Posts Tagged ‘Psychology’

The focusing illusion

Aught3
Aught3
Sat Apr 20, 2013 8:21 pm by Aught3

If you asked a large group of students the following questions: (1) “How happy are you with your life in general?” and (2) “How many dates did you have last month?” What do you think the correlation would be? In other words, what impact does the number of dates a student experiences on their happiness? When the study is done, the correlation is statistically insignificant (-0.012) indicating that dates have no impact on a happy student life. Now consider the following two questions: (1) “How many dates did you have last month?” and (2) “How happy are you with your life in general?” Now how will the number of dates correlate with life happiness? Quite well (0.66). This reversal in correlation upon reversing the question order is called the focusing illusion.

In the first set of questions the students had to consider their life in general first. All aspects, positive and negative, had to be added up and averaged out. Dating made up only a tiny fraction of their lifetime experiences and was judged unimportant by the students. In the second set of questions their focus was first drawn to the aspect of their lives devoted to dating, trying to recall the dates they went on over the last month. When asked how happy they were in general, dating was occupying a large amount of their cognitive attention and was a big component of their overall happiness judgment. Similar effects have been observed when asking about marriage, health, income, and location of residence.

If you are entering into a negotiation with someone the focusing illusion can be used to your advantage. By being the first to make your position known, you anchor the likely outcome nearer to your target. In a salary negotiation, for example, when you have in mind a specific amount for a raise – making sure that number comes out early will constrain the range over which the negotiation can roam. Another use, when selling a house, is to set the price as a non-round number. This tactic will limit the negotiation to the lower units making it more likely you will get the price you want. Setting your price at $799,800 will encourage a smaller range of buy offers than setting the price at $800,000. This is because buyers will focus at the $100 unit rather than the $100,000 unit when making counter offers. Priming the people you are dealing with the answer you want makes it more likely you will be pleased with the outcome.

However, there is a darker side to this cognitive bias. Advertisers make use of the focusing illusion and cause us to overestimate the positive impact their products will have on our lives. They show us people making creative use of their items and invite us to image how we would use them ourselves. By focusing our attention on the product we come to believe that it will markedly improve our relationships, happiness, or efficiency when it reality most products will only have a very small impact on our lives. Politicians also love to use the focusing illusion to narrow the window of debate. Rather than conduct a full discussion of the issue and the merits of various alternative solutions, politicians like to forcefully state their solution and then claim there is no other option. The political debate is shifted to the relative merits of the proposed solution only and any alternatives put forward are ridiculed as too radical and unlikely to have the perceived impact that the proposed policy will.

Avoiding the focusing illusion seems to be impossible. In the same way it is impossible not to think of an elephant, once the influencing factor has entered our consciousness it will immediately colour our future perceptions and decisions. If time allows, try to make the decision at a later date when the focusing factor has receded in importance. Another tactic is to shift your focus to concentrate on what isn’t there. If you think about the information that has been left out you may give your conscious mind a more accurate conception of the problem at hand. If an advertiser or politician claims a particular benefit for a product or policy try to think of the things they are not claiming. If their policy will create more jobs why are they not talking about its impact on government revenue? If an advertiser is touting their product is high in vitamins, ask yourself what they might be leaving out about its sugar content. Training in formal argumentation helps but remember that nothing can break the focusing illusion once it is in place. Be on your guard.

Mistakes Were Made

Aught3
Aught3
Wed Sep 07, 2011 10:25 pm by Aught3

“But not by me” reads the subtitle to this staple non-pology. Mistakes Were Made by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson is a fascinating look into the psychology of being wrong. Examples range from psychiatrists, scientists, politicians, TV hosts, all the way to regular people on the street. The focus of this book is not that people are wrong, but that they refuse to admit they are wrong even to themselves and thus confound the error. As I read this book there was a disconcerting transition from recognising the mistakes other people make to recognising those same mistakes in myself. It turns out that everybody errs and nobody admits to it.

The major driver behind our inability to admit mistakes is the need to reduce cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling of simultaneously holding two contradictory beliefs. In this case the belief that ‘I am a good person’ conflicts with the belief ‘I made a mistake’ and rationalisation kicks in to try and eliminate one of these two beliefs. The easiest one to avoid is ‘I made a mistake’ and that is often the one to go. The authors talk about the numerous ways in which we all try and reduce dissonance. We blame other people, we come up with justifications for our actions, and we ignore evidence that shows we are wrong. Interestingly, we also rewrite our very memories of events to make them seem more favourable to our point of view. This chapter really made me question how accurate anyone (including myself) could be when trying to recall past events.

The most illuminating example(s) in Mistakes Were Made were those that dealt with recovered memories. Recovering memories used to be a legitimate psychiatric practice and helped thousands of people ‘remember’ child abuse, sexual assaults, satanic rituals, and even alien abductions. You’d think by the time aliens came up, the accuracy of the technique might be called into question but the authors do a great job of explaining how accepting small steps can lead to ending at ludicrous (even criminal) outcomes that would not have been accepted in the beginning. The allegations of parental sexual abuse had devastating impacts of real families and some of those involved still can’t admit they were wrong.

Mistakes Were Made contains numerous lessons that anyone could apply to their own lives. I learned a lot from this book and it changed the way I think about how other think and act. The central message from this book is that we all would be better off admitting to each other (and ourselves) when we are wrong.

Overall: 9/10 fantastic read.

Religion and support for torture

Aught3
Aught3
Tue Jun 07, 2011 11:01 am by Aught3

An interesting paper in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin details the conflicting influences of religion on support for torture. The researchers tested several possible relationships between these two factors including the influence of other variables such as education level and political conservatism. I found the results fairly surprising, let me know what you think.

The data collected was from two surveys taken in 2004 and 2008 asking 983 and 1,893 people respectively. The first effect looked at was the direct relationship between religion and support for torure. The researchers found a negative correlation on this point. That is, a religious person was less likely – on average – to support torture. This was described as an organic influence, something about the precepts of religion and opposition to torture were simultaneously appealing to the survey respondents.

However, the authors had also expected a discursive influence of religion and torture because of the popular view that religion and conservative politics ‘go together’ in the US and conservative politics lead to support for torture. When they separated out the progressive and conservative respondents, the moderating impact of religion was overwhelmed and a strong positive relationship between religion and support for torture was observed. A discursive relationship is one that arises through common perception, such as an ideological framework. Compare this to an organic relationship caused by innate features which people may not be consciously aware of. To show the three part relationship between religiosity, conservatism, and torture the researchers looked at one final factor: education level.

The authors of this study reasoned that conservatives with higher education levels would hold more consistent political views. Those with less education would be more likely to follow the common, organic, threads even if they were inconsistent with their stated political position. The data were consistent with this hypothesis showing conservative religious people who were highly educated were even more likely to support torture. So there we are, being religious is negatively correlated with supporting torture but being educated and politically engaged is positively correlated with it, at least if you are a conservative.

 

Malka and Soto (2011) The Conflicting Influences of Religiosity on Attitude Toward Torture. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

tp://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=The%20Conflicting%20Influences%20of%20Religiosity%20on%20Attitude%20Toward%20Torture
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