It is amazing how good we are -- even the smartest, most rational people among us -- at not recognizing our own biases. (Danny Kahneman memorably calls this being "blind to our blindness.")
We recently put out a podcast called "The Truth Is Out There ... Isn't It?" about how people decide what to believe about everything from global warming and nuclear risk to UFO's. It was inspired by the research of Dan Kahan and his colleagues at the Cultural Cognition Project; they have found that we systematically filter our beliefs through our personal and political filters. In other words, we allow our biases to influence what we think about theoretically non-ideological issues, but we aren't aware of that influence.
I have long been interested in the effects -- psychological, economic, and otherwise -- of jealousy (and, relatedly, disgust and repugnance). Even using the word "jealousy" is probably loaded. (Maybe "resentment" is better? Doubtful.) In any case: somewhere between the 99% movement and the Mitt Romney-as-private-equity-bloodsucker meme lies a discussion that includes a lot of legitimate questions about fairness and a lot of less-legitimate emotional reaction that gets turned into political and intellectual fodder.
Memory is a funny thing, as evidenced by a new experiment from Steve M. J. Janssen, David C. Rubin and Martin A. Conway. The BPS Research Digest blog summarizes:
Six hundred and nineteen people (aged 16 to 80) took part in the study online, conducted in Dutch and hosted on the website of the University of Amsterdam. Participants were presented with the names of 190 all-time leading football players and asked to name their judgment of the five best players of all time. They could either select from the list or choose their own.
The researchers calculated the mid-career point of the 172 players named by the participants and compared this against the participants' age at that time. Participants overwhelming tended to name players whose career mid-point coincided with participants' teens and early twenties. The modal age (i.e. the most common) of the participants at their chosen players' mid-career was 17 years.
The rogue trader is a recurring character in the story of finance over the last 20 years. This is the guy who makes secret, unauthorized bets with his bank's money, driven by some seeming combination of inadequacy and a huge appetite for risk, and abetted at times by an amazing lack of internal controls.
The deeper he goes, the harder he has to work to conceal his deception until one day, it inevitably comes crashing down. The bank loses billions, the trader (sometimes) goes to jail. The story is repeated every several years. The latest version broke in September when UBS announced it had lost more than $2 billion as a result of rogue trader Kweku Adoboli.
In his new e-book, How to Be a Rogue Trader, Financial Times columnist John Gapper explains why this story has become so familiar over the years. As he puts it, the rogue trader is a species of sorts within the world of finance, a special breed with certain behaviors and characteristics that are consistent through time. Gapper delves into evolutionary biology and the research of Daniel Kahneman to better understand the nature of men like Nick Leeson, Joe Jett, and Jerome Kerviel.
Michael Shermer is perhaps the world's only professional skeptic. As the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and executive director of the Skeptics Society, Shermer has turned his innate skepticism into a full-time job. In our recent podcast "The Truth Is Out There...Isn't It?" Stephen Dubner talks to Shermer about the evolutionary basis for our tendency toward "magical thinking" and why humans are conditioned to see threats often where none exist. Here's an excerpt:
Two weeks ago, we solicited your questions for Princeton psychology professor and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, whose new book is called Thinking, Fast and Slow. You responded by asking 45 questions. Kahneman has answered 22 of them in one of the more in-depth and wide-ranging Q&A's we've run recently. It's a great read. As always, thanks for your questions, and thanks to Daniel Kahneman for taking the time to answer so many of them.
Q. Now that we understand reason as being largely unconscious, motivated by emotion, embodied and constituted by many biases and heuristics, where do you see the future of cognitive science going? Are we at the beginning stages of a paradigm shift? -McNerney
We've all been there: you've got a million things you're trying to get done, you're running behind, you walk through a door into another room to get something and... wait a minute, what are you looking for again? Son of a...
According to new research (PDF here) from Notre Dame psychology professor Gabriel Radvansky, passing through doorways actually does cause us to forget things because of the way the brain compartmentalizes information. Doorways, according to Radvansky, serve as "event boundaries in the mind." The simple act of having to adjust to a new setting takes just enough mental effort to cause a break in short-term memory. “Recalling the decision or activity that was made in a different room is difficult because it has been compartmentalized,” says Radvansky.
Icing the kicker: Even casual football fans have come to expect that when a game is on the line and the kicker is brought out to try a crucial field goal, the opposing coach might call a timeout just as the kicker approaches the ball.
Makes sense, doesn't it? The coach can "ice" the kicker -- mess with his mind, throw off his routine, make him stand around like an awkward guy at a cocktail party for all the world to see.
In the second segment of “Football Freakonomics,” Dubner examines the strategy of "icing the kicker," a fairly recent trend in the NFL where an opposing coach will call a timeout just before a placekicker tries a field goal. The idea is to get inside the kicker's head, make him nervous by giving him a few extra minutes to think about all the pressure he's under. But does it work? Are kickers more likely to miss after being iced? The answer might surprise you.
A couple months ago, we wrote about a study by researchers from Notre Dame and Cornell that showed how “agreeableness” negatively affects monetary earnings, particularly for men. Translation: it pays to be a jerk. Well, not exactly, but it apparently doesn't pay to be overly nice.
Now, a recent paper from a host of researchers (from Stanford, Northwestern and Carnegie Mellon) fleshes out this notion by showing why nice guys who watch out for others generally fail to become leaders. The study looks at how contributing to the public good (i.e. taking care of outsiders, and even others in a group setting) influences a person's status on two critical dimensions of leadership: prestige and dominance. People who shared resources with their group were seen as prestigious, while those who protected their resources and even sought to deprive members of another group were seen as dominant.