Category Archives: Mind and Cognition

What did we know and when did we know it? The mutability of facts

In 1770, in his historic defense of British soldiers accused of murdering five Bostonians, John Adams told the jury in his summation:

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence…

Facts may indeed be stubborn things, but they are also subject to the vicissitudes of time and nature’s forces. Our thinking about those facts, and their significance to us, is often refracted through the lenses of culture, cognition, and bias. As our understanding of our physical world alters; as records are broken or measurements exceeded; as times, laws, borders, and customs change; our encyclopedias and other reference books, along with our memories, demand constant updating.

In a thought-provoking essay in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, author Geoff Nicholson pondered “The Joy of (Outdated) Facts“, a meditation on the mutability of factual information and the changing nature of human knowledge. Nicholson observes,

[B]ooks of facts always display localized preferences, cultural values, sometimes straightforward prejudices. My “New American Cyclopaedia” (1872) tells me that in 1855 there were 25,858 people in New York who could neither read nor write, and 21,378 of them were Irish. This may well have been true, but why exactly did it need to be emphasized? Well, I think we might hazard a guess.

With hindsight, we can always see through the dubious “authority” of such historical sources. Few things look as unstable as the rock-solid certainties of previous ages. Since encyclopedias are supposed to be balanced and disinterested, the bias often seems even more naked…

Of course, ideas of what’s worth knowing, and even what’s interesting, are constantly changing: The fascination with trigonometrical formulas certainly seems to have receded. But in a world where ever fewer people care about, or even understand the nature of, fiction, where readers and viewers demand facts and reality, outdated books of supposedly impartial information can be a useful reminder of just how slippery facts are — as unreliable as the most unreliable narrator.

Also pondering the phenomenon of the mutability of factual knowledge is Mesofacts, a web site devoted to facts that change slowly over time – whether the population of the world or the number of new elements added to the Periodic Table since you graduated from high school.

To gain our notice, facts need human attention – to collect and record, to weigh or measure, to determine significance, meaning, or connection to other facts. They must enter the machinery of perception – where sometimes they transform themselves into something else entirely, not an objective reflection of what is but a mirroring of who we are.

In fact, I wonder what John Adams would have made of a Supreme Court decision like Scott v. Harris, a case that reveals the permeable boundary between the objective and the subjective. A police officer rammed the car of a fleeing suspect, who was seriously injured and subsequently filed suit alleging that the use of excessive force resulted in an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Significantly, a video camera captured the entire chase on film. In an 8-1 decision, according the video evidence great weight, the Supreme Court held in favor of the police officer, determining that the officer’s actions were reasonable, and that the officer was entitled to summary judgment. The lone dissenter, Justice Stevens, insisted that whatever conclusions were to be drawn from the video should be left to a jury to determine.

The video which recorded the entire car chase has become the subject of much debate, as well as the focus of a study by a group of legal scholars. Their results suggest that what we see when we view that video may be the product of cultural, ideological, and other forces. A lone Supreme Court dissenter, Justice Stevens,

“Just the facts, ma’am,” as Jack Webb’s character, police detective Joe Friday, used to say in the U.S. television series, Dragnet. But the facts may be culturally contingent, temporary, or long past their expiration date. In fact, some facts may not be facts at all – much like Joe Friday’s catchphrase, imbedded in our cultural memory but never in fact uttered.

Got a tune stuck in my head: on Youtube, a cognitive bias song

As a study aid for his students who were preparing for their AP Psychology exam, Arundel (Maryland) High School teacher Bradley Wray recorded and uploaded to Youtube a song about cognitive biases. (Is he the world’s coolest teacher or what?)

You can sing along here:

With a big tip of the hat to the Bias and Belief blog.

Fallacious Argument of the Month: appeal to the bandwagon

Marching in step with the bandwagonIn my continuing battle for the improvement of public discourse, each month I discuss an example of a Fallacious Argument. This month’s Fallacious Argument is perhaps one of the most frequently invoked: the appeal to the bandwagon, which leans the mighty weight of the many against the intractable few.

