People Say/ Everyone Knows/ They Say

This post is sooo… derivative, but I cannot help myself. Good judgment is dependent on good information. It has never been so obvious how much we rely on good referees to determine what is good information. Most persuasion is based on filtering the information to the persuader’s advantage, but it has been rare in my lifetime to use the strategy of just hammering the lie.

It is easy to imagine that our paleo brains were rewarded by believing the chief. We both had skin in the game. So our still tribal brains believe things that are repeated over and over, even lies. Unfortunately, our information sources have gotten further and further from us so that our futures are not intertwined, except in an existential way. Our information networks have expanded and more critically selectively expanded.

Niall Ferguson’s book the Tower and the Square looks at networks and the special case of the hierarchy. Flat networks have no referees. Hierarchies may have bad referees. The printing press, better ships, the telegraph, television, the internet, and now electronic social media have disrupted information networks and ultimately what we can trust.

So it maybe more difficult to determine the facts than it has been in the past. However, if information appeals to you that is based on vague origins like “people”, “everyone”, and “they”, maybe you are not interested in making good decisions. You may be more interested in alluring comforts, emotions, or games. Frankly, Robin Hogarth and Emre Soyer, in The Myth of Experience (See post The Myth of Experience) explain that those things can sway us from our personal morality and objectives. Frankly, I see many in my generation, the baby boom, as falling into that trap. We do not want to risk any of our comfort, both physical and emotional. Unfortunately, we tend to believe what we want to believe. Conspiracy theories run rampant because they make us feel good. It is much more comforting for some to think they have found an authoritarian leader who will make good decisions for them rather than to face the real world of ambiguity. Now if you actually want to find good information and make decisions that might help your children or their children, there is guidance.

Hogarth and Soyer point out that if experience leads to a simple causal story it is more likely to be reliable. Asking a person to recount their story as it pertains to a decision you need to make can be helpful. Let them start at the beginning and try not to inject pointed questions. Encourage them to continue. An inconsistent or overly complicated story is not usually an accurate one.

Attribution error is another factor that humans tend to share as the comic above depicts. We believe that other people’s actions depict their true selves while our actions are determined by circumstances. This is especially true in western societies. The less we know about the circumstances of other people, say we have never met them, the more likely we are to believe that they are inherently evil and would do anything. Keep that in mind. Judge their behavior, not them.

A significant part of making good decisions is assessing the risks of alternatives. Much of our risk taking or avoiding behavior is based on feelings.  Kahneman includes some of these in prospect theory (see post Prospect Theory).  We tend to want to keep what we have more than we want to get more of what we have–loss aversion.

Slovic et. al. in: “Risk As Analysis and Risk As Feelings” point out that whereas risk and benefit tend to be positively correlated in the world, they tend to be negatively correlated in people’s minds and judgments.  The affect heuristic asserts that if people like an activity or technology, they are moved toward judging the risks as low and the benefits as high; if they dislike it, they tend to judge the opposite.   Familiar risks like cars and cigarettes usually have alternative lives as perceived benefits so they are less scary.

Finally, our brain’s do not like non-linearity. Most of us are not good at numbers. Be wary both of relative differences and absolute numbers without any comparison. One in 100,000 people may die within a week of taking a vaccine. That may sound dangerous, but you should also know that more than one in 10,000 people die every week in the United States.

Another problem for our brains is an imperfect screening test for a relatively rare disease. You cannot think in fractions or percentages. You must think in absolute frequencies. Breast cancer screening is one example. Generally, it can catch about 90% of breast cancers and only about 9% test positive who do not have breast cancer. So if you have a positive test, that means chances are you have breast cancer. No! You cannot let your intuition get involved especially when the disease is more rare than the test’s mistakes. If we assume that 10 out of 1000 women have breast cancer, then 90% or 9 will be detected, but about 90 of the 1000 women will test positive who do not have disease. Thus only 9 of the 99 who test positive actually have breast cancer. I know this, but give me a new disease or a slightly different scenario and let a month pass, I will still be tempted to shortcut the absolute frequencies and get it wrong.