September 18, 2013

Is this the "Most Depressing Brain Finding Ever"?

Ironically, the author of this article lets emotion distort his thinking on the subject of the way emotion distorts thinking. He's looking at an experiment where people were asked "to interpret a table of numbers." When the numbers related to an issue they had opinions about (gun control), they made more mistakes than when the subject was neutral. They tended to err in the direction of supporting the beliefs they already had.

But emotion is part of reasoning, and it's impossible to function in the real-world lives we live without jumping steps intuitively. When you think you already know the answer, you don't study the details so much. That makes it harder to get to people with new information or to readjust biases, but it's not depressing. It's the normal functioning of the mind, and it's exactly what one would expect. We don't rebuild our understanding from ground level every time we think about a familiar topic. We'd never get as far as we do putting ideas together if we had to stop and scrutinize and recheck every element of what we believe and what we think we know.

Of course, it's important also to be able to slow down and get critical, but we have individual autonomy about when to do that, and a study that tells people to do a particular math problem does not unleash the individual will. It's an imposition of authority from the outside, and it comes with no intrinsic reason to be precise. So people take the shortcuts they think they know, and they make mistakes.

48 comments:

traditionalguy said...

Ditto. You are the best, Professor.

Michael K said...

These things are called heuristics and are present in everybody. In decision theory, it is a big factor. Breast surgeons over estimate the significance of a suspicious mammogram. 50% of prescriptions are never filled. It's part of us.

Carol said...

Oh, liberal writer. They're naturally depressive. The younger ones at Kos like to say that conservative intransigence makes them "sad."

Pathetic, really, all these sad sacks of shit.

Matthew Sablan said...

The Huff Post article is... depressing in its own ways.

"People who thought WMDs were found in Iraq believed that misinformation even more strongly when they were shown a news story correcting it."

-- But WMDs were found. Even Wikipedia concedes this. So... hah on the people who showed a report saying WMDs weren't

"People who thought George W. Bush banned all stem cell research kept thinking he did that even after they were shown an article saying that only some federally funded stem cell work was stopped."

-- This is partially true. Bush did not stop stem cell research; just federal funding to the creation of new embryonic stem cell lines (not all stem cell work, as the Huff Post claims.)

"People who said the economy was the most important issue to them, and who disapproved of Obama's economic record, were shown a graph of nonfarm employment over the prior year - a rising line, adding about a million jobs. They were asked whether the number of people with jobs had gone up, down or stayed about the same. Many, looking straight at the graph, said down."

-- The total number employed may have gone up, but if we're talking percentages, then it may have gone down. It matters if we're talking total employment or effective employment. So, this might be a case where the question asked is different from what the listener hears. It is economically illiterate to ask about employment solely in number of jobs, but yes, technically, there are more jobs [barely keeping up with population growth.]

cubanbob said...

He refutes himself in his argument and expects others to take him seriously? What we have here is an example of legal reasoning masquerading as scientific reasoning.

Matthew Sablan said...

What HuffPo says: "Do facts matter?
The answer, basically, is no."

What the study says:

"These results support what we found in Study 1 – the presentation of graphical corrective information can improve the accuracy of people’s factual beliefs. .. Additionally, the improvement in accuracy holds even for those who disapprove of Obama on economic matters" -- pg. 24

"As in the previous two studies,
Graph is effective. It reduces misperceptions about global temperature change for both groups." -- pg. 31

From the section labeled conclusion: "This paper makes two principal contributions to research on motivated reasoning and political misperceptions. First, we show that affirming self-worth can reduce misperceptions among respondents who are most likely to resist acknowledging uncomfortable facts about an issue. Second, we show that it is possible to provide subjects with graphical information that improves the accuracy of their factual beliefs. These results help us understand why individuals resist discordant claims and the means by which they do so." -- pg. 35

"On the one hand, they highlight the exciting possibility that graphical corrections can reduce misperceptions more effectively than text." -- pg. 35

In short, the CONCLUSIONS actually say, facts do matter. Did the Huff Po author even READ the paper?

Bob R said...

Of course, you are correct that confirmation bias effects everyone - and we should expect it to. But there are LOTS of people out there who describe themselves as "thoughtful, data-driven, critical-thinkers." Data like this puts a bruise in their self-image if they read it and take it seriously. Most don't (as the study implies) but those that do get a little depressed.

Whenever someone talks about teaching "critical thinking skill" my confirmation bias clicks on and I think, "moron." Which just goes to show that confirmation bias isn't always wrong.

Matthew Sablan said...

