Here continues the summary of my psychology course in Thinking. Week 1 (Causality) was covered last Tuesday.

Week 2: Confirmation Bias

I’m sure you’ll recognise this one: we make up our mind about something – whether we like somebody, whether climate change is caused by humans, whether or not we are attractive – and then filter out any input that contradicts what we have already decided. Ring any bells? Beware: there is also a “bias blind spot”, more informally called the “not me fallacy”, which refers to the common belief that others are biased but we are not. Did you fall into the trap?

A disturbing new development is the power of the internet to deliver exactly the kind of content – via your circle of online friends, your newsfeed, your usual websites, even beware your blogroll! – that will reinforce your belief that everybody sees the world the way you do, that it is “the truth”. Most violent regimes gain traction by fanning the flames of extreme confirmation bias, especially in the youth, by presenting them with only one point of view and insulating them from counterbalancing points of view. Reference Hitler.

Ollie Cromwell

Confirmation bias becomes really entrenched, and is nigh on impossible to completely eradicate. It would require an incredible degree of self-awareness to overcome all your inbuilt biases, filters, preconceptions, beliefs – whatever you want to call them. The best strategy is to observe Oliver Cromwell‘s plea in 1650, ‘‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken’’. Instilling even mild doubts in the minds of extremists can puncture the armour of their cast-iron belief system, leading to a further softening of their position. But remember that one person’s extremist is another person’s visionary – what are YOUR confirmation biases?

Week 3: Decision Making

There are several theories on decision making, none of which totally tallied with my perception of the way people make decisions.

1. Expected value theory: people choose the alternative that maximises expected value in financial terms. But then why would people play the lottery, or even take out insurance?

2. Expected utility theory: this factors in subjective values, such as why Carrie Bradshaw just HAD to have that pair of Jimmy Choo’s. Pascal’s Wager (whether to believe in God or not) would fall into this category.

But people violate both these theories, all the time, depending on how the options are described to them (framing effect), or because they would prefer to have one bird in the hand rather than two in the bush (certainty effect).

3. Prospect Theory, as devised by Kahneman and Tversky, and it all got a bit mathematical and complicated at that point.

See what I mean? No, I didn’t understand it either. As far as I can tell, it takes into account the evidence that people dislike losing something more than they like acquiring it, that they get diminishing marginal returns the more they have of something, and they hate losing the last of anything. It was based more on how people actually behave, rather than abstract theories of how “rational people” should behave. If you ever actually meet a “rational person”, do please let me know, won’t you?

Rodin’s Thinker. But how rational are we?

My conclusion from the course up to this point was that I do believe that human beings are, on some level, rational. It’s just that there are an awful lot of unrecognised factors that enter into our decisions, a large proportion of which are unconscious. Our decisions will be the sum of our nature, nurture, culture, religion, the books we’ve read, the conversations we’ve had, what we believe other people expect of us, how we rate our chances of actually getting what we want, etc etc etc. It’s complicated, and if they ever manage to build a computer that can even begin to replicate the subtleties of this decision-making process, I would be mightily impressed. And of course there would have to be a different algorithm for every human being on Earth.

But I am determined to learn more about how we make decisions. I suspect much useful data may lie outside the psychology department, possibly with the Marketing experts at the School of Management. I may have to broaden my quest to get closer to the elusive truth of why human beings make the choices that we do.


Other Stuff:

I’ll be back from my various retreats next week. More updates then! And watch this space for further instalments from the Thinking course. Still to come, Judgments, Base Rate Neglect, Systems 1&2, Concepts, Creativity, Thinking about Others, Religious Belief and Moral Reasoning. Don’t worry if this doesn’t mean much to you yet. Most of it doesn’t mean much to me yet, either. Hopefully by the end of the semester it will!

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