Tag: Psychology

Bias from Incentives and Reinforcement

“Never, ever, think about something else when you should be thinking about the power of incentives.”

— Charlie Munger

According to Charlie Munger, there are only a few forces more powerful than incentives. In his speech “The Psychology of Human Misjudgment,” he reflects on how the power of incentives never disappoints him:

Well, I think I’ve been in the top 5% of my age cohort all my life in understanding the power of incentives, and all my life I’ve underestimated it. And never a year passes but I get some surprise that pushes my limit a little farther.

Sometimes the solution to a behavior problem is simply to revisit incentives and make sure they align with the desired goal. Munger talks about Federal Express, which is one of his favorite examples of the power of incentives:

The heart and soul of the integrity of the system is that all the packages have to be shifted rapidly in one central location each night. And the system has no integrity if the whole shift can’t be done fast. And Federal Express had one hell of a time getting the thing to work.
And they tried moral suasion, they tried everything in the world, and finally somebody got the happy thought that they were paying the night shift by the hour, and that maybe if they paid them by the shift, the system would work better. And lo and behold, that solution worked.

If you’re trying to change a behavior, reason will take you only so far. Reflecting on another example where misaligned incentives hampered the sales of a superior product, Munger said:

Early in the history of Xerox, Joe Wilson, who was then in the government, had to go back to Xerox because he couldn’t understand how their better, new machine was selling so poorly in relation to their older and inferior machine. Of course when he got there, he found out that the commission arrangement with the salesmen gave a tremendous incentive to the inferior machine.

Ignoring incentives almost never works out well. Thinking about the incentives of others is necessary to create win-win relationships.

We can turn to psychology to obtain a more structured and thorough understanding of how incentives shape our actions.

The Science of Reinforcement

The science of reinforcement was furthered by Burrhus Frederic Skinner (usually called B.F. Skinner), a professor of psychology at Harvard from 1958 to 1974.

Skinner, unlike his contemporaries, refused to hypothesize about what happened on the inside (what people or animals thought and felt) and preferred to focus on what we can observe. To him, focusing on how much people ate meant more than focusing on subjective measures, like how hungry people were or how much pleasure they got from eating. He wanted to find out how environmental variables affected behavior, and he believed that behavior is shaped by its consequences.

If we don’t like the consequences of an action we’ve taken, we’re less likely to do it again; if we do like the consequences, we’re more likely to do it again. That assumption is the basis of operant conditioning, “a type of learning in which the strength of a behavior is modified by [its] consequences, such as reward or punishment.” 1

One of Skinner’s most important inventions was the operant conditioning chamber, also known as a “Skinner box,” which was used to study the effects of reinforcers on lab animals. The rats in the box had to figure out how to do a task (such as pushing a lever) that would reward them with food. Such an automated system allowed Skinner and thousands of successors to study conditioned behavior in a controlled setting.

What years of studies on reinforcement have revealed is that consistency and timing play important roles in shaping new behaviors. Psychologists argue that the best way for us to learn complex behaviors is via continuous reinforcement, in which the desired behavior is reinforced every time it’s performed.

If you want to teach your dog a new trick, for example, it is smart to reward him for every correct response. At the very beginning of the learning curve, your failure to immediately respond to a positive behavior might be misinterpreted as a sign of incorrect behavior from the dog’s perspective.

Intermittent reinforcement is reinforcement that is given only some of the times that the desired behavior occurs, and it can be done according to various schedules, some predictable and some not (see “Scheduling Reinforcement,” below). Intermittent reinforcement is argued to be the most efficient way to maintain an already learnt behavior. This is due to three reasons.

First, rewarding the behavior takes time away from the behavior’s continuation. Paying a worker after each piece is assembled on the assembly line simply does not make sense.

Second, intermittent reinforcement is better from an economic perspective. Not only is it cheaper not to reward every instance of a desired behavior, but by making the rewards unpredictable, you trigger excitement and thus get an increase in response without increasing the amount of reinforcement. Intermittent reinforcement is how casinos work; they want people to gamble, but they can’t afford to have people win large amounts very often.

Finally, intermittent reinforcement can induce resistance to extinction (stopping the behavior when reinforcement is removed). Consider the example of resistance outlined in the textbook Psychology: Core Concepts:

Imagine two gamblers and two slot machines. One machine inexplicably pays off on every trial and another, a more usual machine, pays on an unpredictable, intermittent schedule. Now, suppose that both devices suddenly stop paying. Which gambler will catch on first?

Most of us would probably guess it right:

The one who has been rewarded for each pull of the lever (continuous reinforcement) will quickly notice the change, while the gambler who has won only occasionally (on partial reinforcement) may continue playing unrewarded for a long time.

Scheduling Reinforcement

Intermittent reinforcement can be used on various schedules, each with its own degree of effectiveness and situations to which it can be appropriately applied. Ratio schedules are based on the number of responses (the amount of work done), whereas interval schedules are based on the amount of time spent.

  • Fixed-ratio schedules are used when you pay your employees based on the amount of work they do. Fixed-ratio schedules are common in freelancing, where contractors are paid on a piecework basis. Managers like fixed-ratio schedules because the response to reinforcement is usually very high (if you want to get paid, you do the work).
  • Variable-ratio schedules are unpredictable because the number of responses between reinforcers varies. Telemarketers, salespeople, and slot machine players are on this schedule because they never know when the next sale or the next big win will occur. Skinner himself demonstrated the power of this schedule by showing that a hungry pigeon would peck a disk 12,000 times an hour while being rewarded on average for only every 110 pecks. Unsurprisingly, this is the type of reinforcement that normally produces more responses than any other schedule. (Varying the intervals between reinforcers is another way of making reinforcement unpredictable, but if you want people to feel appreciated, this kind of schedule is probably not the one to use.)
  • Fixed-interval schedules are the most common type of payment — they reward people for the time spent on a specific task. You might have already guessed that the response rate on this schedule is very low. Even a rat in a Skinner box programmed for a fixed-interval schedule learns that lever presses beyond the required minimum are just a waste of energy. Ironically, the “9-5 job” is a preferred way to reward employees in business.

While the design of scheduling can be a powerful technique for continuing or amplifying a specific behavior, we may still fail to recognize an important aspect of reinforcement — individual preferences for specific rewards.

Experience suggests that survival is propelled by our need for food and water. However, most of us don’t live in conditions of extreme scarcity and thus the types of reinforcement appealing to us will differ.