Actually, given the WMD point, it makes me wonder: Is this not a better study in how an authoratative voice can override someone's correct beliefs in some cases? Isn't that kind of scary? All those people who thought we found WMDs were -right-. But, the power of Huff Po and a study have convinced them that they were -wrong- and convinced a bunch of other people to -scoff- at their wrongness.

That, alone, makes me question the rest of the facts that they supplied their test subjects. How many of those are also wrong?

Matthew Sablan said...

Last thought: Did the Huff Po fall into the trap complained about? They wanted: "Conservatives are too stupid to read charts" as a story. The author was then too stupid to read the study and wrote the story.

It would be ironic and hilarious if thousands of people weren't going to read it, shake their heads and say: "Stupid conservatives can't even read a simple chart."

The Godfather said...

Yes, it's really depressing when people keeping allowing their "emotions" to override our propaganda.

SJ said...

What does this say about the occasional research into whether Conservatives or Liberals are more friendly to science?

Are those researcher letting their emotions cloud the data they see?

Carnifex said...

intelligence is merely th tool we use to get what our heart wants

EDH said...

Note, the three examples in the article from the Nyhan study: Iraq WMD, Bush stem cell ban and Obama job growth... only the stem cell issue (the liberal bug-a-boo) is an actual known known. The other two are susceptible to manipulated data or strained interpretation.

For example...

Jobs. In this case, we showed participants a line graph showing the number of nonfarm payroll jobs reported each month by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for the January 2010-January 2011 period. During that time, payroll jobs increased from 129.3 million to 130.3 million.

For that 0.07% increase to be perceptible on a line graph, it would have to been displayed with a truncated vertical axis in what Darrell Huff in his "How to Lie with Statistics" called "The Gee-Whiz Graph, Distorted graphs (choices of scales and origins)" (chapter 5).

Even the Huff-Po article itself truncates the origin by saying only "a rising line, adding about a million jobs".

WMD. Our approach is different. Based on the evidence presented in the Duelfer Report, which was not directly disputed by the Bush administration, we define the belief that Saddam moved or hid WMD before the invasion as a misperception.

Iraq did use chemical weapons against the Kurds, and politicians from Bush to Clinton to Bush used Iraq WMD as the reason to attack Iraq, no? So Iraq did something with those weapons before the invasion, didn't it?

Carnifex said...

intelligence is merely th tool we use to get what our heart wants

mrs. e said...

People hear what they want to hear and disregard the rest, hmmm....

Lucien said...

Other articles about the same study have highlighted findings suggesting that the effects shown were actually stronger in individuals judged to have a greater degree of "numeracy".

chuck said...

Come, come. If we were all rational unemotional people we would all be Democrats, basking in the warm glow of our superiority and comforted by our worship of the latest liberal god.

EDH said...

Woops... that was 0.77% (0.0077), above, not 0.07%.

Terry said...

SJ wrote:
What does this say about the occasional research into whether Conservatives or Liberals are more friendly to science?
Liberals and conservatives are friendly to 'science' to the exact extent that 'science' supports their opinions.

MadisonMan said...

I would think the most depressing brain finding ever would be the one where they find cancer in your brain. Or in your brother's brain.

My conclusion is that his baldness notwithstanding, the author of the article is young.

jimbino said...

Just another reason to get the gummint out of our lives. When the gummint makes a grand mistake, like Obamacare, based on emotion instead of reason, everyone will suffer until the next revolution.

When individuals make grand mistakes, few suffer, while others use the lesson to improve their choices.

It's the difference between a woman's mistakenly taking thalidomide and the gummint's forcing it on every pregnant woman.

Peter said...

"A man hears (sees) what he wants to hear (see) and disregards the rest"?

Wow, imagine that. This is presented as a new finding?

Terry said...

The 'research' the article attempts to summarize is rife with question-begging. It contains numerous typos. Is this a joke?
"Research for this paper was funded by Research for this paper was funded by the National Science Foundation"
"Collective welfare demands empirically informed collective action."
"weather human activity is generating dangerous global warming"
http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2319992
The HuffPo article was written a person described as "Director, Norman Lear Center and Professor at the USC Annenberg School"
The USC Annenberg school is home of the 9-month masters degree in journalism.
As far as I can tell, no one involved in the research or the HuffPo article knows anything about reason or science.

Rusty said...

But emotion is part of reasoning, and it's impossible to function in the real-world lives we live without jumping steps intuitively.

Except in engineering stuff where your prejudices aren't going to help make something work.

traditionalguy said...