Anyone who has ever been a child can no doubt recall futile negotiations with one’s parents to gain new privileges or permission. The negotiations typically go something like this:

Kid: “But all the other kids get to [forbidden activity]!”  (This seems perfectly reasonable to kids. After all, if the other kids get to, then it’s only fair that you get to as well.)

Parent: “So let me get this straight. If your friends decided to [a different forbidden activity likely to shame the family, violate the laws of physics, and result in personal injury or death], then you’d just go along with them? Just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t make something right.”

This scene gets played out, generation after generation, between parents and children all over the world. Parents everywhere are familiar with the bandwagon appeal – an argument in which the speaker seeks to persuade the hearer of the wisdom of a course of action because of the popular support it enjoys.

Although this argument has little power to sway parents (at least in my family), it seems to work on everyone else. Purveyors of consumer goods use this propaganda device to hawk toothpaste (“9 out of 10 dentists”) and motor vehicles (“America’s best-selling truck”). Meanwhile purveyors of political ideas hitch their plans to the bandwagon to win backing for their cause, whether a public law school for Massachusetts (“one of only 5 states without a public law school“) or support for or against health care reform (“every developed nation in the world has universal health care” from one side, “a majority of Americans oppose health care reform” from the other). The bandwagon ensures that political ideas, regardless of how worthy (or worthless) they may be, will be judged by their emotional appeal and not on the merits.

According to Robert Gula, author of the logic lover’s bible, Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows, the bandwagon takes advantage of the human imperative to follow the herd:

…it suggests that the judgment of the masses is sound: If so many people are doing it, then it must be right. Second, and more important, the bandwagon is an emotional appeal to our need for belonging. We don’t want to be left out.

Our parents, it seems, were right after all: just because an idea enjoys popular support doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good one. It might well be, of course. But let’s not allow ourselves to be overly impressed by the size of the crowd.

This concludes this month’s installment of my Fallacious Argument series. Allow me to express my sincere hope that you’ve been enjoying it; after all, 9 out of 10 readers do.

The side I see: challenging assumptions, changing minds

It’s funny how the books we read when we are young stick with us. One such book for me was Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, a science fiction story about a man, raised by Martians, who returns one day to Earth, and the clash of cultures and values that inevitably results.

What I recall most vividly were the Fair Witnesses, the licensed professionals that Heinlein invents for this book. Fair Witnesses receive extensive training in careful, impartial observation and assiduously avoid assumptions when called upon to provide their services.  In one memorable scene, one Fair Witness, Anne, demonstrates her unique skill to two other characters, Jubal and Jill. Jubal asks Anne, “That house on the hilltop — can you see what color they’ve painted it?” Anne  replies, “It’s white on this side.”

Jubal explains to Jill,

You see? It doesn’t occur to Anne to infer that the other side is white, too.  All the King’s horses couldn’t force her to commit herself…unless she went there and looked–and even then she wouldn’t assume that it stayed white after she left.

I never forgot what the Fair Witness said: “It’s white on this side.”  It’s unlikely that any of us is that precise or discerning when called upon to recount an incident or describe an object or problem.

Imagine the house on the hilltop. Now picture two people, each of whom stands facing a different side of the house, one person at the back, one at the front. Based on what they are able to see, front or back, each draws conclusions about the entire house – what color it is painted, what materials it is constructed of, whether repairs may be needed. But until each has left his original position and walked around the house, inspecting it from all sides, those conclusions remain suspect, based on incomplete data.

In teaching negotiation and mediation, I often discuss the scene from Heinlein’s book after administering an uncritical inference test known as “The Cash Register Exercise“. This exercise highlights the very human tendency to quickly fill in the gaps when information is missing and to draw assumptions about what we don’t know from what we do. (Click here to download the exercise and answer key in PDF.)

For those negotiating, information is indeed power. Examining issues from different angles can protect negotiators from bad deals or from missed opportunities.

For new mediators, the exercise and Heinlein’s story serve as a salutary reminder that our own assumptions can limit our effectiveness at the table. Cognitive error may blinker us, hampering us from helping those locked in conflict arrive at a more expansive understanding of the problems they face. The other lesson, too, is an obvious one: mediation offers fresh ways of looking at issues – from all sides, not just one, inviting parties to step away from their side of the house to see it in its entirety.