Culture plays an important role in determining effective reinforcers. And what’s reinforced shapes culture. Offering tickets to a cricket match might serve as a powerful reward for someone in a country where cricket is a big deal, but would be meaningless to most Americans. Similarly, an air-conditioned office might be a powerful incentive for employees in Indonesia, but won’t matter as much to employees in a more temperate area.

What About Punishment?

So far we’ve talked about positive reinforcement — the carrot, if you will. However, there is also a stick.

There is no doubt that our society relies heavily on threat and punishment as a way to keep ourselves in line. Still, we keep arriving late, forgetting birthdays, and receiving parking fines, even though we know there is the potential to be punished.

There are several reasons that punishment might not be the best way to alter someone’s behavior.

First of all, Skinner observed that the power of punishment to suppress behavior usually disappears when the threat of punishment is removed. Indeed, we all refrain from using social networks during work hours, when we know our boss is around, and we similarly adhere to the speed limit when we know we are being watched by a police patrol.

Second, punishment often triggers a fight-or-flight response and renders us aggressive. When punished, we seek to flee from further punishment, and when the escape is blocked, we may become aggressive. This punishment-aggression link may also explain why abusing parents come from abusing families themselves.

Third, punishment inhibits the ability to learn new and better responses. Punishment leads to a variety of responses — such as escape, aggression, and learned helplessness — none of which aid in the subject’s learning process. Punishment also fails to show subjects what exactly they must do and instead focuses on what not to do. This is why environments that forgive failure are so important in the learning process.

Finally, punishment is often applied unequally. We are ruled by bias in our assessment of who deserves to be punished. We scold boys more often than girls, physically punish grade-schoolers more often than adults, and control members of racial minorities more often (and more harshly) than whites.

What Should I Do Instead?

There are three alternatives that you can try the next time you feel tempted to punish someone.

The first we already touched upon — extinction. A response will usually diminish or disappear if it ceases to produce the rewards it once did. However, it is important that all possible reinforcements are withheld. This is far more difficult to do in real life than in a lab setting.

What makes it especially difficult is that during the extinction process, organisms tend to look for novel techniques to obtain reinforcement. This means that a whining child will either redouble her efforts or change tactics to regain the parent’s attention before ceasing the behavior. In this case, a better extinction strategy is to combine methods by withholding attention after whining occurs and rewarding more desirable behaviors with attention before the whining occurs.

The second alternative is positively reinforcing preferred activities. For example, people who exercise regularly (and enjoy it) might use a daily run as a reward for getting other tasks done. Similarly, young children learn to sit still by being rewarded with occasional permission to run around and make noise. The main principle of this idea is that a preferred activity, such as running around, can be used to reinforce a less preferred activity. This idea is also called the Premack principle.

Finally, prompting and shaping are two actions we can use together to change behavior in an iterative manner. A prompt is a cue or stimulus that encourages the desired behavior. When shaping begins, any approximation of the target response is reinforced. Once you see the approximation occurring regularly, you can make the criterion for the target more strict (the actual behavior has to match the desired behavior more closely), and you continue narrowing the criteria until the specific target behavior is performed. This tactic is often the preferred method of developing a habit gradually and of training animals to perform a specific behavior.

***

I hope that you are now better equipped to recognize incentives as powerful forces shaping the way we and others behave. The next time you wish someone would change the way they behave, think about changing their incentives.

Like any parent, I experiment with my kids all the time. One of the most effective things I do when one of them has misbehaved is to acknowledge my child’s feelings and ask him what he was trying to achieve.

When one kid hits the other, for example, I ask him what he was trying to accomplish. Usually, the response is “He hit me. (So I hit him back.)” I know this touches on an automatic human response that many adults can’t control. Which makes me wonder how I can change my kids’ behavior to be more effective.

“So, you were angry and you wanted him to know?”

“Yes.”

“People are not for hitting. If you want, I’ll help you go tell him why you’re angry.”

Tensions dissipate. And I’m (hopefully) starting to get my kids thinking about effective and ineffective ways to achieve their goals.

Punishment works best to prevent actions whereas incentives work best to encourage them.

Let’s end with an excellent piece of advice that has been given regarding incentives. Here is Charlie Munger, speaking at the University South California commencement:

You do not want to be in a perverse incentive system that’s causing you to behave more and more foolishly or worse and worse — incentives are too powerful a control over human cognition or human behavior. If you’re in one [of these systems], I don’t have a solution for you. You’ll have to figure it out for yourself, but it’s a significant problem.

Footnotes

Givers, Takers, and the Resilient Mind. My Conversation with Adam Grant

Adam Grant

Are you a giver or a taker?
Have you ever struggled to find work/life balance?
How do you build resilience in yourself, your team, or your children?

I tackle these topics and many more in this interview with my special guest, Adam Grant.

If you know who Adam is, I don’t need to say anymore to convince you to listen. In fact, you’ve probably already stopped reading so you could get to the podcast right away. That’s what I would have done, anyways.

If you aren’t familiar with Adam yet, let me introduce you:

He simply describes himself as a professor, author, and speaker.

Sure, Adam is all those things, but allow me to expand a bit on his humble description:

  • He’s a professor…at Wharton…who has been awarded top professor for six straight years.
  • He’s an author…who’s written three books — and all three have been New York Times bestsellers, selling over a million copies and translated into 35 languages.
  • And he’s a speaker…whose last two TED talks have been viewed over ten million times.

On top of all of that, he carves out time to be a dedicated husband and father.

In short, he’s a helluva guy. And if you are an employee, an entrepreneur, a manager, (or quite frankly, someone who interacts with human beings in any way), then Adam has some incredibly valuable insights to share.

In this interview, we cover a lot, including:

  • How to tell if you are a giver or a taker (Spoiler: if you just told yourself you’re a giver, you might be in for a rude awakening)
  • How Adam filters down hundreds of ideas and opportunities to the select few he focuses on
  • How to tell if your business idea is a winner or a huge waste of time
  • Why “quick to start and slow to finish” is great advice for budding entrepreneurs
  • How to nurture creativity and resilience in your children (or team culture)
  • How to create positive competitive environments that bring out the best in people
  • Adam’s two core family values and how he instills them in his children
  • “Mental time travel” and how it can make you resilient to any challenge or obstacle
  • Why “how can I be more productive” is the wrong question to ask (and what to ask instead)
  • How Adam and I each address the topic of work/life balance

And so much more.

There’s so much great stuff packed in this episode, you won’t want to miss it.

