YANSS Podcast – Episode Three – Confabulation

The Topic: Confabulation

The Guest: V.S. Ramachandran

The Episode: iTunes – Download – Stitcher – RSS – Soundcloud

Caden Cotard in Synecdoche, New York. Source: Sony Pictures Classics

As a motto for the sapient, “cogito ergo sum” is pretty fantastic. Every time I’m reminded of it, a twinge of pride flows through my veins. It makes me want to stand up straight and pronounce proudly to my cat, “I think, therefore I am,” and then take his blank stare and plaintive meow as confirmation of my vitality. To be human is to know you exist. It is to know you are, and to know you are you.

It’s fitting that Jules Cotard, a man who was a close friend of the philosopher Auguste Comte, would find a way to dull the edge of Descartes’ famous proclamation. In an era preceding automobiles and airplanes, Cotard transferred his interest in the philosophy of being into the medicine of being – neurology – and after serving as a military surgeon in 1870, Cotard joined a clinic that did what it could with the knowledge of the day. Cotard and others at the clinic treated those with what one lecturer at the time called “madness in all its forms.”

Cotard was one of the pioneers of neuroscience, connecting behavior to the physical locations in the brain. As he progressed in his career he became particularly interested in patients who exhibited aphasia, or difficulties with language. He would follow those patients past death to the autopsy table in search of the cause of their maladies, and he encouraged other doctors to do the same. Considering his background in philosophy, it must have been astonishing when he found a patient devoid of a sense of self. In 1880, Cotard introduced a newly identified medical condition to the world. He called it “delire des negations,” or negation delirium. Essentially, he had discovered a condition in which a person thought, “I think, therefore I’m not.”

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YANSS Podcast – Episode Two – The Illusion of Knowledge

The Topic: The Illusion of Knowledge

The Guest: Christopher Chabris

The Episode: iTunesDownloadStitcherRSS – Soundcloud

Remember when the United States stock market crashed a few years back? You know, the implosion famously featuring credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations? Does it seem strange to you that all those experts who couldn’t predict the economic collapse are still on television giving advice and offering predictions?

The people who were wrong continue to work because they provide you with an illusion of knowledge, a belief that the market can be understood by one person, and that person’s understanding can become your understanding. They continue to claim insight into chaotic, impossibly complex nebulae of shifting data, and they continue to profess powers of divination even though research shows they are slightly less reliable than a coin toss. They can still get paid to squawk because they continue to make their claims with confidence. No one wants a sage who deals in maybes.

Take a look at those bicycles at the top of this post. Which one would you say is the most accurate portrayal of a real bike? Psychologist Rebecca Lawson once put together a study that revealed even though most people are very familiar with bicycles and know how to ride them, they can’t draw one to save their lives, and they can’t even pick a proper one out of a lineup. Despite this, most people rate their knowledge of how a bicycle works as being very good. Remember that when someone claims to understand something a bit more complicated, like a sub-prime mortgage. (This is a picture of a real bicycle.)

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YANSS Podcast – Episode One – The Invisible Gorilla

The Topic: Attention

The Guest: Daniel Simons

The Episode: iTunesDownload – RSS – Soundcloud

The video above demonstrates the Monkey Business Illusion. It’s designed to fool both people who have and have not seen the selective attention test, a video on YouTube with over 5 million views.

The first post at You Are Not So Smart was about inattentional blindness. I had seen the selective attention test and the Test Your Awareness videos that were making the rounds on YouTube, and I knew inattentional blindness would make a great first topic. It is astounding to realize you’ve been lying to yourself about what gets into your brain through your eyeballs.

What is inattentional blindness? It’s missing something right in front of your eyes because you are paying attention to something else. What makes that a great topic for You Are Not So Smart is that this blindness is always part of experience, but you can spend a lifetime without ever knowing it happens. You tend to have an intuition and a belief that you see everything you are facing, and if something out of the ordinary was to happen, it would instantly grab your attention. Not so. Science has revealed you are basically blind to that which you are not attentive, yet your conscious experience and your memories don’t reflect this. That’s the epiphany that slams into your brain when you watch the original invisible gorilla video.

