• Robb G. Best

Your Brain on Bias


Last year, roughly 40,000 people died in automobile crashes on America's highways. This is a tragic number, but it has been much worse in the past. Thanks to seatbelts and more crash-resistant vehicles, highway fatalities continue to creep downwards.

It is estimated that around 17 people die each year from getting crushed by heavy furniture, including TVs. This is also a tragic number, for many reasons--if nothing else, no one imagines being betrayed by their flatscreen.

In 2010 and 2011, not counting war zones, 17 American civilians were killed each year in terrorist attacks on foreign soil.

Yes: the same number that fell victim to toppled credenzas and/or falling televisions.

I cite these statistics to illustrate the problem of proportionality bias. When terrorists attacks are reported overseas, millions of Americans change their vacation plans and cancel their trips to Europe, but nobody cancels their plans for a new dresser or that new sixty-inch flatscreen they've been dreaming about. Each year, we mourn the losses of the some 3000 victims of 9/11 and yet we barely give a thought to the thousands of fatalities that occur on American highways each month.

Our brains were never designed for this kind of proportional analysis. We can easily comprehend the numbers, but making sense of them is an entirely separate matter. Our 40,000 year old mental operating platform had no need for this kind of meta analysis.

The brain operates on a fairly simple principle when it comes to danger. One snake is bad, two snakes are really bad, and any more than that doesn't really matter. Knowing there are ten snakes in a pit instead of eleven delivers no benefit when two snakes is already plenty of snake to kill you.

Like we've seen here before, the modern world, driven by new technologies, has long ago outrun our brains' ability to keep up. And so to a large extent we fake it. We pretend that we can absorb huge hunks of data, when in fact our systems overload with as little as seven pieces of info. (Just try memorizing a random number over seven digits long.)

Our working memories dump information so effortlessly that when you make a grocery run to pick up those 8 or 9 items you need, it isn't just commonplace to forget the milk. You also forget where you parked. Yes, that huge, several-ton lump of steel and machinery can be misplaced as easily as your car keys thanks to the inefficiency of your short term memory.

And it's not just memory. Thanks to our confirmation bias, we tend to choose news programs that support our beliefs. Instead of weighing all the info and making an informed choice, we choose our info based on what we've already decided.

We follow the same game plan for politics and religion. Chris Evatt somes it up this way in 50 Brain Biases:

"The Confirmation Bias sways us to...

• favor evidence that agrees with our position

• believe the future will bring new evidence to support it

• cling stubbornly and passionately to our stance

• adopt positions from traditions, religions and ideologies

Maybe you’ve noticed some of these traits in other, lesser people. But what about you?

Studies show that, on a personal basis, we tend to over-emphasize our strengths and downplay our weaknesses. It’s called the Illusory Effect, and it affects the best of us. In one study, 90% of college professors rated themselves in the upper 10% of better quality teachers.

According to Evatt, "we have a tendency to think we're better-than-average at many things...

People generally consider themselves smarter, luckier, better-looking and more important than they really are. They regard themselves as exceptional and believe they will avoid the divorces, premature deaths or weight gains that befall everyone else. The link between people’s personal estimations and the not-so-flattering reality is sometimes perilously weak. To social psychologists, flawed self-assessment is the norm. People systematically misjudge their abilities, virtues, importance and future actions. And those erroneous views can endanger health, ruin relationships, ruin finances and cause other miseries."

I've cited three classic biases, Evatt's treatise illuminates 47 more. It appears that by definition, to be human means to bias. Like death and taxes, it's one of the things you can count on. Or as Evatt informs us, more like 50 things you can count on.

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