Listen

Transcript

A lot of people like to take notes while listening. A lightly edited transcript of this conversation is available to members of our learning community or you can purchase one separately.

The Difference Between Open-Minded and Closed-Minded People

Why is it that some people seem to make constant progress in their professional and personal lives, while others appear to be doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over?

While the answer isn’t cut and dry, I’ve noticed an interesting mindset difference between these two groups: they approach obstacles and challenges very differently.

The first group approaches life with an open mind — an eagerness to learn and a willingness to be wrong. The second group digs their heels in at the first sign of disagreement and would rather die than be wrong. The way each group approaches obstacles, it turns out, defines much of what separates them.

So which group are you in?

Before you smugly slap an open-minded sticker on your chest, consider this: closed-minded people would never consider that they could actually be closed-minded. In fact, their perceived open-mindedness is what’s so dangerous.

It’s a version of the Batesian Mimic Problem — are you the real thing or a copycat? Are you the real deal, or have you simply learned to talk the talk, to look the part?

These are tough questions to answer. Nobody wants to admit to themselves that they’re closed-minded. But the advantages of having that courage are massive. The ability to change your mind is a superpower.

The ability to change your mind is a superpower.

The rate at which you learn and progress in the world depends on how willing you are to weigh the merit of new ideas, even if you don’t instinctively like them. Perhaps especially if you don’t like them.

What’s more, placing your trust and effort in the right mentor can propel you forward, just as placing it in the wrong person can send you back to the starting point.

So how can you tell what camp you're in? How do you make sure you're being influenced by the right group of people?

In his book Principles, Ray Dalio, self-made billionaire and founder of the largest hedge fund in the world, lays out seven powerful ways you can tell the difference.

1. Challenging Ideas

Closed-minded people don’t want their ideas challenged. They are typically frustrated that they can’t get the other person to agree with them instead of curious as to why the other person disagrees.

Closed-minded people are more interested in proving themselves right than in getting the best outcome. They don’t ask questions. They want to show you where you're wrong without understanding where you’re coming from. They get angry when you ask them to explain something. They think people who ask questions are slowing them down. And they think you’re an idiot if you don’t agree.

In short, they’re on the wrong side of right.

Open-minded people are more curious about why there is disagreement. … They understand that there is always the possibility that they might be wrong and that it’s worth the little bit of time it takes to consider the other person’s views….

Open-minded people see disagreement as a thoughtful means to expand their knowledge. They don’t get angry or upset at questions; rather, they want to identify where the disagreement lies so they can correct their misperceptions. They realize that being right means changing their minds when someone else knows something they don’t.

2. Statements vs. Questions

Closed-minded people are more likely to make statements than ask questions.

These are the people who sit in meetings and are more than willing to offer their opinions, but never ask other people to expand on or explain their ideas. Closed-minded people are thinking of how they would refute the other person’s thoughts, rather than trying to understand what they might be missing.

Open-minded people genuinely believe they could be wrong; the questions that they ask are genuine.

Open-minded people know that while they may have an opinion on a subject, it could count for less than someone else’s. Maybe they’re outside their circle of competence or maybe they’re experts. Regardless, they’re always curious as to how people see things differently and they weigh their opinions accordingly.

(At Syrus Partners, for example, Jeff’s financial analysis trumps mine when we disagree. Why? He’s simply better at it than I am. He finds things that business owners don’t even know about. Do I care that his analyses take precedence? No. Why? Because I want the best outcome.)

3. Understanding

Closed-minded people focus much more on being understood than on understanding others.

People’s default behaviors offer a quick tell. When you disagree with someone, what’s their reaction? If they’re quick to rephrase what they just said or, even worse, repeat it, then they are assuming that you don’t understand them, rather than that you are disagreeing with them.

Open-minded people feel compelled to see things through others’ eyes.

When you disagree with an open-minded person, they are quick to assume that they might not understand something and to ask you to tell them where their understanding is incomplete.

4. I Might Be Wrong, But…

Dalio nails this one. I have nothing to add.

Closed-minded people say things like “I could be wrong … but here’s my opinion.” This is a classic cue I hear all the time. It’s often a perfunctory gesture that allows people to hold their own opinion while convincing themselves that they are being open-minded. If your statement starts with “I could be wrong”…, you should probably follow it with a question and not an assertion.

Open-minded people know when to make statements and when to ask questions.

5. Just Shut Up

“Closed-minded people block others from speaking.”

They don’t have time to rehash something already talked about. They don’t want to hear anyone’s voices but their own. (Dalio offers a “two-minute rule” to get around this: Everyone has the right to speak for two minutes without being interrupted.)

Open-minded people are always more interested in listening than in speaking.

More than that, they say things like, “Sam, I notice you’ve been quiet. Would you like to offer your thoughts to the group?”

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

— F. Scott Fitzgerald

6. Only One Sperm Gets In

Closed-minded people have trouble holding two thoughts simultaneously in their minds.

This reminds me of the memorable quote by Charlie Munger: “The human mind is a lot like the human egg, and the human egg has a shut-off device. When one sperm gets in, it shuts down so the next one can’t get in.” It’s our nature to close our minds around our favorite ideas, but this is not the ideal way to think and learn.

Open-minded people can take in the thoughts of others without losing their ability to think well—they can hold two or more conflicting concepts in their mind and go back and forth between them to assess their relative merits.

7. Humble Pie

Closed-minded people lack a deep sense of humility.

Where does one get humility? Usually from failure—a crash so terrible they don’t want to repeat it. I remember when a hedge fund I was on the board of made a terrible investment decision. We spent a lot of time rubbing our noses in it afterward in an attempt to make sure we wouldn’t repeat the same mistake. In the process, we learned a lot about what we didn’t know.

Open-minded people approach everything with a deep-seated fear that they may be wrong.

***

If you recognize closed-minded behavior patterns in yourself, you’re not alone.

We’re all somewhere on the continuum between open- and closed-minded by default. Further complicating things, it varies by day and subject.

Staying open-minded won’t happen by accident.

When you find yourself exhibiting these behaviors in the moment, acknowledge what’s happening and correct it. Don’t blame yourself. As soon as you can, find a quiet place and reflect on what’s going on at a deeper level. Try to do better next time. Remember that this stuff takes work.

Maybe you have your self-worth wrapped up in being right, or maybe you’re not the right person to make a given decision. Or maybe it’s something else. Either way, this is something worth exploring.