IMO much of the amazing rejection of facts being clearly presented is a habit pattern that has been drilled into College students starting with the assertion that there is no truth.

The courses train the students to react to facts by a trick tghat there is only my facts and your facts, my beliefs and your beliefs, and that objective truth is a mean truth.

That way of thinking is also a Buddhist habit. It was also around as the Gnostic Heresy in the time of early Christianity.

That may be why the Media feels safe in spinning naratives. Who can say they are ever wrong, except meanies like Cruz.

Are we all imaginary or are we real? If you feel compelled not to answer because asserting knowing an objective truth will offend others, then you have lost.

tim maguire said...

Right on. And quite ironic--he finds this depressing because he wants to find it depressing. There is no objective reason to be disappointed with the fact that we bring our past experience into play when digesting and interpreting new information.

There may be negative effects (bias), but as you point out, we would accomplish far less if we had to start from scratch every time.

David said...

And then he says this:

I'm not completely ready to give up on the idea that disputes over facts can be resolved by evidence, but you have to admit that things aren't looking so good for reason. I keep hoping that one more photo of an iceberg the size of Manhattan calving off of Greenland, one more stretch of record-breaking heat and drought and fires, one more graph of how atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen in the past century, will do the trick.

Talk about depressing.

Read any good arctic sea ice data lately, Mr Kaplan? Is it worse to misinterpret facts, or just to ignore them?

cubanbob said...

Terry said...
SJ wrote:
What does this say about the occasional research into whether Conservatives or Liberals are more friendly to science?
Liberals and conservatives are friendly to 'science' to the exact extent that 'science' supports their opinions.
9/18/13, 12:02 PM

That they are wannabee lawyers. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate legal reasoning as the client. Especially if it benefits me. However when depending on something that requires actual real science I would be prefer scientific reasoning instead.

Matthew Sablan said...

Wow. I missed the typos; I was focused on figuring out how the content was so bad. I was going to say: When did the Huff Po's standards fall so low, but I figured there was already enough tragic irony relating to this farce.

Mark Trade said...

"It's an imposition of authority from the outside, and it comes with no intrinsic reason to be precise."

You've basically described the entirety of K-12 education in your final paragraph, with the exception of schools that recognize the will of the student and are based on scientific study of how people actually learn, such as Montessori schools.

I'm still surprised how lost this is on people. Does learning suddenly stop being learning when it's children who are supposed to be doing it? My god, won't somebody think of the children?!

Almost Ali said...

Although the concept of free will is obviously a fantasy, it does explain everything.

MadisonMan said...

Read any good arctic sea ice data lately, Mr Kaplan?

Like here?

How does one interpret this?

NayKid Surfer said...

Nice riff.

The power of emotion over reason isn't a bug in our human operating systems, it's a feature.

It’s both. It’s amazing that science as a process of bias checking exists at all. However ephemeral a moment of pure discovery might be before being taken over for political ends. Or colored by the emotional joy of discovery itself followed by inchoate feelings of certainty tempting us to think we’ve arrived at an ideal state of complete information. It’s a challenge to know when emotion is playing the Godfather and making us an offer we can’t refuse.

Bob K said...

The study by Kahan which Kaplan is talking about, to my mind, is virtually worthless.

I read portions of the study and stopped reading after finding the figures in his imaginary skin cream portion of his experiment to be based on flawed assumptions. He doesn't properly account for study subjects who will actually make use of all available information.

I commented on it at Kahan's blog. He failed to respond though another commenter supported my reasoning.

Unfortunately, I don't see a way to directly link to my comment at his blog, but if anyone is interested you'll find my comment 3rd of 11 below his blog post found here.

http://www.culturalcognition.net/blog/2013/9/9/the-quality-of-the-science-communication-environment-and-the.html

Additionally, the study apparently isn't peer reviewed as he calls it a working paper.

Illuninati said...

In my opinion the researcher didn't give enough evidence about how the study was designed to support the conclusions. For example, a chart starting from the depth of the recession would show an increasing number of jobs even if the total number of jobs is lower than when the recession started. Many of the new jobs are part time jobs, do these count the same as full time jobs? How were the questions asked? The questions seem to be slanted to support the left, but what else could we expect?

Before making sweeping generalizations based on this article, I'd need much much more information.

Ann Althouse said...

"Except in engineering stuff where your prejudices aren't going to help make something work."

I think brain science shows that you are still using intuitive leaps that arise from the nervous system. You are not working like a computer. There are unexplored decision paths that feel wrong and are skipped. Of course, the solutions you choose in the end must fully check out mathematically.

Michael K said...

