Posts Tagged ‘Tversky’

Improving Risk Communication

April 26, 2020

This is the eighth post in a series of posts on a highly relevant book by Steven Taylor, Ph.D., The Psychology of Pandemics. The subtitle of this book is Preparing for the Next Global Outbreak of Infectious Disease. The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in that book.

Frightening people into changing their behaviors is widely used in health promotion campaigns. However, there is concern that such messages might induce widespread anxiety, which can create problems of its own. Some commentators argue that risk communications should contain a balance of assuring and fear-inducing information. Other commentators argue that the public should be presented with the worst-case scenario. According to Sandman, a risk-communication consultant, the government must help the public to “visualize what a bad pandemic might be like.” Regarding the 2009 Swine flu pandemic, Sandman asserted that “the CDC’s biggest failure was in not doing enough to help people visualize what a bad pandemic might be like so they can understand and start preparing for the worst.”

Sandman argues that in terms of preparedness planning: (1) People need to be educated as to how they can protect themselves rather than being treated as passive individuals who have little to do except wash their hands and use facemasks, and (2) people need to err on the side of caution.

Fear appeals can be effective in achieving persuasive goals, but their effectiveness depends on a variety of factors, including features of the message and the target audience. Important factors include the severity of the perceived threat in relation to what the person believes can be done to cope with the threat.

Adherence to the guidelines presented in a fear-evoking message is expected to occur if (1) the threat is perceived as severe, (2) an effective coping response is to be available, and (3) the person believes he is capable of executing an effective coping response.

Sometimes fear appeals can be counterproductive. Telling people that they are at risk of contracting a disease increases their vigilance to disease cues. This can increase the chance of correctly identifying infection and taking appropriate action. But it also increases the chance that people will misinterpret benign bodily sensations as indications of disease and therefore become unduly anxious and needlessly seek medical attention and potentially over-taxing the healthcare system.

A distinction also must be made between monitors and blunters with respect to fear-evoking messages. Monitors are actively seeking information, whereas blunters tend to disregard the messages they do hear. Fear evoking messages are effective in conveying the seriousness of the risk. In contrast, blunters are more likely to distract themselves from such messages. Blunters may benefit from messages that involve logical appeals, which were less likely to trigger avoidance than fear-evoking messages.

Psychological distance also influences perceived risk.

Spatial distance. This is the physical proximity of the disease to the person.
Temporal distance. This refers to two temporal parameters: How soon the threat might arrive, and the temporal origin or newness of the threat. The greater the newness, the greater the perceived threat.
Social distance. This is defined by the nature of social relationships. The closer the people, the greater the fear.
Probability distance. The perceived probability of an event is influenced by a range of factors, including the cognitive process known as the availability heuristic (Tversky & Kahneman). That is, the greater the ease of recalling something, the greater is the perceived the probability of occurring in the future. Consistent with this, research conducted by White and his colleagues found that the frequency with which a person encounters a virus’s names associated with greater perceived danger.

Messing with the Enemy

December 13, 2019

Messing with the Enemy is an excellent book by Clint Watts. He is a Robert A. Fox Fellow in the Foreign Research Institute’s Program on the Middle East as well as a senior fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at the George Washington University. He is graduate of the U.S Military Academy and in addition to his work as an Army officer, he also served in the F.B.I. He founded the Combating Terrorism Center at the Military academy.

He used the internet to study, or as he writes, mess with extremists half a world away. He observed their debates, gauged their commitment to terrorist principles, and poked them with queries from a laptop at home. He was also able to pose as a fellow terrorist.

The internet provided assistance to al-Qaeda operatives when Osama bin Laden was forced out of Tora Bora, Afghanistan. Hunted by the entire international community, his aides and deputies were constantly on the run. The internet allowed for communication between and control of these aides and deputies. Throughout the mid-to late nineties, websites and email chains provided a communications leap forward to terrorists (and the rest of the world), but they had a major limitation: they were one-way modes of information sharing. Bin Laden could only broadcast to audiences. They could not easily follow up with those inclined to join the ranks. All that changed with the dawn of the new millennium. With the emergence of vBulletin, commercially available software allowing group discussions and Yahoo groups, audiences now had a direct window to communicate with Islamist webmasters, clerics, and leaders. In 2001, the Global Islamic Media Front started a Yahoo Group and a related website. They required users to acquire a password to access the discussion page. Many others featuring general Islamist discussions with a sprinkling of jihadi messaging popped up and down toward the end of the decade. Watts writes that none endured for long before rumors of intelligence operatives penetrating them squelched their dialogue and counterterrorism arrests of forum administrators led to their closure. Two-way communication between al-Qaeda leaders and hopeful jihadis increased, but more content needed to follow to sustain audience engagement.

al-Qaeda created an official media group, al-Sahab, to fill the void and gain greater control of jihadi discussions. Bin Laden recognized the value of jihadi websites and began sending audio and written statements from top al-Qaeda leaders directly to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s leader, Yusuf al-Uyayri, and his site Al Neda. Websites and forums served as principal communication points for those around the world inspired by the incredible success of the 9/11 attacks and seeking to join bin Laden’s ranks.