I have one more thing to add: Being open-minded does not mean that you spend an inordinate amount of time considering patently bad ideas just for the sake of open-mindedness.

You must have what Garrett Hardin calls a “default status” on various issues in your head. If someone offers you the proverbial free lunch, it’s OK to default to skepticism. If someone offers to build you a perpetual motion machine, I suggest you ignore them, as they’re violating the laws of thermodynamics. If someone offers to help you defraud the government and suggests that “no one will know,” I suggest you walk away immediately. There is wisdom in closed-mindedness on certain issues.

But consider this: Do you know anyone who doesn’t have any blind spots? I strongly doubt it. Then why would you be any different? As Dalio makes clear, you must be active in the process of open-mindedness: It won’t happen by accident.

A Primer on Critical Mass: Identifying Inflection Points

The Basics

Sometimes it can seem as if drastic changes happen at random.

One moment a country is stable; the next, a revolution begins and the government is overthrown. One day a new piece of technology is a novelty; the next, everyone has it and we cannot imagine life without it. Or an idea lingers at the fringes of society before it suddenly becomes mainstream.

As erratic and unpredictable as these occurrences are, there is a logic to them, which can be explained by the concept of critical mass. A collaboration between Thomas Schelling (a game theorist) and Mark Granovetter (a sociologist) led to the concept's being identified in 1971.

Also known as the boiling point, the percolation threshold, the tipping point, and a host of other names, critical mass is the point at which something (an idea, belief, trend, virus, behavior, etc.) is prevalent enough to grow, or sustain, a process, reaction, or technology.

As a mental model, critical mass can help us to understand the world around us by letting us spot changes before they occur, make sense of tumultuous times, and even gain insight into our own behaviors. A firm understanding can also give us an edge in launching products, changing habits, and choosing investments.

In The Decision Book, Mikael Krogerus wrote of technological critical masses:

Why is it that some ideas – including stupid ones – take hold and become trends, while others bloom briefly before withering and disappearing from the public eye?

… Translated into a graph, this development takes the form of a curve typical of the progress of an epidemic. It rises, gradually at first, then reaches the critical point of any newly launched product, when many products fail. The critical point for any innovation is the transition from the early adapters to the sceptics, for at this point there is a ‘chasm'. …

With technological innovations like the iPod or the iPhone, the cycle described above is very short. Interestingly, the early adaptors turn away from the product as soon as the critical masses have accepted it, in search of the next new thing.

In Developmental Evaluation, Michael Quinn Patton wrote:

Complexity theory shows that great changes can emerge from small actions. Change involves a belief in the possible, even the “impossible.” Moreover, social innovators don't follow a linear pathway of change; there are ups and downs, roller-coaster rides along cascades of dynamic interactions, unexpected and unanticipated divergences, tipping points and critical mass momentum shifts. Indeed, things often get worse before they get better as systems change creates resistance to and pushback against the new.

In If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, Jon McGregor writes a beautiful explanation of how the concept of critical mass applies to weather:

He wonders how so much water can resist the pull of so much gravity for the time it takes such pregnant clouds to form, he wonders about the moment the rain begins, the turn from forming to falling, that slight silent pause in the physics of the sky as the critical mass is reached, the hesitation before the first swollen drop hurtles fatly and effortlessly to the ground.

Critical Mass in Physics

In nuclear physics, critical mass is defined as the minimum amount of a fissile material required to create a self-sustaining fission reaction. In simpler terms, it's the amount of reactant necessary for something to happen and to keep happening.

This concept is similar to the mental model of activation energy. The exact critical mass depends on the nuclear properties of a material, its density, its shape, and other factors.

In some nuclear reactions, a reflector made of beryllium is used to speed up the process of reaching critical mass. If the amount of fissile material is inadequate, it is referred to as a subcritical mass. Once the rate of reaction is increasing, the amount of material is referred to as a supercritical mass. This concept has been taken from physics and used in many other disciplines.

Critical Mass in Sociology

In sociology, a critical mass is a term for a group of people who make a drastic change, altering their behavior, opinions or actions.

“When enough people (a critical mass) think about and truly consider the plausibility of a concept, it becomes reality.”

—Joseph Duda

In some societies (e.g., a small Amazonian tribe), just a handful of people can change prevailing views. In larger societies (in particular, those which have a great deal of control over people, such as North Korea), the figure must usually be higher for a change to occur.

The concept of a sociological critical mass was first used in the 1960s by Morton Grodzins, a political science professor at the University of Chicago. Grodzins studied racial segregation — in particular, examining why people seemed to separate themselves by race even when that separation was not enforced by law. His hypothesis was that white families had different levels of tolerance for the number of people of racial minorities in their neighborhoods. Some white families were completely racist; others were not concerned with the race of their neighbors. As increasing numbers of racial minorities moved into neighborhoods, the most racist people would soon leave. Then a tipping point would occur — a critical mass of white people would leave until the area was populated by racial minorities. This phenomenon became known as “white flight.”

Critical Mass in Business

In business, at a macro level, critical mass can be defined as the time when a company becomes self-sustaining and is economically viable. (Please note that there is a difference between being economically viable and being profitable.) Just as a nuclear reaction reaches critical mass when it can sustain itself, so must a business. It is important, too, that a business chooses its methods for growth with care: sometimes adding more staff, locations, equipment, stock, or other assets can be the right choice; at other times, these additions can lead to negative cash flow.

The exact threshold and time to reach critical mass varies widely, depending on the industry, competition, startup costs, products, and other economic factors.

Bob Brinker, host of Money Talk, defines critical mass in business as:

A state of freedom from worry and anxiety about money due to the accumulation of assets which make it possible to live your life as you choose without working if you prefer not to work or just working because you enjoy your work but don't need the income. Plainly stated, the Land of Critical Mass is a place in which individuals enjoy their own personal financial nirvana. Differentiation between earned income and assets is a fundamental lesson to learn when thinking in terms of critical mass. Earned income does not produce critical mass … critical mass is strictly a function of assets.

Independence or “F*** You” Money

Most people work jobs and get paychecks. If you depend on a paycheck, like most of us, this means you are not independent — you are not self-sustaining. Once you have enough money, you can be self-sustaining.

If you were wealthy enough to be free, would you really keep the job you have now? How many of us check our opinions or thoughts before voicing them because we know they won't be acceptable? How many times have you agreed to work on a project that you know is doomed, because you need the paycheck?

“Whose bread I eat: his song I sing.”

