Tag Archives: Standard Biases

Honesty Via Distraction

From Triver’s book Folly of Fools:

When a person is placed under cognitive load (by having to memorize a string of numbers while making a moral evaluation), the individual does not express the usual bias toward self.  But when the same evaluation is made absent cognitive load, a strong bias emerges in favor of seeing oneself acting more fairly than another individual doing the identical action. This suggests that build deeply in us is a mechanism that tries to make universally just evaluations, but that after the fact, “higher” faculties paint the matter in our favor. (p.22)

This suggests an interesting way to avoid bias – make judgements fast under distracting cognitive load.

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The Beauty Bias

As I write these words I’m riding a late night train, listening to some beautiful music and noticing a beautiful woman in the aisle opposite. And I can feel with unusual vividness my complete vulnerability to a beauty bias. The careful analytical thoughts I had hours before now seem, no matter what their care or basis, trivial and small by comparison.

If words and coherent thoughts came through this beauty channel, they would feel so much more compelling. If I had to choose between beauty and something plain or ugly, I would be so so eager to find excuses to choose beauty. If I needed to believe beauty was stronger or more moral or better for the world, reasons would be found, and it would feel easy to accept them.

This all horrifies the part of me that wants to believe what is true, based on some coherent and fair use of reasons and analysis. But I can see how very inadequate I am to resist it. The best I can do, it seems, is to not form beliefs or opinions while attending to beauty. Such as by avoiding music with non-trivial lyrics. And by wariness of opinions regarding a divide where one side is more beautiful. (Yes Tyler, this does question my taste for elegant theoretical simplicity.)

I have little useful advice here, alas, other than: know your limits. If you cannot help but to fall into a ditch if you walk nearby, then keep away, or accept that you’ll fall in.

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Making Up Opinions

Perhaps the most devastating problem with subjective [survey] questions, however, is the possibility that attitudes may not “exist” in a coherent form. A first indication of such problems is that measured attitudes are quite unstable over time. For example, in two surveys spaced a few months apart, the same subjects were asked about their views on government spending. Amazingly, 55% of the subjects reported different answers. Such low correlations at high frequencies are quite representative.

Part of the problem comes from respondents’ reluctance to admit lack of an attitude. Simply because the surveyor is asking the question, respondents believe that they should have an opinion about it. For example, researchers have shown that large minorities would respond to questions about obscure or even fictitious issues, such as providing opinions on countries that don’t exist. (more; HT Tyler)

I’m not clear on just how far this effect goes, but one lesson is: you have fewer real opinions than you think. If you talk a lot, you probably end up expressing many opinions on many topics. But much, perhaps most, of that you just make up on the fly. You won’t give the same opinion later if the subject comes up again, and your opinion probably won’t effect your non-talk decisions.

So your decisions on charity donations, votes, and who or what to give verbal praise, may be a lot simpler than you think. Your decisions on where to live or work, and who to befriend or marry, may also be simpler. That is, you may consistently make similar decisions, but the reasons you give for them may matter less than you think.

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Who Is Consistent?

Young rich well-educated men make more consistent choices. Family structure, risk tolerance and personality type don’t matter:

We conduct a large-scale field experiment … to test subjects choices for consistency with utility maximization. … High-income and high-education subjects display greater levels of consistency …, men are more consistent than women, and young subjects are more consistent than older subjects. We also find that consistency with utility maximization is strongly related to wealth: a standard deviation increase in the consistency score is associated with 15-19 percent more wealth. This result conditions on socioeconomic variables including current income, education, and family structure, and is little changed when we add controls for past income, risk tolerance and the results of a standard personality test used by psychologists. (more)

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Beware Big Bad Novelties

A central issue of this blog is: when exactly is it how important to emphasize truth, relative to other belief functions? New data suggest that truth is more important in bad times than in good, and when problems are big rather than small. Specifically, rose-colored marriage glasses help in good times, but hurt in bad times:

Individuals in new marriages were interviewed separately about their ongoing stressful experiences, and their own appraisals of those experiences were compared with those of the interviewers. … Spouses’ tendencies to form positively biased appraisals of their stressful experiences predicted fewer depressive symptoms over the subsequent 4 years among individuals judged to be facing relatively mild experiences but more depressive symptoms among individuals judged to be facing relatively severe experiences. … These effects were mediated by changes in those experiences, such that the interaction between the tendency to form positively biased appraisals of stressful experiences and the objectively rated severity of initial levels of those experiences directly predicted changes in those experiences, which in turn accounted for changes in depressive symptoms. (more)

Truth should also be especially important for situations that are novel relative to our evolved intuitions. The more our current situation differs from situations where our ancestors evolved (genetically or culturally) their intuitions about when to be truth-oriented, the more we risk by following such intuitions. And this seems especially likely for “futuristic” issues, with few genetic or cultural precedents.

Put them together and it is especially important for humanity to be truth-oriented regarding big bad evolutionarily-novel problems. Beware rose-colored glasses when turning a new corner to the future.

