On Bias and Thinking

I’d like to juxtapose a couple of interesting posts that I have read this week that have bearing on how we select information that subsequently shapes our thoughts.

At Complexity and Social Networks Blog, Maria Binz-Scharf asks “How does the way we process information relate to how we search for it?“. A key excerpt:

“Some days ago I attended a talk on human information processing by Thomas Mussweiler from the University of Cologne who spoke at the Columbia Business School. Mussweiler and colleagues conducted an impressive number of experiments on the mechanisms and influences of individual information processing. A simple example would be to ask you to determine your best athletic performance. You have two basic options: 1) You think of every single athletic moment in your life, i.e. you engage in absolute information processing, or 2) you compare what you recollect as some of your best performances to a given standard, e.g. a famous athlete’s performance (or a famous couch potato’s performance). Not surprisingly it turns out that comparison allows to process information in a more efficient manner.

Mussweiler went on to talk about various factors that influence the comparisons we make, most importantly the standards we employ for comparing information. His experiments used a technique calledpriming to activate certain standards – for example, subjects were asked to judge a trait in a person. The result shows that priming a trait concept (such as aggressiveness) will induce the subject to judge the target person according to that trait. In other words, once activated, standards are spontaneously compared to the target person.”

This is very interesting. “Priming” would be an efficiency mechanism for rapid mental screening of a large number of things. It is also a “bias mechanism” that would strongly predispose you to see some evidence of what pattern you are looking for, even if it does not exist. It would be very much like the ” Framing” of George Lakoff in its effect.

How to deal with that effect, our own unintentional biases or being targeted by zealous Lakoffian framers ? Metacognition might be a helpful technique, as suggested in the post “Strategic Learning: Metacognition and Metamemory” at The Eide Neurolearning Blog . The Drs. Eide write:

“High level strategic learning often requires constant self-regulation and error monitoring strategies, metacognition (thinking about the thought processes), sometimes specific memory techniques (metamemory or conscious thinking about memory).”

Such self-regulative monitoring provides a mental check against racing ahead with a dubious but attractive premise. It would also tend to derail the the likelihood of the amygdala becoming overly engaged in the heat of the argument and turning us into red-faced, sputtering, arm-waving, buffoons with a surge of emotionality.

Cross posted at Zenpundit

5 thoughts on “On Bias and Thinking”

  1. I do an awful lot of market research on my job. The quantitative psychology and market research community has worked around about this type of bias for years. If you ask a person straight away if price is important to them, you always get a “yes” answer. Peter van Westendorp came up with a methodology to get a better handle on price sensitivity, which many consulting companies have adapted and improved upon. It tends to get around that priming issue pretty well.

    But it is very hard to get even smart people to think abstractly about what attributes drive their purchase decision, so asking about individual attributes one at a time often “primes” their answers – the order of questions often influences responses in a market research interview. For example, if you lead off with price and then introduce a cool new feature, people are often cautious about the new feature and as “what is this going to cost me”. Introducing the feature first in the interview has the opposite effect. Techniques such as conjoint analysis and its cousin discrete choice have been used to get around this. In essence, you show the customer a set of cards with attributes that describe the product ans ask them to rank order them. You mix and match the levels (say different prices within the price attributes), and the responses of the interviewee get at their trade-offs in a way that direct questioning would not.

    This is pretty basic stuff in marketing, and I’d like to see Mussweiler’s work and references to see if he’s re-inventing (or taking credit for inventing) the wheel or taking an old concept further.

    Thanks for the reference.

  2. Here’s some other worthwhile research on cognitive traps in decision-making:

    The Logic of Failure

    …interestingly, also by a German. I wonder if this is an area that German universities are particularly concentrating on?

  3. I do not think we will every escape priming because it arises from the basic properties of neural networks. Once a neural network has a pattern evoked within it, it will respond more strongly to the same stimulus that occurs within it’s decay period.

  4. Those were great links John – many of them really edge to questions of theoretical economics.

    I don’t think we will escape priming either Shannon so much as try to attempt to compensate or mitigate those effects.

  5. “Those were great links John – many of them really edge to questions of theoretical economics.”

    “Economics is the science of equilibrium, marketing is the science of disequilibrium. Guess where the money is made?”

    — my Marketing prof.

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