Seeing the house from all sides allows us to test or transcend our assumptions. Stepping away to gain a different view doesn’t mean giving up what you believe or need. With accurate and complete information, our conclusions can rest on surer ground. And it might even change our minds along with our vantage points.

Are you a cognitive miser? Test yourself to find out

I’ve been active on social networking site Twitter for about a year now. It’s proven to be a good resource for useful links.  Last week one of the folks I follow, workshop facilitator Joe Gerstandt, pointed his readers to an article that appeared last November in the Globe and Mail, “Why smart people do dumb things“.

It’s an article on dysrationalia – how hard it is for us to think rationally, despite the intelligence we possess. Dysrationalia leads us to take shortcuts in solving problems, going for what seems the easy or obvious answer instead of working harder to identify the correct one.

This article poses some puzzles for readers to solve, including this one:

Bob is in a bar, looking at Susan. But she is looking at Pablo. Bob is married. Pablo is not.

Is a married person looking at an unmarried person? The answer could be (a) yes, (b) no or (c) cannot be determined.

The correct answer might surprise you. Click here to test yourself on this and the other brain teasers the article challenges readers to match their wits against.

Photo credit: Artem Chernyshevych.

Diversity, bias, gender, and race in ADR: a hard fight to level the playing field

Blind justiceAs I was getting ready for the start of the mediation training I was teaching, one of the participants, just arrived, approached me to tell me to get him a cup of coffee. Despite my power suit and the flip chart markers in my hand, he had mistaken the lead trainer for a member of the support staff.

If you think that this is an isolated incident in the life of an ADR professional who happens to be a woman, think again. Challenge yourself by reading commercial mediator Victoria Pynchon’s gutsy series on gender, race, and diversity in the ADR profession:

Negotiating Prejudice at U.C. San Diego

Negotiating Gender: Why So Few Women Neutrals?

Update on Gender Diversity in the Judiciary and in ADR

Then do as Vickie suggests and take the awareness-raising tests at Project Implicit, an ongoing research project inquiring into the implicit biases that affect our judgment. What associations do you draw about identity, capability, and role?

Fallacious Argument of the Month: the fallacy of the fallacy of the ad hominem

In my ongoing one-woman effort to contribute to the improvement of public discourse, each month I discuss an example of a Fallacious Argument. In December I chose a particular favorite of mine, the ad hominem.

This month I revisit it. Why? Because accusing someone of committing a fallacy of the argumentum ad hominem can itself be a fallacy. Let us consider it.

As the saying goes, there’s an app for everything. Some enterprising soul, capitalizing on the American fondness for the gratuitous insult, has created the political insult generator app, one for conservatives and one for progressives.

Thanks to these digital innovations, iphone and ipod Touch owners need no longer be at a loss for words in any political debate. Confident that a witty retort is always handy, they can hurl at their opponents ready-made epithets such as “crunchy business-bashing libtards” or “puritanical Bible-banging bullies”. It’s all in har-har good fun.

It’s harder to laugh though when a visit to any online forum or the letters page of your daily paper shows how ready to hand the insult is, like a rock to be hurled. But who’s surprised? Marshaling evidence to demonstrate the flaws in an opponent’s reasoning takes hard mental work. It’s much more fun and requires less effort to simply heap verbal abuse upon your adversary to attack their patriotism, ancestry, food preferences, or taste in ties.

There are of course ways to respond to such tactics. Often, however, in response to the jeering, people mistakenly accuse their opponents of engaging in ad hominem attacks. This is the fallacy of the fallacy of the argumentum ad hominem.

In a true argumentum ad hominem, an individual uses an attack on the speaker to undermine the speaker’s argument. Declaring your opponent a “Nazi”, “socialist”, or other insult du jour doesn’t cut it. It may be childish, uncalled for, and do nothing to further discussion, but it is not an ad hominem. Sorry.

If you’re confused about the difference, one writer, Stephen Bond, offers guidance, parsing numerous examples of correct and incorrect uses of ad hominems (warning: some language not safe for kids). Here’s one :

A: “All politicians are liars, and you’re just another politician. Therefore, you’re a liar and your arguments are not to be trusted.”
B: “Yet another ad hominem argument.”

