Monthly Archives: November 2007

Superhero Bias

Followup toThe Halo Effect

Suppose there’s a heavily armed sociopath, a kidnapper with hostages, who has just rejected all requests for negotiation and announced his intent to start killing.  In real life, the good guys don’t usually kick down the door when the bad guy has hostages.  But sometimes – very rarely, but sometimes – life imitates Hollywood to the extent of genuine good guys needing to smash through a door.

Imagine, in two widely separated realities, two heroes who charge into the room, first to confront the villain.

In one reality, the hero is strong enough to throw cars, can fire power blasts out of his nostrils, has X-ray hearing, and his skin doesn’t just deflect bullets but annihilates them on contact.  The villain has ensconced himself in an elementary school and taken over two hundred children hostage; their parents are waiting outside, weeping.

In another reality, the hero is a New York police officer, and the hostages are three prostitutes the villain collected off the street.

Consider this question very carefully:  Who is the greater hero?  And who is more likely to get their own comic book?

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Leader Gender Bias

In an experiment on gender perceptions, psychologists Cameron Anderson and Francis Flynn gave one group of MBA students the original Heidi Roizen case for later in-class discussion, while the other half received a copy that was identical in every way, except that "Heidi" became "Howard."  In a study currently under review, Anderson and Flynn report that while both Howard and Heidi were rated as equally competent (they were the same person, after all), students described the female version of the character as overly aggressive, and were much less likely to want to work with or hire her.

That was from Slate.  Here is the New York Times:  

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The Halo Effect

The affect heuristic is how an overall feeling of goodness or badness contributes to many other judgments, whether it’s logical or not, whether you’re aware of it or not.  Subjects told about the benefits of nuclear power are likely to rate it as having fewer risks; stock analysts rating unfamiliar stocks judge them as generally good or generally bad – low risk and high returns, or high risk and low returns – in defiance of ordinary economic theory, which says that risk and return should correlate positively.

The halo effect is the manifestation of the affect heuristic in social psychology.  Robert Cialdini, in Influence: Science and Practice, summarizes:

Research has shown that we automatically assign to good-looking individuals such favorable traits as talent, kindness, honesty, and intelligence (for a review of this evidence, see Eagly, Ashmore, Makhijani, & Longo, 1991).  Furthermore, we make these judgments without being aware that physical attractiveness plays a role in the process.  Some consequences of this unconscious assumption that "good-looking equals good" scare me.  For example, a study of the 1974 Canadian federal elections found that attractive candidates received more than two and a half times as many votes as unattractive candidates (Efran & Patterson, 1976).  Despite such evidence of favoritism toward handsome politicians, follow-up research demonstrated that voters did not realize their bias.  In fact, 73 percent of Canadian voters surveyed denied in the strongest possible terms that their votes had been influenced by physical appearance; only 14 percent even allowed for the possibility of such influence (Efran & Patterson, 1976).  Voters can deny the impact of attractiveness on electability all they want, but evidence has continued to confirm its troubling presence (Budesheim & DePaola, 1994).

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Unbounded Scales, Huge Jury Awards, & Futurism

Followup toEvaluability

"Psychophysics", despite the name, is the respectable field that links physical effects to sensory effects.  If you dump acoustic energy into air – make noise – then how loud does that sound to a person, as a function of acoustic energy?  How much more acoustic energy do you have to pump into the air, before the noise sounds twice as loud to a human listener?  It’s not twice as much; more like eight times as much.

Acoustic energy and photons are straightforward to measure.  When you want to find out how loud an acoustic stimulus sounds, how bright a light source appears, you usually ask the listener or watcher.  This can be done using a bounded scale  from "very quiet" to "very loud", or "very dim" to "very bright".  You can also use an unbounded scale, whose zero is "not audible at all" or "not visible at all", but which increases from there without limit.  When you use an unbounded scale, the observer is typically presented with a constant stimulus, the modulus, which is given a fixed rating.  For example, a sound that is assigned a loudness of 10.  Then the observer can indicate a sound twice as loud as the modulus by writing 20.

And this has proven to be a fairly reliable technique.  But what happens if you give subjects an unbounded scale, but no modulus?  0 to infinity, with no reference point for a fixed value?  Then they make up their own modulus, of course.  The ratios between stimuli will continue to correlate reliably between subjects.  Subject A says that sound X has a loudness of 10 and sound Y has a loudness of 15.  If subject B says that sound X has a loudness of 100, then it’s a good guess that subject B will assign loudness in the range of 150 to sound Y.  But if you don’t know what subject C is using as their modulus – their scaling factor – then there’s no way to guess what subject C will say for sound X.  It could be 1.  It could be 1000.

For a subject rating a single sound, on an unbounded scale, without a fixed standard of comparison, nearly all the variance is due to the arbitrary choice of modulus, rather than the sound itself.

"Hm," you think to yourself, "this sounds an awful lot like juries deliberating on punitive damages.  No wonder there’s so much variance!"  An interesting analogy, but how would you go about demonstrating it experimentally?

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What Insight Literature?

I recently came across an April 2006 NYT essay on abstract versus literary reasoning:

The quarrel between philosophy and literature has been around so long that even Plato referred to it in ”The Republic” as ”ancient.” The rivalry … circles around one of the deepest questions of all: which gives the truest perspective on human life? Is philosophy’s sublimely abstract distance … the optimal place from which to glean essential truths? Or can they be yielded up only within the vivid intimacy of experience — if not the immediate experiences of our own lives, then the mediated experiences that narrative art affords?  Does the [abstract] view, … in leaving out all the good stories, miss those large truths that are wrested out of the unexpected twists and turns that make us susceptible to love’s abandonment and grief’s annihilation? It is a good question, and Plato’s highhanded way of trying to resolve it in favor of philosophy — going so far as to recommend banishing poets from utopia — has fortunately not laid it to rest.

