. economy is in good shape, and the American economy is one of the best performing economies.

Healtymemory still wonders about Trump.  It is difficult for him to imagine Trump curling up with a copy of Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow.”  It is also difficult imagining Trump taking consul with an expert informing him how to exploit human information processing shortcomings for political gain.  Using the word “instinct” is inappropriate here, but Trump has a flair for exploiting human information processing shortcomings so that System 2 processing is avoided and System 1 prevails resulting in emotions rather than reasoning governing their voting.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Contemplative Computing

September 22, 2013

According to Nielsen and the Pew Research Center, Americans spend an average of 60 hours a month online. That’s 729 hours a year, which is the equivalent of 90 eight-hour days per year. Twenty of these days are spent in social networking sites, 38 viewing content on news sites, YouTube, blogs, and so on, and 32 doing email. Remember, these numbers of averages, so numbers for individuals can be considerably higher or lower. The usual response to this is that we are being overwhelmed by technology.

Readers of the healthymemory blog should know that this blog is not sympathetic to articles and books complaining that we are suffering victims of our technology. The Distraction Addiction, in spite of its title, is not one of these books. Its author, Dr. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is a senior business consultant at Strategic Business Insights, a Silicon Valley-based think tank, and a visiting scholar at Stanford and Oxford universities. He has also been a Microsoft Research fellow. Dr. Pang is an advocate of contemplative computing, of not letting technology rule our lives, but instead of using this technology and interacting with our fellow humans to extend and grown our capabilities. Using technology and interacting with our fellow humans is referred to in the healthymemory blog as transactive memory. Contemplative computing aligns directly with what is being advocated in the healthymemory blog. Transactive memory, mindfulness, and meditation are central to the message of the healthymemory blog.

There are four big ideas, or principles in The Distraction Addiction.

The first big idea is our relationships with information technologies are incredibly deep and express unique human capacities.

The second big idea is the world has become a more distracting place—and there are solutions for bringing the extended mind back under control.

The third big idea is it’s necessary to be contemplative about technology.

And the fourth big idea is you can redesign your extended mind.

Were I to assign a text for the healthymemory blog, it would be The Distraction Addiction. Although it would not be appropriate for me to assign a text, I certainly do recommend your reading The Distraction Addiction. Given its relevance, I shall be basing many healthymemory blog posts on this book, but I can never do justice to the original.

In the meantime, you can visit www.contemplativecomputing.org

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.