If you accept the premises, A’s argument is sound; but I think most of us would sympathise with B and class it as fallacious, and ad hominem. This is because we do not accept the premise that all politicians are liars. There is a false premise that lies behind all ad hominem arguments: the notion that all people of type X make bad arguments. A has just made this premise explicit.

When debaters throw mud, everyone gets splattered. Too bad that a good clean fight has never been in fashion.

Change blindness: testing our powers of observation

change blindnessIt’s happened at some point to anyone who drives a motor vehicle. You inch slowly into the intersection, cautiously looking in all directions to make sure that the right of way is clear. Convinced that you can now safely make your turn, you pull forward. Suddenly, out of nowhere, its horn blaring, appears a car, swerving to avoid you. In a panic, your heart pounding loudly in your ears, you slam on your brakes, wondering how in the world you could have missed that car.

The subject of numerous studies, including research done by the Visual Cognition Lab of the University of Illinois, change blindness is the failure to detect large changes in what is literally right in front of our eyes.

Paying attention is important, not just for drivers. Daily life demands our attention, otherwise we may inadvertently overlook the important.

So, how observant are you? Test yourself with this video, created as part of a motor vehicle safety awareness campaign for the City of London:

More change blindness links on Mediation Channel here:

Hat tip to @SmilingMind.

Right before your eyes: on cognitive fluency, graphical literacy, and illusion

Optical illusions make ideal teaching tools in negotiation and conflict resolution training. They serve as humbling reminders of the unreliability of our senses and the conclusions we draw from the data we perceive. One of my favorite illusions is “Shepard’s Turning the Tables“, which you can view at the web site of Professor Michael Bach of Universitäts-Augenklinik, Freiburg, Germany.

This illusion depicts two tables standing near each other. The tables appear to be of different sizes, one apparently longer and narrower than the other. When you click “Run”, one table top lifts and floats, coming to rest on top of the second table, allowing you to see that the surface areas of the tables are in fact identical and match perfectly. You can reset and replay the illusion again and again.

Amazingly, despite knowing the truth about the dimensions of the table tops, your eyes still see differing sizes and shapes. I invite you to see for yourself. (I must caution those of you whose time is limited: visiting Professor Bach’s site, a collection of 86 jaw-dropping illusions, for only a minute is simply not possible. You’ll find yourself irresistibly drawn from one illusion to the next.)

For those of you interested in influences on perception and cognition, I recommend one article and two videos, all thought-provoking (for those of you viewing at work, please note that a certain four-letter word appears in both videos):

Via The Boston Globe, “Easy = True: How ‘cognitive fluency’ shapes what we believe, how we invest, and who will become a supermodel“. Globe staff writer Drake Bennett describes cognitive fluency as “[o]ne of the hottest topics in psychology today”. He reports that cognitive fluency is “simply a measure of how easy it is to think about something, and it turns out that people prefer things that are easy to think about to those that are hard.” Studies suggest that factors such as rhyming words or font style and legibility of text influence the way we process information, enhancing or hampering our ability to perform tasks or make judgments.

The outstanding blog Sociological Images posted “Chart Wars: The Political Power of Data Visualization,” a presentation by political consultant Alex Lundry, which offers a salutary lesson in “graphical literacy” and warns against the ways in which depictions of visual data can mislead or distort. View it here:

From Colin Rule’s blog, “The template for every news story you’ve ever seen“. Watch in awe to see how, in Colin’s words, “a couple edits and on-the-street interviews can transform fuzzy thinking into something that seems insightful”:

Does law lag behind science? Psychologists question Supreme Court campaign finance decision

In yesterday’s mail, among the bills, bank statements, and catalogs, I found a solicitation from a non-profit. The package it arrived in declared in bold red letters that my “signature is needed” (not to mention, no doubt, my cash) for a petition to halt some objectionable political action. Visible through the plastic wrapper was a pen, their gift to me.