—Proverb

In his book The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb describes “f*** you” money, which, “in spite of its coarseness, means that it allows you to act like a Victorian gentleman, free from slavery”:

It is a psychological buffer: the capital is not so large as to make you spoiled-rich, but large enough to give you the freedom to choose a new occupation without excessive consideration of the financial rewards. It shields you from prostituting your mind and frees you from outside authority — any outside authority. … Note that the designation f*** you corresponds to the exhilarating ability to pronounce that compact phrase before hanging up the phone.

Critical Mass in Psychology

Psychologists have known for a long time that groups of people behave differently than individuals.

Sometimes when we are in a group, we tend to be less inhibited, more rebellious, and more confident. This effect is known as mob behaviour. (An interesting detail is that mob psychology is one of the few branches of psychology which does not concern individuals.) As a general rule, the larger the crowd, the less responsibility people have for their behaviour. (This is also why individuals and not groups should make decisions.)

“[Groups of people] can be considered to possess agential capabilities: to think, judge, decide, act, reform; to conceptualize self and others as well as self's actions and interactions; and to reflect.”

—Burns and Engdahl

Gustav Le Bon is one psychologist who looked at the formation of critical masses of people necessary to spark change. According to Le Bon, this formation creates a collective unconsciousness, making people “a grain of sand amid other grains of sand which the wind stirs up at will.”

He identified three key processes which create a critical mass of people: anonymity, contagion, and suggestibility. When all three are present, a group loses their sense of self-restraint and behaves in a manner he considered to be more primitive than usual. The strongest members (often those who first convinced others to adopt their ideas) have power over others.

Examples of Critical Mass

Virality

Viral media include forms of content (such as text, images, and videos) which are passed amongst people and often modified along the way. We are all familiar with how memes, videos and jokes spread on social media. The term “virality” comes from the similarity to how viruses propagate.

“We are all susceptible to the pull of viral ideas. Like mass hysteria. Or a tune that gets into your head that you keep on humming all day until you spread it to someone else. Jokes. Urban legends. Crackpot religions. No matter how smart we get, there is always this deep irrational part that makes us potential hosts for self-replicating information.”

—Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins compared memes to human genes. While the term “meme” is now, for the most part, used to describe content that is shared on social media, Dawkins described religion and other cultural objects as memes.

The difference between viral and mainstream media is that the former is more interactive and is shaped by the people who consume it. Gatekeeping and censorship are also less prevalent. Viral content often reflects dominant values and interests, such as kindness (for example, the dancing-man video) and humor. The importance of this form of media is apparent when it is used to negatively impact corporations or powerful individuals (such as the recent United Airlines and Pepsi fiascoes.)

Once a critical mass of people share and comment on a piece of content online, it reaches viral status. Its popularity then grows exponentially before it fades away a short time later.

Technology

The concept of critical mass is crucial when it comes to the adoption of new technology. Every piece of technology which is now (or once was) a ubiquitous part of our lives was once new and novel.

Most forms of technology become more useful as more people adopt them. There is no point in having a telephone if it cannot be used to call other people. There is no point in having an email account if it cannot be used to email other people.

The value of networked technology increases as the size of the network itself does. Eventually, the number of users reaches critical mass, and not owning that particular technology becomes a hindrance. Useful technology tends to lead the first adopters to persuade those around them to try it, too. As a general rule, the more a new technology depends upon a network of users, the faster it will reach critical mass. This situation creates a positive feedback loop.

In Zero to One, Peter Thiel describes how PayPal achieved the critical mass of users needed for it to be useful:

For PayPal to work, we needed to attract a critical mass of at least a million users. Advertising was too ineffective to justify the cost. Prospective deals with big banks kept falling through. So we decided to pay people to sign up.

We gave new customers $10 for joining, and we gave them $10 more every time they referred a friend. This got us hundreds of thousands of new customers and an exponential growth rate.

Another illustration of the importance of critical mass for technology (and the unique benefits of crowdfunding) comes from Chris LoPresti:

A friend of mine raised a lot of money to launch a mobile app; however, his app was trounced by one from another company that had raised a tenth of what he had, but had done so through 1,000 angels on Kickstarter. Those thousand angels became the customers and evangelists that provided the all-important critical mass early on. Any future project I do, I’ll do through Kickstarter, even if I don’t need the money.

Urban Legends

Urban legends are an omnipresent part of society, a modern evolution of traditional folklore. They tend to involve references to deep human fears and popular culture. Whereas traditional folklore was often full of fantastical elements, modern urban legends are usually a twist on reality. They are intended to be believed and passed on. Sociologists refer to them as “contemporary legends.” Some can survive for decades, being modified as time goes by and spreading to different areas and groups. Researchers who study urban legends have noted that many do have vague roots in actual events, and are just more sensationalized than the reality.

One classic urban legend is “The Hook.” This story has two key elements: a young couple parked in a secluded area and a killer with a hook for a hand. The radio in their car announces a serial killer on the loose, often escaped from a nearby institution, with a hook for a hand. In most versions, the couple panics and drives off, only to later find a hook hanging from the car door handle. In others, the man leaves the car while the woman listens to the radio bulletin. She keeps hearing a thumping sound on the roof of the car. When she exits to investigate, the killer is sitting on the roof, holding the man’s severed head. The origins of this story are unknown, although it first emerged in the 1950s in America. By 1960, it began to appear in publications.

Urban legends are an example of how a critical mass of people must be reached before an idea can spread. While the exact origins are rarely clear, it is assumed that it begins with a single person who misunderstands a news story or invents one and passes it on to others, perhaps at a party.

Many urban legends have a cautionary element, so they may first be told in an attempt to protect someone. “The Hook” has been interpreted as a warning to teenagers engaging in promiscuous behaviour. When this story is looked at by Freudian folklorists, the implications seem obvious. It could even have been told by parents to their children.

This cautionary element is clear in one of the first printed versions of “The Hook” in 1960:

If you are interested in teenagers, you will print this story. I do not know whether it's true or not, but it does not matter because it served its purpose for me… I do not think I will ever park to make out as long as I live. I hope this does the same for other kids.

Once a critical mass of people know an urban legend, the rate at which it spreads grows exponentially. The internet now enables urban legends (and everything else) to pass between people faster. Although a legend might also be disproved faster, that's a complicated mess. For now, as Lefty says in Donnie Brasco, “Forget about it.”