Replication of sites and duplication of content became key features of online survival for al-Qaeda supporters. Openly available software and hosting services meant websites and forums could be created by anyone in minutes, and accessed by anyone around the world with an Internet connection. This lowered technical boundary for mainstream internet users meant relatively novice jihadis now had the power to create their own safe havens online.

In his book The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki describes how the internet provided a vehicle for crowds to make smarter decisions than even the smartest person in the crowd, working alone, could make. On-line Watts made the prediction on January 2, 2011 that Osama bin Laden would be killed that year. He made this prediction to work as a vehicle for crowdsourcing an important question. What would al-Qaeda and the world of terrorism be if bin Laden were no more? He used this New Year’s prediction to provoke the audience to answer this question. Watts was disappointed to find that rather than yielding great wisdom of important insight from experts, the results instead returned a pattern of answers of no consequence, “Nothing will change,” and “It doesn’t matter” became patent answers from the best thinkers in the field, regardless of the question.

So Watts took recourse in research that has been reported in previous healthymemory posts on Philip Tetlock. In his 2005 book, Expert Political Judgment he reported the survey of hundreds of experts in political thought over two decades. He determined that, en masse, experts were no more successful at predicting future events than a simple coin toss. He identified two kinds of forecasters. He borrowed from a Greek saying, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows but one big thing.” He classified those good predictors as “foxes” and poorer performers as “hedgehogs.” What differentiated the two groups’ success was how they thought, not what they thought. Tetlock’s foxes were self-critical, used no template, and acknowledged their misses. By contrast, hedgehogs sought to reduce every problem to a single theory, were not comfortable with complexity, we’re overconfident in their assessments, and placed their faith in one big idea, pushing aside alternative explanations. He saw a lot of hedgehogs in his online surveys,and occasional foxes to get insights. He developed a techniques to identify, in advance, foxes.

At this point, there will be a break in this narrative to mention that Tetlock has conducted additional research into intelligence analysis using a very large sample of analysts. There he was able to identify analysts who performed better than chance, and these analysts were, of course, foxes. These posts can be found by entering “Tetlock” into the search box at

Returning to the current post on Alan Watts, he used the research of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (two authors oft cited in this blog) Their research identified a series of heuristics and noted the circumstances where biases emerged to make incorrect judgments. Long ago they identified the predictive missteps Watts had observed in his polls. Status quo bias, a belief that tomorrow will most likely look like today, ruled the responses. Loss aversion, a tendency to avoid anticipated losses rather than pursue equally likely gains, filled the results of counterterrorism policy questions. Herding, the tendency of large groups of people to behave the same way and pursue groupthink, drove Watt’s social media recruits to the same set of answers.

Watts changed his approach using Tetlock’s insigts and Kahneman and Tversky’s heuristics and biases. Instead of asking simple yes-no questions, he flooded respondents with as many potential outcomes as he could think of, making it challenging for non experts to wade though the responses. He identified novices and less innovative thinkers by playing to the status quo bias. Every question had a “no change” response option, surrounded by responses imitating common thinking stripped from Google searches, newspaper headlines, and cable news pundits. With every question he offered survey takers a comment box or allowed them to craft an “other”response.

The prediction he made was confirmed when on May 2, 2012, U.S. Navy SEALS killed Osama in Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The result was that his Twitter feed of only a couple hundred followers suddenly became more active than usual. For a brief Google search period, news of bin Laden’s death brought a world of visitors to his New Year’s prediction. His small blog suddenly had an audience, and he had a new opportunity for rater perspectives from a larger crowd.