"Of course, the solutions you choose in the end must fully check out mathematically."

When I was still an engineer, we had a new design for an engine nacelle to be tested in the four foot wind tunnel where I worked. When the tunnel got up to Mach 1, the nacelle broke free from its mounting and began to go UP the tunnel against the flow. Everybody grabbed anything substantial to hang onto. The nacelle came back at Mach 1 and hit the plexiglass window for the Schlieren camera and broke it. Wind at Mach 1 went through the building lifting the movable roof, which was on rails.

It later turned out to be a plus sign substituted for a minus sign.

Rusty said...


I think brain science shows that you are still using intuitive leaps that arise from the nervous system.

Things work as intended , or not, for very specific reasons. You may arrange you're ideas in any manner you want, but the rules governing the outcomes are always the same. There is no ghost in the machine. There is either good engineering or shoddy engineering.

"You are not working like a computer."

In some cases that's exactly how you are working. you are making "1" an "0" decisions depending on input.

Eric said...

What's depressing is that this is what "directs" a "school" at USC.

Sam L. said...

At this point, what difference does it make?

Bob_R said...

"Except in engineering stuff where your prejudices aren't going to help make something work."

You don't actually know much about engineering, do you? They have a lot of bad prejudices - e.g., that their formulas actually predict what is going to happen. But those are counteracted by a lot of good one - "When in doubt, make it thicker." The best have the modesty to be aware that there is a lot of black art in what they do. The worst live under the delusion that they are objective and rational.

Bob_R said...

"[T]he solutions you choose in the end must fully check out mathematically."

You know the joke about the proof that all odd numbers great than one are primes?

Mathematician: 3 is prime, 5 is prime, 7 is prime, the other cases are left to the reader.

Physicist: 3 is prime, 5 is prime, 7 is prime, 9...experimental error, 11 is prime,...

Engnieer: 3 is prime, 5 is prime, 7 is prime, 9 is prime, ...

Confirmation bias is powerful indeed.

Terry said...

Feynman on the social sciences:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IaO69CF5mbY&feature=player_detailpage

I have a friend whose daughter is gifted in mathematics, and who is cursed with a desire to help mankind. As a grad student (Berkeley), she wants to develop mathematical tools that policy makers can use to better achieve their goals.
Words cannot express the horror I feel at the thought that she may be successful.

gadfly said...

But emotion is part of reasoning, and it's impossible to function in the real-world lives we live without jumping steps intuitively.

No, according to the indisputable Wiki, "Rationality is the quality or state of being agreeable to reason. A rational decision is one that is not just reasoned, but is also optimal for achieving a goal or solving a problem."

Emotion on the other hand, is not of itself, rational.

gadfly said...

@Bob_R

In response to the odd integer joke:

"There are three kinds of mathematicians: those who can count and those who can't."

tim in vermont said...

"There are unexplored decision paths that feel wrong and are skipped."

The book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance takes this simple observation and makes the claim that the Sophists were right and the Empiricists were wrong and that all of Western Civilization was based on a fundamental error. That if we just listened to our zen and didn't work stuff out empirically, we would be much better off. Lots of people buy it, either they didn't understand the book, or well, they think that rhetoric = logic.

DCS said...

The article is a rehash of "what's the matter with Kansas". An all powerful, all knowing progressive is dismayed because those low information red staters won't stay in line. I want to ask him: why does claiming that there are a million more non-farm jobs prove that the economy has improved when you factor in the number of part time jobs and the fact that personal income has declined in the Obama years. His "facts" are cherry picked and debatable. Yeah, so how come climate change proponents can't explain why the earth's temperature has been flat the past 15 years. Couldn't be because your theory is wrong, could it?

Howard said...

This is old news and a rehash of what all salesmen, preachers, confidence men, and politicians know instinctively about human nature. It's only depressing if you are a naive drooling ignoramus just figuring this out.

A guy won the Econ Nobel Prize for this in 2002.

Via Wiki:

Thinking, Fast and Slow is a 2011 book by Nobel Memorial Prize winner in Economics Daniel Kahneman which summarizes research that he conducted over decades, often in collaboration with Amos Tversky.[1][2] It covers all three phases of his career: his early days working on cognitive bias, his work on prospect theory, and his later work on happiness.

The book's central thesis is a dichotomy between two modes of thought : System 1 is fast, instinctive and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. The book delineates cognitive biases associated with each type of thinking, starting with Kahneman's own research on loss aversion. From framing choices to substitution, the book highlights several decades of academic research to suggest that people place too much confidence in human judgment.