Biases

This seems to be a time of great fertility for biases. A dictionary will say that a bias is a prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another,. These are usually considered to be unfair. Politics and religion generate lots of biases.

But there are other kinds of biases that aren’t necessarily unfair. They largely fall in the domain of psychology.

How about this one:  I bought a silver Subaru Forester, and now I see more Subaru Foresters, even silver ones, than ever before. Or, you come across a word or phrase you never encountered before – such as, fintech or predictive text  – and then you discover it was a new word in the dictionary in 2018 and it starts to appear to you more and more. Or at least it seems to appear more than ever before. Probably, it has been around you all along, you just hadn’t noticed.

Both of these examples describe the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, otherwise known as frequency illusion or recency illusion. It happens whenever something you just noticed, experienced or have been told about, starts popping up with greater frequency.

This and other similar occurrences are known as cognitive biases and there are a lot of them.

Another example of this type of bias is the observer-expectancy effect. That’ occurs when you are prompted to expect something. “Wait and see how many people in this bar are wearing NY Yankees shirts.”  The thing is that you were going to a bar in Florida, and wouldn’t expect that to be true. But it is a known hangout for Yankees fans during baseball season and now you are primed to observe.

Jerry Seinfeld was known in her early years for his “Did you ever notice” observational humor. “Did you ever notice, when you are sitting at a red light, that when the person in front of you pulls up a couple of inches, you are compelled to move up too? Do we really think we are making progress toward our destination? ‘Whew, I thought we would be late, but now that I am nine inches closer, I can stop for coffee and a danish!'”

Another one is the IKEA effect This apparently real bias is that people tend to place a disproportionately higher value on objects that they partially built or assembled themselves (such as furniture from IKEA). The value is not really connected to the quality of the end result.  “This is a picnic bench I made out of scrap lumber. Pretty sweet, right?”

A slight variation on these is the social bias. The cheerleader effect is an example. This is a bias for people to appear more attractive in a group than in isolation. Not to denigrate cheerleaders, but they all look good in the group photo. Some look not-so-great in individual photos. This tends to be true of any of us in a group or even one item a group of things.

There is also memory bias. This cognitive bias is something that either enhances or impairs the recall of a memory. It might help or hurt the chances that the memory will be recalled at all. It might affect the amount of time it takes for it to be recalled. It might do both things and even alter the content of a reported memory.

Lots of research has shown that when we retell a story from our childhood years later, we always slightly change the story. It is affected by the distance in time from when it happened, but also by the emotions surrounding it, the location, others involved etc. We have false memories. We have lost or repressed memories. Traumatic events are recalled differently by different participants. The memory of an airline crash or mass shooting is not remembered in the same ways by all those involved. Some people may seem to have no memory of the event. Others may have very detailed memories involving multiple senses, such as the sounds and smells and not just what they saw.

As I get older, I think more, worry more, and write more about memory.

I wrote a post asking readers if they remember what happened when they were 3 years old or younger. If you say that you do, most scientists would say you probably remember being told about it or you have seen photos or videos from that time. Childhood amnesia is a kind of cognitive bias we have because it seems that we have very few actual memories from before the age of four. Those memories are false in that they are really a memory of being reminded of an event.

Then again, all is not lost. There is the “reminiscence bump” that occurs because we also tend to have a bias to remembering more personal events from adolescence and early adulthood than personal events from other lifetime periods.

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Ken Ronkowitz

Random by design. Predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente. A lifelong educator.

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