2019 NFL Draft

April 29, 2019

This post is based on an article by Sally Jenkins titled, “Smart teams trade down, but most teams just aren’t smart,” in the 27 April 2019 issue of the Washington Post. There have been previous posts on this topic. Behavioral economics which grew from Prospect Theory by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, for which Kahneman won a Nobel Prize (unfortunately Amos Tversky had passed on and was ineligible for the prize when it was awarded) can be used to guide NFL Draft Picks. The basic strategy is to trade down rather than trade up. Cade Massey of the University of Pennsylvania Wharton school and Nobel Prize winner produced papers in 2005 and 2012 that showed that teams profoundly overvalue first-round picks and simply don’t have the ability they think they do to discern between a great player and a good one.

Jenkins writes, “How often is a team right in picking a high-first rounder” What will be the quantifiable difference between the top choice at a position in the 2019 draft and the next available player, or even the third or fourth, in terms of games started and potential Pro Bowl success? The difference would need to be large given the amount of their investments. But their expenditures prove right only 52% of the time, which is effectively a coin toss.

Massey who does consulting for NFL teams says, “History suggests you do better by trading down from the top, using multiple lesser picks than one high pick.” The Patriots have done this with obvious success. From the article, “As of 2018, Bill Belichick had traded down fully 21 times on draft day to acquire more picks. Over the past 15 years, the Patriots have chosen 39 players in the second and third rounds, the highest number of any team in the AFC. And they won Super Bowls with them.”

Massey says, “If you recognize the uncertainty rather than throwing up your hands, you say, ‘We want as many draws as possible from the lottery. We can’t influence one ticket, but we can get as many tickets as possible.”

Andrew Brandt, a sports business analyst and former vice-president of the Green Bay Packers says, “It take a lot of willpower to trade out of that first-round pick, because there’s a lot of pressure. A lot of gravitas goes with that.”

Teams often do the dead opposite of what they should: give away fistfuls of picks to move up and grab a single star prospect. According to Massey overconfidence in their own judgment clouds their thinking. Brandt says, “Or sometimes it’s just a simple case of seeing a player ‘you lust after.’”

There is also extreme pressure coming from fans. There are many males who might not be about to tell you who their representatives to Congress or their senators are, who have definite strong picks for the NFL draft.

Massey says, “The quants are wrong to think you can quantify every single player. But you also can’t be right without the quantifications.”

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.

Myths of the Triune Brain and the Rational Human Mind

May 10, 2017

This post is motivated in part by Lisa Feldman Barrett’s revolutionary book “HOW EMOTIONS ARE MADE.”  Unfortunately, Carl Sagan popularized the notion of a triune brain in his book “The Dragons of Eden.”  The model begins with ancient subcortical circuits for basic human survival, which we allegedly inherited from reptiles.  Sitting atop those circuits is an alleged emotion system, known as the “limbic system”  that we supposedly inherited from the early mammals.  Wrapped around this so-called limbic system is our allegedly  rational and unique human cortex.  Any expert in brain evolution knows that humans don’t have an animal brain gift-wrapped in cognition.  Neuroscientist Barbara L. Finlay, editor of the journal “Behavior and Brain Sciences” says  that “mapping emotion onto just the middle part of the brain, and reason and logic onto the cortex is just plain silly.  All brain divisions are present in all vertebrates.”  Brains evolve as effective companies do, by reorganizing as they expand to keep themselves efficient and nimble.

Dr. Barrett’s bottom line is this:  “the human brain is anatomically structured so that no decision or action can be free of interoception and affect, no matter what fiction people tell themselves about how rational they are.   Your bodily feeling right now will project forward to influence what you will feel and do in the future.  It is an elegantly orchestrated, self-fulfilling prophecy, embodied with the architecture of the brain.”

One of the most cherished narratives in Western thought, is that the human mind is a battlefield where cognition and emotion struggle for the control of behavior.  Modern neuroscience does not back up this narrative, nor does human behavior.  Much research has clearly debunked this narrative.  There are many posts on this blog on behavioral economics (to find them enter “behavioral economics” into the healthy memory blog search.)  Behavioral economics was born by the research of Kahneman and Tversky.  Unfortunately, mainstream economics is dominated by the assumption of the rational mind.  This assumption makes the underlying mathematics tractable.  They are tractable but wrong.  Mainstream economics did not expect the financial crash of 2008, nor the market crash of 1929 for that matter.

Dr. Barrett writes, “You cannot overcome emotion through rational thinking, because the state of your body budget is the basis for every thought and perception you have, so interoception and affect are built into every moment.  Even when you experience yourself as rational, your body budget and its links to affect are there, lurking beneath the surface.”