The more people who believe a story, the more believable it seems. This effect is exacerbated when media outlets or local police fall for the legends and issue warnings. Urban legends often then appear in popular culture (for example, “The Hook” inspired a Supernatural episode) and become part of our modern culture. The majority of people stop believing them, yet the stories linger in different forms.

Changes in Governments and Revolutions

“There are moments when masses establish contact with their nation's spirit. These are the moments of providence. Masses then see their nation in its entire history, and feel its moments of glory, as well as those of defeat. Then they can clearly feel turbulent events in the future. That contact with the immortal and collective nation's spirit is feverish and trembling. When that happens, people cry. It is probably some kind of national mystery, which some criticize, because they do not know what it represents, and others struggle to define it, because they have never felt it.”
―Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, For My Legionaries

***

From a distance, it can seem shocking when the people of a country revolt and overthrow dominant powers in a short time.

What is it that makes this sudden change happen? The answer is the formation of a critical mass of people necessary to move marginal ideas to a majority consensus. Pyotr Kropotkin wrote:

Finally, our studies of the preparatory stages of all revolutions bring us to the conclusion that not a single revolution has originated in parliaments or in any other representative assembly. All began with the people. And no revolution has appeared in full armor — born, like Minerva out of the head of Jupiter, in a day. They all had their periods of incubation during which the masses were very slowly becoming imbued with the revolutionary spirit, grew bolder, commenced to hope, and step by step emerged from their former indifference and resignation. And the awakening of the revolutionary spirit always took place in such a manner that at first, single individuals, deeply moved by the existing state of things, protested against it, one by one. Many perished, “uselessly,” the armchair critic would say. But the indifference of society was shaken by these progenitors. The dullest and most narrow-minded people were compelled to reflect, “Why should men, young, sincere, and full of strength, sacrifice their lives in this way?” It was impossible to remain indifferent; it was necessary to take a stand, for, or against: thought was awakening. Then, little by little, small groups came to be imbued with the same spirit of revolt; they also rebelled — sometimes in the hope of local success — in strikes or in small revolts against some official whom they disliked, or in order to get food for their hungry children, but frequently also without any hope of success: simply because the conditions grew unbearable. Not one, or two, or tens, but hundreds of similar revolts have preceded and must precede every revolution.

When an oppressive regime is in power, a change is inevitable. However, it is almost impossible to predict when that change will occur. Often, a large number of people want change and yet fear the consequences or lack the information necessary to join forces. When single individuals act upon their feelings, they are likely to be punished without having any real impact. Only when a critical mass of people’s desire for change overwhelms their fear can a revolution occur. Other people are encouraged by the first group, and the idea spreads rapidly.

One example occurred in China in 1989. While the desire for change was almost universal, the consequences felt too dire. When a handful of students protested for reform in Beijing, authorities did not punish them. We have all seen the classic image of a lone student, shopping bags in hand, standing in front of a procession of tanks and halting them. Those few students who protested were the critical mass. Demonstrations erupted in more than 300 towns all over the country as people found the confidence to act.

Malcolm Gladwell on Tipping Points

An influential text on the topic of critical mass is Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. Published in 2000, the book describes a tipping point as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” He notes that “Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do” and cites such examples as the sudden popularity of Hush Puppies and the steep drop in crime in New York after 1990. Gladwell writes that although the world “may seem like an immovable, implacable place,” it isn't. “With the slightest push — in just the right place — it can be tipped.”

Referring to the 80/20 rule (also known as Pareto’s principle), Gladwell explains how it takes a tiny number of people to kickstart the tipping point in any sort of epidemic:

Economists often talk about the 80/20 Principle, which is the idea that in any situation roughly 80 percent of the “work” will be done by 20 percent of the participants. In most societies, 20 percent of criminals commit 80 percent of crimes. Twenty percent of motorists cause 80 percent of all accidents. Twenty percent of beer drinkers drink 80 percent of all beer. When it comes to epidemics, though, this disproportionality becomes even more extreme: a tiny percentage of people do the majority of the work.

Rising crime rates are also the result of a critical mass of people who see unlawful behavior as justified, acceptable, or necessary. It takes only a small number of people who commit crimes for a place to seem dangerous and chaotic. Gladwell explains how minor transgressions lead to more serious problems:

[T]he Broken Windows theory … was the brainchild of the criminologist James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. Wilson and Kelling argued that crime is the inevitable result of disorder. If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street it faces, sending a signal that anything goes. In a city, relatively minor problems like graffiti, public disorder, and aggressive panhandling, they write, are all the equivalent of broken windows, invitations to more serious crimes…

According to Gladwell’s research, there are three main factors in the creation of a critical mass of people necessary to induce a sudden change.

The first of these is the Law of the Few. Gladwell states that certain categories of people are instrumental in the creation of tipping points. These categories are:

  • Connectors: We all know connectors. These are highly gregarious, sociable people with large groups of friends. Connectors are those who introduce us to other people, instigate gatherings, and are the fulcrums of social groups. Gladwell defines connectors as those with networks of over one hundred people. An example of a cinematic connector is Kevin Bacon. There is a trivia game known as “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” in which players aim to connect any actor/actress to him within a chain of six films. Gladwell writes that connectors have “some combination of curiosity, self-confidence, sociability, and energy.”
  • Mavens: Again, we all know a maven. This is the person we call to ask what brand of speakers we should buy, or which Chinese restaurant in New York is the best, or how to cope after a rough breakup. Gladwell defines mavens as “people we rely upon to connect us with new information.” These people help create a critical mass due to their habit of sharing information, passing knowledge on through word of mouth.
  • Salesmen: Whom would you call for advice about negotiating a raise, a house price, or an insurance payout? That person who just came to mind is probably what Gladwell calls a salesman. These are charismatic, slightly manipulative people who can persuade others to accept what they say.

The second factor cited by Gladwell is the “stickiness factor.” This is what makes a change significant and memorable. Heroin is sticky because it is physiologically addictive. Twitter is sticky because we want to keep returning to see what is being said about and to us. Game of Thrones is sticky because viewers are drawn in by the narrative and want to know what happens next. Once something reaches a critical mass, stickiness can be considered to be the rate of decline. The more sticky something is, the slower its decline. Cat videos aren't very sticky, so even the viral ones thankfully fade into the night quickly.

Finally, the third factor is the specific context; the circumstances, time, and place must be right for an epidemic to occur. Understanding how a tipping point works can help to clarify the concept of critical mass.

The 10% Rule

One big question is: what percentage of a population is necessary to create a critical mass?