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Don’t “Believe”

Why do people “I believe X” instead of just saying X? Or “I firmly believe in X?” Consider the last ten “believed” claims from featured essay abstracts at the This I believe website:

  1. believes sci-fi gives him a way to connect with his father and sharpen his own intellect in the real world.
  2. believes those regular calls help strengthen the bonds between mother and daughter.
  3. believes it’s important to offer that refuge to her kids because her mother did the same for her.
  4. believes making time to embrace nature gives her the strength to face life’s challenges.
  5. believes we can reach our dreams by embracing our hungers with creativity and passion.
  6. believes the best opportunities for healing may come when no words are spoken at all.
  7. believes he must make time to fulfill more than just the medical needs of his patients.
  8. believes those [sound] waves [from the big bang] are a siren call connecting all of us to the mysteries of the universe.
  9. believes she has found a way to start her journey by focusing on this one moment in time.
  10. believes in the comfort and peace she gets from making bread with those she loves.

In my experience “I believe X” suggests that the speaker has chosen to affiliate with X, feeling loyal to it and making it part of his or her identity. The speaker is unlikely to offer much evidence for X, or to respond to criticism of X, and such criticism will likely be seen as a personal attack.

Feel the warm comfort inside you when you say “I believe” – recognize it and be ready to identify it in the future, even without those woods. And then – flag that feeling as a dangerous bias. The “I believe” state of mind is quite far from being neutrally ready to adjust its opinions in the light of further evidence. Far better to instead say “I feel,” which directly warns listeners of the speaker’s attachment to an opinion.

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Neglected Conflicts

We tend to neglect our advisors’ conflicts of interest, especially in immediate face-to-face interactions, and especially when such conflicts are disclosed to us:

Certain study participants were required to make an estimate — evaluating the prices of houses, for instance. Meanwhile, other participants were … given additional information with which to advise the estimators. When these experts were put in a conflicted situation — they were paid according to how high the estimator guessed — they gave worse advice than if they were paid according to the accuracy of the estimate. … When the researchers required the experts to disclose this conflict to the people they were advising. … It actually caused them to inflate their numbers even more.

Experiments focusing on doctor-patient interactions, in which a doctor prescribes a medication but discloses a financial interest in the company that makes the drug. As expected, most people said such a disclosure would decrease their trust in the advice. But in practice, oddly enough, people were actually more likely to comply with the advice when the doctor’s bias was disclosed. … [Perhaps] people feel an increased pressure to take the advice to avoid insinuating that they distrust their doctor. ..

People who are prescribed medicines by personal doctors are less likely to recognize the potential dangers of their doctors’ conflict of interest. … People were more likely to discount biased advice from doctors if disclosures were made by a third party, if they were not made face-to-face, or if patients had a “cooling off” period to reconsider their decisions. … Even if these fixes make disclosure more effective, … transparency is not a blanket solution to problems of corruption. “Regulators should be looking harder at eliminating conflicts.” (more)

As with other products, we may care more about affiliating well with our advisors, especially high status ones, than we do about getting good deals from them.

Yes, regulators who want to help should push to better align advisor interests. But regulators and the politicians to whom they report also have conflicts of interest, and the above studies suggests that voters will also neglect such conflicts. Also, in a democracy regulators hands will be tied by voter perceptions of where the problems lie.  For example, since voters are more concerned about for-profit insurance company conflicts than about high status doctor conflicts, voters push regulators to limit insurer abilities to counter doctor conflicts.  And money-averse voters would probably oppose more extreme ways to use money to align doctor incentives more with patients.

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Fear As Scapegoat

In November I said we malign fear because it shows low status:

Political pundits like to accuse opponents of a “politics of fear”, or of hate. … Why do we embrace and accept our own fears and hates, even as we suggest that others’ fears and hates are bad signs about them? One obvious explanation: relative to low status folks, high status folks have less occassion to fear or hate. … Complaining that your opponents have a “politics of fear” or hate is really just complaining about their low status. (more)

We also unfairly blame fear when people die in crowds:

In the literature on crowd disasters, there is a striking incongruity between the way these events are depicted in the press and how they actually occur. In popular accounts, they are almost invariabluy described as “panics.” The crowed is portrayed as a single, unified entity, which act according to “mob psychology” – a set of primitive insticts (fear, followed by flight) that favor self-presevation over the welfare of othres, and casues “stampeded” and “tramplings.” But most crowd disasters are caused by “crazes” – people are usually moving toward something they want, rather than away from something they fear, and, if you’re caught up in a crush, you’re just as likely to die on your feet as under the feet of others, squased by the pressure of bodies smashing into you. In disasters not involving fire, panic is rarely the cause of fatalities, and even when fire is involved … research has shown that people continue to help one another, even at the cost of their own lives. (more)