October 12, 2016

Epilogue is, appropriately enough, the final chapter of “Progress:  Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future”  by Johan Norbert.  Readers should be aware that we do not have direct contact with reality, but that we build mental models on the basis of our interactions with the external world.  This book, and it is hoped that the posts based on this book, provided ample data that contemporary people believe that things are bad and are getting worse.  The reason why people think this is based on the availability heuristic formulated by Kahneman and Tversky.  People base their estimates on information that is available.  The media focuses on what goes wrong and what is being done wrong.  This is the cause of the pessimistic assessments.  This is not a matter of a conspiracy by the media.  This is the type of news that sells.  A headline that there were no significant data comprises would be boring, unless the headline came after  serious data comprises.

The final chapter begins with the following Inscription on a stone from Chaldea in 2800 bce :
We have fallen upon evil times
and the world has waxed very old and wicked.
Politics are very corrupt.
Children are no longer respectful to their parents.

So it appears that pessimism and alarm might be the defaults for our species.  The subtitle is “SO WHY ARE YOU STILL NOT CONVINCED?
Frankly if you are not already convinced on the basis of these blog posts, HM would say that it would be pointless to read the book.  But this would be because HM has concluded you are intellectually compromised.  But the truth might be that HM failed to communicate effectively and perhaps you should read the book.  Even if you are already convinced, HM touched only barely on the books content, so it would be worthwhile for you to read it.

HM must confess to have been already convinced of the book’s thesis before reading.  He has long thought that he would rather be a person of modest means living in the present than a rich, influential individual living in the past.  This book has strongly justified this sentiment.  Moreover, HM would likely bet on a better life in the future.

Of course, this better life is not given.  Matters could go wrong.  We must to continue to grow our minds, think critically, and work for a better future.  The risk here is that there are indications that too many people do not use their minds much, and do not think critically.  Unfortunately there is a tendency for too many not to think critically and to fall under the influence of demagogues.  Demagogues succeed by inducing fear via big lies about the present and what they will do in the future.  It is remarkable, but people are convinced by promises absent any plans as to how this will be done.  Moreover, they exhibit an ignorance of government and a rejection of science.  Unfortunately, if the President of the United States thinks that global warming is a hoax, this places not just
the United States in jeopardy, but the entire world.  And, unfortunately, at present this appears to be a risk.

If you have yet to do so, go to   It is a very interesting website.  You might find the documentary “Don’t Panic End Poverty” well worth viewing.  This is the last call for this important and informative website.

© 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.

Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future

October 6, 2016

HM is not close on the ideological spectrum to Johan Norbert the author of “Progress:  Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future.”  But the data and the reasoning presented in this volume are sound.  HM hopes that readers of the healthy memory blog are not naive realists.  That is they are aware that we do not have direct contact with reality, but rather build mental models on the basis  of our interactions with the external world.  We need to be aware that these models are imperfect and are need of constant updating.  The data in Progress indicate that some of these models are way off the mark  and are in need to massive updating.

The Gapminder Foundation has done several “ignorance” surveys using multiple-choice questions.  In Britain only ten percent thought that world poverty had decreased in the last thirty years.  More than half thought that a it had increased.  In the United States only five percent answered correctly that world poverty had been almost halved in the last twenty years.  Sixty-six percent thought that that it had almost doubled.

Lasse Berg and Stig Karlson are two researchers who traveled to India in the 1970s and had predicted doom in Asia. Their predictions turned out to be wrong, but the Indian people they visited did not think so themselves.  When they visited in the 1970s the villagers complained about oppression, illiteracy and how difficult it was for the family to get enough to eat.  The children, one of whom was named Satto, worked hard in the fields every day.  When Berg and Carlson revisited the village in the 1990s, the woman Sato complained that life was now more difficult and she now had to work hard for her kids.  She said that her childhood had been much easier and that she had just played all day.  So her memory was playing tricks.  Satto is not unique, our memories play tricks on all of us.  When Berg returned again in 2010, Satto was happier with life and the living standard the family had attained, but claimed that she didn’t remember her complaints during the 1990s.  Her memory now at that life was good in the 1990s as well.

The psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky formulated the “availability heuristic,” which said that we judge the frequency of an event in terms of how available they in memory rather than on their objective frequency.  Moreover, we rarely know the objective frequency of any event.  So what is available in memory is rarely commensurate with reality.  Moreover what is usually available in memory is based on the news, and what is most newsworthy are crime, accidents, natural disasters, so that is the information we have to make generalizations about reality or predictions about the future.

The psychologist Steven Pinker has identified this as one of the three psychological biases that a make us think that the world is worse that it really is.  This one is the well-documented fact that “bad is stronger than good” — we are more likely to remember losing money, being abandoned by friends or receiving criticism  than we are to remember winning money, gaining friends or receiving praise.  Negative information receives more processing and contributes more strongly to the final impression than does positive information.