According to researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the answer is a mere 10%. Computational analysis was used to establish where the shift from minority to majority lies. According to director of research Boleslaw Szymanski:

When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority. Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame.

The research has shown that the 10% can comprise literally anyone in a given society. What matters is that those people are set in their beliefs and do not respond to pressure to change them. Instead, they pass their ideas on to others. (I'd argue that the percentage is lower. Much lower. See Dictatorship of the Minority.)

As an example, Szymanski cites the sudden revolutions in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia: “In those countries, dictators who were in power for decades were suddenly overthrown in just a few weeks.”

According to another researcher:

In general, people do not like to have an unpopular opinion and are always seeking to try locally to come to a consensus … As agents of change start to convince more and more people, the situation begins to change. People begin to question their own views at first and then completely adopt the new view to spread it even further. If the true believers just influenced their neighbors, that wouldn’t change anything within the larger system, as we saw with percentages less than 10.

The potential use of this knowledge is tremendous. Now that we know how many people are necessary to form a critical mass, this information can be manipulated — for good or evil. The choice is yours.

Rory Sutherland on The Psychology of Advertising, Complex Evolved Systems, Reading, Decision Making

“There is a huge danger in looking at life as an optimization problem.”

***

Rory Sutherland (@rorysutherland) is the Vice Chairman of Ogilvy & Mather Group, which is one of the largest advertising companies in the world.

Rory started the behavioral insights team and spends his days applying behavioral economics and evolutionary psychology to solve problems that conventionally advertising agencies haven't been able to solve.

In this wide-ranging interview we talk about: how advertising agencies are solving airport security problems, what Silicon Valley misses, how to mess with self-driving cars, reading habits, decision making, the intersection of advertising and psychology, and so much more.

This interview was recorded live in London, England.

Enjoy this amazing conversation.

“The problem with economics is not only that it is wrong but that it's incredibly creatively limiting.”

Listen

Transcript
A lot of people like to take notes while listening. A transcription of this conversation is available to members of our learning community or you can purchase one separetly.

***

If you liked this, check out all the episodes of the knowledge project.

Confirmation Bias: Why You Should Seek Out Disconfirming Evidence

“What the human being is best at doing is
interpreting all new information
so that their prior conclusions remain intact.”

— Warren Buffett

***

The Basics

Confirmation bias is our tendency to cherry pick information which confirms pre-existing beliefs or ideas. This is also known as myside bias or confirmatory bias. Two people with opposing views on a topic can see the same evidence, and still come away both validated by it. Confirmation bias is pronounced in the case of ingrained, ideological, or emotionally charged views.

Failing to interpret information in an unbiased way can lead to serious misjudgements. By understanding this, we can learn to identify it in ourselves and others. We can be cautious of data which seems to immediately support our views.

When we feel as if others ‘cannot see sense’, a grasp of how confirmation bias works can enable us to understand why. Willard V Quine and J.S. Ullian described this bias in The Web of Belief as such:

The desire to be right and the desire to have been right are two desires, and the sooner we separate them the better off we are. The desire to be right is the thirst for truth. On all counts, both practical and theoretical, there is nothing but good to be said for it. The desire to have been right, on the other hand, is the pride that goeth before a fall. It stands in the way of our seeing we were wrong, and thus blocks the progress of our knowledge.

Experimentation beginning in the 1960s revealed our tendency to confirm existing beliefs, rather than questioning them or seeking new ones. Other research has revealed our single-minded need to enforce ideas.

Like many mental models, confirmation bias was first identified by the ancient Greeks. In The Peloponnesian War, Thucydides described this tendency as such:

For it is a habit of humanity to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not fancy.

Why we use this cognitive shortcut is understandable. Evaluating evidence (especially when it is complicated or unclear) requires a great deal of mental energy. Our brains prefer to take shortcuts. This saves the time needed to make decisions, in particular when under pressure. As many evolutionary scientists have pointed out, our minds are unequipped to handle the modern world. For most of human history, people experienced very little information during their lifetimes. Decisions tended to be survival based. Now, we are constantly receiving new information and have to make numerous complex choices each day. To stave off overwhelm, we have a natural tendency to take shortcuts.

In The Case for Motivated Reasoning, Ziva Kunda wrote “we give special weight to information that allows us to come to the conclusion we want to reach.” Accepting information which confirms our beliefs is easy and requires little mental energy. Yet contradicting information causes us to shy away, grasping for a reason to discard it.

In The Little Book of Stupidity, Sia Mohajer wrote:

The confirmation bias is so fundamental to your development and your reality that you might not even realize it is happening. We look for evidence that supports our beliefs and opinions about the world but excludes those that run contrary to our own… In an attempt to simplify the world and make it conform to our expectations, we have been blessed with the gift of cognitive biases.

How Confirmation Bias Clouds our Judgement

“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects.”
— Francis Bacon

***

The complexity of confirmation bias partly arises from the fact that it is impossible to overcome it without an awareness of the concept. Even when shown evidence to contradict a biased view, we may still interpret it in a manner which reinforces our current perspective.

In one Stanford study, participants were chosen, half of whom were in favor of capital punishment. The other half were opposed to it. Both groups read details of the same two fictional studies. Half of the participants were told that one study supported the deterrent effect of capital punishment and the other opposed it. The other participants read the inverse information. At the conclusion of the study, the majority of participants stuck to their original views, pointing to the data which supported it and discarding that which did not.

Confirmation bias clouds our judgement. It gives us a skewed view of information, even straight numerical figures. Understanding this cannot fail to transform a person’s worldview. Or rather, our perspective on it. Lewis Carroll stated “we are what we believe we are”, but it seems that the world is also what we believe it to be.

A poem by Shannon L. Adler illustrates this concept:

Read it with sorrow and you will feel hate.
Read it with anger and you will feel vengeful.
Read it with paranoia and you will feel confusion.
Read it with empathy and you will feel compassion.
Read it with love and you will feel flattery.
Read it with hope and you will feel positive.
Read it with humor and you will feel joy.
Read it without bias and you will feel peace.
Do not read it at all and you will not feel a thing.

Confirmation bias is somewhat linked to our memories (similar to availability bias.) We have a penchant for recalling evidence which backs up our beliefs. However neutral the original information was, we fall prey to selective recall. As Leo Tolstoy wrote:

The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.

