Detail Is Near

A pilot tells me that we naturally tend to judge how far away things are by how much detail we can see on them. He says that this leads to a bias whereby pilots overestimate how far away is the ground at night, and when water is flat and calm.  Experienced pilots know to correct for this. More examples where this detail heuristic leads to bias:

  1. Women who see little detail in a man’s feelings often feel he is emotionally distant.  But often men’s feelings just don’t have that much detail.
  2. Liars add extra irrelevant detail to make their lies seem more believable.  Religions do the same.  Story tellers also add irrelevant (i.e., detached) vivid detail to make the overall features of plots and characters seem more realistic.

What more examples of this bias can we find?

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  • Bob

    Perhaps one day Robin Hanson will actually explain precisely what he means by “near” and “far.” He sounds exactly like Marshall McLuhan, “radio is hot, cellphones are cold.”

  • Alex

    Bob. Read a dictionary?

    Near = Familiar, Approachable, Ready to be used, In proximity.
    Far = Anonymous, Hidden, Mysterious, Distant from.

    • Constant

      Familiar and in proximity are two distict ideas, which can be loosely related. Your answer therefore leaves the impression that “near/far” are akin to “yin/yang”, ie, a poetic mishmash of a bunch of different ideas which has the ability to seduce smart people who are susceptible to word magic and overeager to embrace a seeming simplification (as yin/yang did for centuries) but which is ultimately useless as a serious concept for actually understanding anything.

  • Maria

    What’s the source for the statements on women’s and men’s feelings?

  • Querious

    @Maria – life.

  • T. Bell

    Another example: Academics wax prolix.

  • Maria

    @Querious I thought the point of overcoming bias is avoiding answers like yours, right?

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  • Pietro Poggi-Corradini

    Events that are described in more detail tend to be given a higher probability than more vague statements. I’m assuming that ‘far’ is ‘more unlikely’.

  • tndal

    I think I’ve finally found the solution to this problem:

    delete the element below “Everyday Links” in Opera, ensuring that I _never _again_ _inadvertently_ open Overcoming bias again.

  • The Cynical in me (an alter personality actually) tells me that by allowing for #2 you’ve effectively made redundant most possible answers to your discussion question.

  • For some reason I’m reminded of a line from The Mikado:

    Merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.

  • Negotiation strategies. Tell them you can come down to $203, 423. Don’t tell them you can come down to $200K, or like the pilot, they will think the real floor is much lower.

    Dress. People who are fashion conscious sweat the details, with the awareness the tiny flourish might be what pulls the outfit together.

    “Fine” dining.

    Wine. Complex = good.


    Courtroom Argument. Does every last detail help the case? Yes.

    Seduction. Nuance is sexy.

    Legal language. Plain English wouldn’t have the ring of Near authority.

  • I should have said: Negotiation Tactics instead of strategies. Strategies are far, tactics are near.

  • Rick

    Bock’s examples ring true to me. But perhaps the opposite example of “fine” dining is also true: fast food advertising tends to portray its food offerings close up and in extremely high detail even when the real deal is far from that perception. Because that’s what’s on the screen, people tend to think that maybe, this time, you’ll get a burger that tastes half as decent as it looks on the screen.

  • harry

    What about *memories*?
    When they are detailed, people tend to believe they are more acurate.

  • Daniel Reeves

    I like #2 on your list, Hanson. I also like Bock’s example of negotiating.

    As a rule of thumb, it seems that added details can fool others into thinking you’ve put a lot effort into something. The inverse seems to hold true: things that lack detail almost appear to be poorly and quickly made. This is one possible reason why a layman might dismiss a work by Malevich and Mondrian.

  • Robert Koslover

    Magicians fool us with seemingly-relevant details.