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Evaluability (And Cheap Holiday Shopping)

Followup toThe Affect Heuristic

With the expensive part of the Hallowthankmas season now approaching, a question must be looming large in our readers’ minds:

“Dear Overcoming Bias, are there biases I can exploit to be seen as generous without actually spending lots of money?”

I’m glad to report the answer is yes!  According to Hsee (1998) – in a paper entitled “Less is better:  When low-value options are valued more highly than high-value options” – if you buy someone a $45 scarf, you are more likely to be seen as generous than if you buy them a $55 coat.

This is a special case of a more general phenomenon.  An earlier experiment, Hsee (1996), asked subjects how much they would be willing to pay for a second-hand music dictionary:

  • Dictionary A, from 1993, with 10,000 entries, in like-new condition.
  • Dictionary B, from 1993, with 20,000 entries, with a torn cover and otherwise in like-new condition.

The gotcha was that some subjects saw both dictionaries side-by-side, while other subjects only saw one dictionary…

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The Affect Heuristic

The affect heuristic is when subjective impressions of goodness/badness act as a heuristic – a source of fast, perceptual judgments.  Pleasant and unpleasant feelings are central to human reasoning, and the affect heuristic comes with lovely biases – some of my favorites.

Let’s start with one of the relatively less crazy biases.  You’re about to move to a new city, and you have to ship an antique grandfather clock.  In the first case, the grandfather clock was a gift from your grandparents on your 5th birthday.  In the second case, the clock was a gift from a remote relative and you have no special feelings for it.  How much would you pay for an insurance policy that paid out $100 if the clock were lost in shipping?  According to Hsee and Kunreuther (2000), subjects stated willingness to pay more than twice as much in the first condition.  This may sound rational – why not pay more to protect the more valuable object? – until you realize that the insurance doesn’t protect the clock, it just pays if the clock is lost, and pays exactly the same amount for either clock.  (And yes, it was stated that the insurance was with an outside company, so it gives no special motive to the movers.)

All right, but that doesn’t sound too insane.  Maybe you could get away with claiming the subjects were insuring affective outcomes, not financial outcomes – purchase of consolation.

Then how about this?  Yamagishi (1997) showed that subjects judged a disease as more dangerous when it was described as killing 1,286 people out of every 10,000, versus a disease that was 24.14% likely to be fatal.  Apparently the mental image of a thousand dead bodies is much more alarming, compared to a single person who’s more likely to survive than not.

But wait, it gets worse.

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Academia Clumps

From a distance it seems obvious – in the vast space of interesting topics, academics clump around a few familiar themes, neglecting vast territories between the currently fashionable clumps. This is sure how it seems to outsiders and students, at least for fields like social science or literature, fields which must cover a vast territory.   For example, economists have thousands of papers on auctions, and hardly any papers on romance, even though most people think romance far more interesting and important than auctions.

But up close, academics don’t seem to see it that way.  Journal referees usually reject submissions on the neglected topics as "uninteresting," in favor of variations on the current fashionable topics, which referees call "interesting."  Thus outsiders disagree with insiders on what topics are "interesting." 

Outsiders complain that clumping comes from insiders rewarding papers that build on their own work, no matter how obscure.  But insiders say only they know the details which are crucial to deciding what is most interesting.  How can we decide between these two views?

Added: Socially valuable reasons academics could clump include focusing on rare productive areas, and local scale economies of work, competition, and evaluation.   

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Purpose and Pragmatism

Followup toMaking Beliefs Pay Rent, Lost Purposes

Thus runs the ancient parable:

If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?
One says, "Yes it does, for it makes vibrations in the air."
Another says, "No it does not, for there is no auditory processing in any brain."

So begins a long, acrimonious battle…

The conventional resolution is that the two are fighting over the definition of a word, and such labels do not have intrinsic definitions, only agreed-upon definitions.

Yet if you need to know about the forest for any pragmatic reason – if there is anything you plan on doing with the knowledge – then the answer is no longer a matter of mutual agreement.  If, for example, you need to know whether landmines will be set off by the tree falling, then you cannot make the land mines explode or unexplode by any possible amount of agreement about the meaning of the word "sound".  You can get the whole world to agree, one way or the other, and it still won’t make a difference.

You find yourself in an unheard-falling-tree dilemma, only when you become curious about a question with no pragmatic use, and no predictive consequences.  Which suggests that you may be playing loose with your purposes.

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Lost Purposes

It was in either kindergarten or first grade that I was first asked to pray, given a transliteration of a Hebrew prayer.  I asked what the words meant.  I was told that so long as I prayed in Hebrew, I didn’t need to know what the words meant, it would work anyway.

That was the beginning of my break with Judaism.

As you read this, some young man or woman is sitting at a desk in a university, earnestly studying material they have no intention of ever using, and no interest in knowing for its own sake.  They want a high-paying job, and the high-paying job requires a piece of paper, and the piece of paper requires a previous master’s degree, and the master’s degree requires a bachelor’s degree, and the university that grants the bachelor’s degree requires you to take a class in 12th-century knitting patterns to graduate.  So they diligently study, intending to forget it all the moment the final exam is administered, but still seriously working away, because they want that piece of paper.

Maybe you realized it was all madness, but I bet you did it anyway.  You didn’t have a choice, right?

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