Why We Ignore Contradicting Evidence

“Beliefs can survive potent logical or empirical challenges. They can survive and even be bolstered by evidence that most uncommitted observers would agree logically demands some weakening of such beliefs. They can even survive the destruction of their original evidential bases.”
—Lee Ross and Craig Anderson

***

Why is it that we struggle to even acknowledge information which contradicts our views? When first learning about the existence of confirmation bias, many people deny they are affected. After all, most of us see ourselves as intelligent, rational people. So, how can our beliefs persevere even in the face of clear, empirical evidence? Even when something is proven untrue many entirely sane people continue to find ways to mitigate the subsequent cognitive dissonance.

Much of this is the result of our need for cognitive consistency. We are bombarded by information. It comes from other people, the media, our experience, and different sources. Our minds must find means of encoding, storing, and retrieving the data we are exposed to. One way we do this is by developing cognitive shortcuts and models. These can be useful, or unhelpful. Confirmation bias is one of the less helpful heuristics which exists as a result. The information which we interpret is influenced by existing beliefs, meaning we are more likely to recall it. As a consequence, we tend to see more evidence which enforces our worldview. Confirmatory data is taken seriously, while disconfirmatory data is treated with scepticism. Our general assimilation of information is subject to deep bias. To constantly evaluate our worldview would be exhausting, so we prefer to strengthen it. It can also be difficult to consider multiple ideas at once, making it simpler to focus on just one.

We ignore contradictory evidence because it is so unpalatable for our brains. According to research by Jennifer Lerner and Philip Tetlock, we are motivated to think in a critical manner only when held accountable by others. If we are expected to justify our beliefs, feelings, and behaviour to others, we are less likely to be biased towards confirmatory evidence. This is less out of a desire to be accurate, and more the result of wanting to avoid negative consequences or derision for being illogical. Ignoring evidence can be beneficial, such as when we side with the beliefs of others to avoid social alienation.

Examples of Confirmation Bias in Action

Creationists vs Evolutionary Biologists

A prime example of confirmation bias can be seen in the clashes between creationists and evolutionary biologists. The latter use scientific evidence and experimentation to reveal the process of biological evolution over millions of years. The former see the bible as true in the literal sense, and think the world is only a few thousand years old. Creationists are skilled at mitigating the cognitive dissonance caused by factual evidence which disproves their ideas. Many consider the non-empirical ‘evidence’ for their beliefs (such as spiritual experiences and the existence of scripture) to be of greater value than the empirical evidence for evolution.

Evolutionary biologists have used fossil records to prove how the process of evolution has occurred over millions of years. Meanwhile, some creationists view the same fossils as planted by a god to test our beliefs. Others claim that fossils are proof of the global flood described in the bible. They ignore evidence to contradict these conspiratorial ideas, instead of using it to confirm what they already think.

Doomsayers

Take a walk through London on a busy day and you are pretty much guaranteed to see a doomsayer on a street corner ranting about the upcoming apocalypse. Return a while later and you will find them still there, announcing that the end has been postponed.

Leon Festinger explained the phenomena:

Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart, suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it. Finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal, and undeniable evidence that his belief is wrong, what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting people to his view

Music

Confirmation bias in music is interesting because it is actually part of why we enjoy it so much. According to Daniel Levitin, author of This is Your Brain on Music:

As music unfolds, the brain constantly updates its estimates of when new beats will occur, and takes satisfaction in matching a mental beat with a real-in-the-world one.

Witness the way a group of teenagers will act when someone puts on Wonderwall by Oasis or Creep by Radiohead. Or how their parents react to Starman by Bowie or Alone by Heart. Or even their grandparents to The Way You Look Tonight by Sinatra or Je ne Regrette Rien by Edith Piaf. The ability to predict each successive beat or syllable is intrinsically pleasurable. This is a case of confirmation bias serving us well. We learn to understand musical patterns and conventions, enjoying seeing them play out.

Homeopathy

The multi-billion dollar homeopathy industry is an example of mass confirmation bias.

Homeopathy was invented by Jacques Benveniste, a French researcher studying histamines. Benveniste became convinced that the effectiveness of histamines increased as a solution was diluted, due to what he termed ‘water memories.’ Test results were performed without blinding, leading to a placebo effect. Benveniste was so certain of his hypothesis that he found data to confirm it and ignored that which did not. Other researchers repeated his experiments with appropriate blinding and proved Benveniste’s results to have been false. Many of the people who worked with him withdrew from science as a result.

Yet homeopathy supporters have only grown in numbers. Supporters cling to any evidence to support homeopathy while ignoring that which does not.

Scientific Experiments

“One of the biggest problems with the world today is that we have large groups of people who will accept whatever they hear on the grapevine, just because it suits their worldview—not because it is actually true or because they have evidence to support it. The striking thing is that it would not take much effort to establish validity in most of these cases… but people prefer reassurance to research.”
— Neil deGrasse Tyson

In good scientific experiments, researchers should seek to falsify their hypotheses, not to confirm it. Unfortunately, this is not always the case (as shown by homeopathy.) There are many cases of scientists interpreting data in a biased manner, or repeating experiments until they achieve the desired result. Confirmation bias also comes into play when scientists peer review studies. They tend to give positive reviews of studies which confirm their views and those accepted by the scientific community.

This is problematic. Inadequate research programs can continue past the point where evidence points to a false hypothesis. Confirmation bias wastes a huge amount of time and funding. We must not take science at face value and be aware of the role of biased reporting.

Conclusion

“The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.”
— Robertson Davies

***

This article has the potential to be an opportunity to assess how confirmation bias affects you. Consider looking back over the previous paragraphs and asking:

  • Which parts did I automatically agree with?
  • Which parts did I ignore or skim over without realizing?
  • How did I react to the points which I agreed/disagreed with?
  • Did this post confirm any ideas I already had? Why?
  • What if I thought the opposite of those ideas?

Being cognizant of confirmation is not easy, but with practice, it is possible to recognize the role it plays in the way we interpret information. You need to search out disconfirming evidence.

As Rebecca Goldstein wrote in Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Godel:

All truths — even those that had seemed so certain as to be immune to the very possibility of revision — are essentially manufactured. Indeed, the very notion of the objectively true is a socially constructed myth. Our knowing minds are not embedded in truth. Rather, the entire notion of truth is embedded in our minds, which are themselves the unwitting lackeys of organizational forms of influence.

To learn more about confirmation bias, read The Little Book of Stupidity or The Black Swan. Be sure to check out our entire latticework of mental models.

“The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.”

-Robertson Davies