A second basis is the psychology of moralization.  Complaining about problems is a way of sending a signal to others that you care about them, so critics see us as more morally engaged.  Thomas Hobbes also noticed that criticizing the present has a way of competing without rivals and contemporaries, whereas we can easily praise past generations, because they are not our competitors.

A third bias is nostalgia about a golden age when life was supposedly simpler and better.  Arthur Herman observed:  “Virtually every culture past or present has believed that men and women are not up to the standards of their parents and forebears.”  The poet Hesiod, in the seventh century ice, thought that there once had been a Golden Age when humans live in harmony with the gods, and did not have to work since nature provided them with food.  Hesiod lived in the Iron Age, where conflict and mortality reined, and where humans had to toil to survive.  Next came the Silver Age with strife and worry, followed by a Bronze Age with even more strife and worry.  Most cultures, religions, and ideologies have had similar mythologies relating a prehistorical lost paradise to which the decadent present is compared.

So the mechanisms for pessimism are fairly well understood.  The next posts will be devoted to realigning our erroneous mental models so that they correspond more closely to reality.

The progress that is the topic of this book started with the intellectual Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  At this time there were people who began to examine the world with the tools of empiricism, rather than being content with authorities, traditions, superstition, and religions.  The political corollary, classical liberalism, began to liberate people from the shackles of heredity, authoritarianism, and serfdom.  The Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth followed, when industrial power multiplied, and poverty and hunger began to be conquered.  These successive revolutions were enough to free of large part of humanity from the harsh living condition it had always lived under.  With the late twentieth-century globalization, as these technologies and freedoms began to spread around the world, this was repeated on a larger scale and at a faster pace that ever before.

It is essential that we be aware of a real risk of a nativist backlash, one that might be occurring already.  When people do not see the progress the has been made, they begin to search for scapegoats for the problems that remain.  Unfortunately, some might be willing to try their luck with any demagogue who tells us that he has quick, simple solutions to make our nation great again.

Subsequent posts will be covering what Norbert calls Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, which are specific areas in which substantial progress has been made.  In the meantime, go to   It is a very interesting website.  You might find the documentary “Don’t Panic End Poverty” well worth viewing.

© 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.

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, 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.

The Self

May 18, 2016

The final cryptomind discussed in “The Mind Club” is “The Self.”  It does make the important point that we do not entirely know ourselves.  Our conscious mind represents an infinitesimal part of our selves.  Only a limited amount of our mind is even accessible.  Very often we do not understand what we do or why we did it (See the healthy memory blog post, “Strangers to Ourselves”).  “Strangers to Ourselves:  Discovering  the Adaptive Unconscious” explains how we can use self-narratives and introspection to understand ourselves.  Note that Wilson is one of they key researchers documenting the errors of introspection.  Nevertheless he explains to us how we can learn to use our introspections to help ourselves.  I did not find any indication of his work in this chapter on “The Self.”

This entire chapter makes no reference to Kahneman, Tversky, or Stanovich.  These authors are discussed in healthy memory blog posts.  They, along with Wilson provide a meaningful conceptual structure for understanding the self.  This chapter rambles on and on to no good effect.

The worst part of this chapter is that it condemns free will.  Moreover, it uses Libet’s experiment (go to the Wikipedia to learn about this experiment) to condemn free will.  To quote, “Libet revealed that Free Will is an illusion.”  However, Libet himself did not conclude that Free Will is an illusion.  In fairness to the authors, many do cite Libet to support this conclusion. But this is a matter of sloppy scholarship.  The authors cherry pick the literature.

See the healhymemory blog post “Free Will.  This post reviews a book that provides an authoritative review of the issue.  Healthymemoy finds the philosophical arguments for Free Will compelling.  If one is not persuaded by the philosophical arguments consider the empirical data.  What is happening during meditation?  What is producing changes in the physical brain during meditation?  Placebo effects are based on the mind’s belief  can be seen in specific activities of the brain”

If philosophical arguments and empirical data are not sufficient, then do a cost/benefit analysis.
Who do you think will be healthier and more successful,
A believer in free will who believes the mind affects the brain and the body or
someone who believes that everything is determined and that they are only along for the ride.
The mind is going to be a central concept in all human endeavors.

Please consider reading or rereading the healthy memory Post “The Relevance of Consciousness and the Brain to a Healthy Memory.”

© 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.