No doubt you’ve received similar solicitations from other organizations. In the past they’ve sent me (and occasionally my dog) shiny nickels; return address labels; and (my personal favorite) a world map. Those who create these campaigns are hoping to take advantage of the principle of reciprocity, that universal force that compels us, almost beyond our will, to return favors done for us. Robert Cialdini describes its effect at length in his well known work, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, and how heavily humans feel and act from a sense of obligation. He writes,

The impressive aspect of the rule for reciprocation and the sense of obligation that goes with it is its pervasiveness in human culture. It is so widespread that after intensive study, sociologists such as Alvin Gouldner can report that there is not human society that does not subscribe to the rule. And within each society it seems pervasive also; it permeates exchanges of every kind.

Alas for these nonprofits, I have read Cialdini and am able to resist the compulsion to reciprocate, pocketing the nickels and applying the return address labels to my personal correspondence without the slightest twinge of guilt.

While this effort to influence my decision regarding charitable gift-giving failed to work in my case, science has exhaustively documented  how effective its influence can be.

The force of reciprocity does much social good, allowing interpersonal and commercial transactions to flourish, leading to “a cluster of interdependencies that bind individuals together into high efficient units”, producing “social advances”, as Cialdini writes. Reciprocity, though, can be turned to a more sinister purpose. Bribes, kickbacks, and corruption are its unloved progeny.

While science perhaps acknowledges the influence and risks of reciprocity, law sometimes lags behind.  And all too often these influences operate just beneath the radar of our own awareness. For example, despite having enjoyed a duck-hunting trip at the invitation of then Vice President Cheney, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia refused to recuse himself from a case involving Cheney, confidently asserting, “I do not think my impartiality could reasonably be questioned.”  Folks who understood something about the subtle powers of persuasion weren’t so confident. (See for example, “Psychology 101: A Remedial Class For Justice Scalia” (PDF), by Mahzarin R. Banaji, Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics in the Department of Psychology, and Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at Radcliffe, Harvard University.)

Now, years later, psychologists and other social scientists are shaking their heads over another Supreme Court call, this one involving another form of influence: corporate campaign financing.

In the recent Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of campaign finance laws, Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission (PDF), which struck down federal law limiting spending by for-profits, non-profits, and unions. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, observed:

The fact that speakers may have influence over or access to elected officials does not mean that these officials are corrupt…

The appearance of influence or access, furthermore, will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy…

…independent expenditures do not lead to, or create the appearance of, quid pro quo corruption. In fact, there is only scant evidence that independent expenditures even ingratiate.

Some psychologists beg to differ, according to “Psychologists: Propaganda works better than you think”, an article in USA Today that samples the views of several psychologists on the science behind campaign financing and voter influence. From the article:

“The First Amendment confirms the freedom to think for ourselves,” said Justice Anthony Kennedy, reading the court’s 5-4 majority opinion on Thursday, finding that corporations and unions can freely spend money on campaign ads to defeat or elect federal candidates. The decision ends decades-old limits on political spending.

So, we might ask, how well does research suggest people “think for themselves” under the potential flood of political ads from that spigot?

“I don’t have any particular position on the ruling itself, but this justification for the decision is based on an incorrect assumption about how the mind works,” says psychologist Brian Nosek of the University of Virginia. “If the goal really was to increase the chances that citizens would think for themselves, then the decision should have been to ban partisan advertising completely.”

Nosek and his colleagues, Harvard’s Mahzarin Banaji and the University of Washington’s Tony Greenwald, operate “Project Implicit” which features an “Implicit Association Test” to measure unconscious beliefs, including political ones. The data from 7 million participants show so-called “undecided” voters have often already made up their minds unconsciously on who they will vote for, for example. And the team has also mapped congressional race outcomes nationwide against unconscious racial biases, finding that prejudices invisible to voters themselves swayed their decisions, rather than rational thinking.

“The (think for themselves) justification is ironic considering that the purpose of advertising — political or otherwise — is to persuade the viewer about a particular point-of-view,” Nosek says. “That is, the goal of the political ad is deliberately ‘not’ to have citizens thinking for themselves.”

Psychologists remain wondering when the legal system will catch up with the science. So might the rest of us.