Why People Believe What They Believe Part 2

IRRATIONALWelcome to a 6-part series of articles detailing cognitive biases, based on an article I found here.  I’ll post one part every Monday between July 28 and September 1, hopefully informing people who actually care about accepting the factual truth and avoiding cognitive dissonance, 57 things to be aware of and careful to avoid.  I hope it will also be useful for understanding why the irrational believe what they believe and to help us show them the way out.

Let’s get started.

Curse of Knowledge – The curse of knowledge is something that a lot of atheists, particularly those atheists who regularly debate theists, know all about.  It is a difficulty for those who have lots of knowledge about a particular subject to look at the situation from the perspective of those with less knowledge.  It’s a fault of perspective, in some ways, a reverse of the Dunning-Krueger Effect.  Now that doesn’t mean that the more knowledgeable individuals may not be correct in their assessment of a given situation, they more than likely are, but they cannot assume it a priori because they feel superior to the lower-knowledge opponent.

Decoy Effect – When making a decision between two products or ideas and one criteria is important to the decision maker, that bias may cause the decision maker to come to an irrational conclusion by placing an undue importance on the specific criteria.  For instance, if a consumer is considering a new car and their criteria are cost and mileage, a mileage-conscious consumer may not consider the cost-per-mile of the vehicle if they see an expensive vehicle that gets more miles per gallon.  People who tend to focus on only a single criteria may be misled by marketers who try to hide other important criteria from the consumer.

Denomination Effect – While this may have limited application, the Denomination Effect refers to a tendency by consumers to be less likely to spend larger bills than their equivalent in smaller bills.  People tend to think they are saving money by transacting in small bills rather than large bills, even if they spend more in the small bills than they would in the large.  It is a cognitive bias in recognizing the difference between perceived value vs. actual value.

Duration Neglect – Individuals do not tend to take the duration of a bad experience into account when thinking back on it later.  This is likely because our brains tend to edit out pain or discomfort, we can remember having been in pain but we cannot remember the actual pain itself.  In one experiment, subjects were told to put their hands in uncomfortably cold water.  They were asked to take their hand out immediately first, then when the experiment was repeated, they were told to leave their hand in the water for several minutes while it was slowly warmed, although never to a comfortable level.  After a few days, the subjects were asked which of the two tests they wanted to repeat and most people chose the second, even though their discomfort lasted for much longer than the first.

Empathy Gap – This is the effect that a person in one state is unable to easily place themselves in, or imagine themselves in another state.  In an experiment on bullying, people who were not placed in the position of being a social outcast routinely underestimated the pain and unhappiness of those who were placed in the out-group position.  It may also serve to overestimate the pain if having pain is particular to the belief. For instance, Christians might assume that atheists are in a lot of “pain” and “suffer” from their disconnect from God because Christians want to think that belief in God is the optimal position.

Frequency Illusion – Also known as the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, this is the feeling that a recently encountered word or idea may come up an inordinate number of times in the short span that follows. It’s how we see coincidences.  For instance, when I bought a new car a couple of years ago, suddenly those cars were everywhere, I was seeing them wherever I went and I thought it was odd.  In reality, there were no more of them on the road after I bought mine, I was simply paying more attention to them because I was now driving one.  It is drawing additional significance of these newly-noticed events that makes them irrational.

Galatea Effect – The Galatea effect is essentially a self-fulfilling prophecy.  People who are expected to do well tend to do well in tests and at work.  Those that are expected to do poorly tend to do poorly in the same situations.  I;m sure a lot of us have seen this in action in our work lives, where management who thinks their underlings are horrible and can never succeed are not surprised that it turns out to be true.  This can also be a factor for the rational individual where they can influence the outcome of an experiment with their expectations of the conclusion.  If they expect things to turn out well, things will usually turn out well, if they think they will turn out badly, they tend to turn out badly.

Halo Effect – The Halo effect, first described by psychologist Edward Thorndike, describes the influence that a person’s physical appearance might have on the overall reaction of the observer when discussing their character. We know this can have a strong impact in court cases, where the more attractive witness is taken more seriously than the less attractive witness, and in politics where the more telegenic politician is given more credence than the lesser telegenic politician.  In reality, physical attractiveness has nothing whatsoever to do with the character of the individual and it certainly has nothing to do with the arguments that individual makes.  Facts are facts, who delivers the facts is irrelevant.

Hard-Easy Bias – This relates to confidence when related to tasks that are easy or hard.  People tend to be more confident in their ability to perform difficult tasks and less confident in their ability to perform simple tasks.  This seems to be non-intuitive as we’d think that easy tasks and questions would elicit a much more confident response, but repeated studies show that this is not usually the case.

Herding – Humans maintain our herd instincts at some primal level and, even in the modern world, tend to want to act together in complex but unplanned social behaviors.  Many people are extremely concerned with fitting into the social structure around them and thus may unconsciously act as the group acts, wear the same clothes, profess the same beliefs, enjoy the same music, watch the same movies, etc.  From this, we can get many other irrational behaviors and beliefs, some of which I’ve already talked about.

It’s clear that a lot of these biases and effects are present in our every day life and, if we’re not careful, we can find ourselves falling into them quite easily.  However, as rational people who have the intellectual ability to both understand and override our basic mental instincts, we have to be aware of these biases and how to overcome them, or at the very least lessen their effect in our daily lives.

Next Monday, another 10 cognitive biases that we should all be aware of.



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