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Fem Hiring Jealousy

I’d always wondered why men get a higher wage premium than women for good looks.  Now we learn jealousy by women in charge of hiring seems a likely explanation:

Job applicants in Europe and in Israel increasingly imbed a headshot of them- selves in the top corner of their CVs. We sent 5312 CVs in pairs to 2656 advertised job open- ings. In each pair, one CV was without a picture while the second, otherwise almost identical CV contained a picture of either an attractive male/female or a plain-looking male/female. Employer callbacks to attractive men are significantly higher than to men with no picture and to plain-looking men, nearly doubling the latter group. Strikingly, attractive women do not enjoy the same beauty premium. In fact, women with no picture have a significantly higher rate of callbacks than attractive or plain-looking women. We explore a number of explanations and provide evidence that female jealousy of attractive women in the workplace is a primary reason for the punishment of attractive women.

For every additional point a judge assigns to a photographed person’s beauty, the judge rates the same person’s intelligence .29 points higher on average. This result is highly significant and contradicts the dumb-blonde hypothesis. … A female subject who is rated one point higher for her beauty is also perceived to be an extra .26 points more intelligent on average.

We asked each company surveyed to indicate what message is conveyed by a … candidate who includes a picture. … Thirty-six percent of the respondents reacted positively to males’ inclusion of a picture, invoking terms such “presentable” and “confident”. Only 28% of the respondents expressed negative associations for male photographs. By contrast, negative sentiments were the predominant response (56%) to females CVs with pictures. “Not serious” and “an attempt to market herself via her appearance” were among the reactions. A mere 12% of respondents expressed a positive association. These findings suggest that we cannot rule out the negative signaling story. … 93% of the [hiring] respondents in our sample were female …

We have presented a range of evidence that suggests that female jealousy is part of the observed and unexpected discrimination against attractive females. To begin, women mostly do the initial screening of CVs. When the hiring is done by the company in which the hired job candidate will work, these women discriminate strongly against attractive women and only attractive women, treating all other picture CVs similarly to the paired no-picture CV. Outside employment agencies in charge of hiring provide a control group. They differentiate significantly between the picture and paired no-picture CVs in all cases, with the attractive females being the only exception: employment agencies discrimination against attractive women is only weakly significant. (more; HT Dan Houser.)

So now that firms know this, will they still let female hiring folks discriminate against pretty female applicants?  Will the law and politicians allow such blatant unfairness to continue? Of course they will. But it is interesting to consider why exactly this will happen.

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Beware Consistency

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. Emerson


Experimental choice data from 881 subjects based on 40 time-tradeoff items and 32 risky choice items reveal that most subjects are time-inconsistent and most violate the axioms of expected utility theory. These inconsistencies cannot be explained by well-known theories of behavioral inconsistency, such as hyperbolic discounting and cumulative prospect theory. … Time-inconsistent subjects and those who violate expected utility theory both earn substantially higher expected payoffs, and these positive associations survive largely undiminished when included together in total payoff regressions. Consistent subjects earn lower than average payoffs because most of them are consistently impatient or consistently risk averse. … Controlling for the total risk of each subject’s risk choices as well as for socio-economic differences among subjects, time inconsistent subjects earn significantly more money, in statistical and economic terms. So do expected utility violators. Positive returns to inconsistency extend outside the domain in which inconsistencies occurs, with time-inconsistent subjects earning more on risky choice items, and expected utility violators earning more on time-tradeoff items. The results seem to call into question whether axioms of internal consistency—and violations of these axioms that behavioral economists frequently focus on—are economically relevant criteria for evaluating the quality of decision making in human populations. (more; HT Dan Houser)

If your jaw isn’t in your lap yet, you aren’t paying attention:

Ask a behavioral economist what we learn from behavioral economics in applied work aimed at educating the public or designing institutions, and you will likely hear calls to help error-prone, biased, or irrational humans overcome the systematic pathologies built into their brains. And yet, very little evidence exists linking violations of axiomatic rationality to high-stakes differences in real people’s lives. … Calls to use behavioral economics as a prescriptive basis for institutional design, such as … to tax potato chips and subsidize carrots, or … changing defaults in savings plans, organ donation rules, and the positioning of dessert on the buffet line, naturally raise controversy. What seems clear, however, is the need for … investigating whether the normative measures we use are relevant to the economic problems we face.

These results seriously question the relation between winning and easy-to-observe local measures of rationality.  In at least two important contexts, people whose actions seem more locally consistent, consistently lose.

Such results also suggest we face a “dark decisions” problem, analogous to the dark matter and energy problems in physics, or the dark brain in neuroscience. Clearly the processes behind our inconsistencies aren’t just random errors, and aren’t very close to expected utility; simple-minded attempts to make them more consistent seem to make them worse.

Added 27Nov: On reflection, I wasn’t thinking straight; this is just the sort of result one should expect from simple random error.  When “rationality” makes you avoid big risks and future payouts, random error can indeed get you paid more on average, in the future.

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