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The Overjustification Effect

The Misconception: There is nothing better in the world than getting paid to do what you love.

The Truth: Getting paid for doing what you already enjoy will sometimes cause your love for the task to wane because you attribute your motivation as coming from the reward, not your internal feelings.

Office Space – Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

Money isn’t everything. Money can’t buy happiness. Don’t live someone else’s dream. Figure out what you love and then figure out how to get paid doing it.

Maxims like these often find their way into your social media; they arrive in your electronic mailbox at the ends of dense chains of forwards. They bubble up from the collective sighs of well-paid boredom around the world and get routinely polished for presentation in graduation speeches and church sermons.

Money, fame, and prestige – they dangle just outside your reach it seems, encouraging you to lean farther and farther over the edge, to study longer and longer, to work harder and harder. When someone reminds you that acquiring currency while ignoring all else shouldn’t be your primary goal in life, it feels good. You retweet it. You post it on your wall. You forward it, and then you go back to work.

If only science had something concrete to say about the whole thing, you know? All these living greeting cards dispensing wisdom are great and all, but what about really putting money to the test? Does money buy happiness? In 2010, scientists published the results of a study looking into that very question.

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The Backfire Effect

The Misconception: When your beliefs are challenged with facts, you alter your opinions and incorporate the new information into your thinking.

The Truth: When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.

Wired, The New York Times, Backyard Poultry Magazine – they all do it. Sometimes, they screw up and get the facts wrong. In ink or in electrons, a reputable news source takes the time to say “my bad.”

If you are in the news business and want to maintain your reputation for accuracy, you publish corrections. For most topics this works just fine, but what most news organizations don’t realize is a correction can further push readers away from the facts if the issue at hand is close to the heart. In fact, those pithy blurbs hidden on a deep page in every newspaper point to one of the most powerful forces shaping the way you think, feel and decide – a behavior keeping you from accepting the truth.

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Confirmation Bias

The Misconception: Your opinions are the result of years of rational, objective analysis.

The Truth: Your opinions are the result of years of paying attention to information which confirmed what you believed while ignoring information which challenged your preconceived notions.

Source: EIL

Have you ever had a conversation in which some old movie was mentioned, something like “The Golden Child” or maybe even something more obscure?

You laughed about it, quoted lines from it, wondered what happened to the actors you never saw again, and then you forgot about it. Until…

You are flipping channels one night and all of the sudden you see “The Golden Child” is playing. Weird. The next day you are reading a news story, and out of nowhere it mentions forgotten movies from the 1980s, and holy shit, three paragraphs about “The Golden Child.” You see a trailer that night at the theater for a new Eddie Murphy movie, and then you see a billboard on the street promoting Charlie Murphy doing stand-up in town, and then one of your friends sends you a link to a post at TMZ showing recent photos of the actress  from “The Golden Child.”

What is happening here? Is the universe trying to tell you something? No. This is called the frequency illusion.

Since the party and the conversation where you and your friends took turns saying “I-ah-I-ah-I want the kniiiife” you’ve flipped channels plenty of times; you’ve walked past lots of billboards; you’ve seen dozens of stories about celebrities; you’ve been exposed to a handful of movie trailers. The thing is, you disregarded all the other information, all the stuff  unrelated to “The Golden Child.” Out of all the chaos, all the morsels of data, you only noticed the bits which called back to something sitting on top of your brain. A few weeks back, when Eddie Murphy and his Tibetan adventure were still submerged beneath a heap of pop-culture at the bottom of your skull, you wouldn’t have paid any special attention to references to it.

If you are thinking about buying a new car, you suddenly see people driving them all over the roads. If you just ended a long-time relationship, every song you hear seems to be written about love. If you are having a baby, you start to see them everywhere. When the frequency illusion goes from a passive phenomenon to an active pursuit, that’s when you start to experience confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is a filter through which you see a reality that matches your expectations. It causes you to think selectively, but the real trouble begins when confirmation bias distorts your active pursuit of facts.

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Fanboyism and Brand Loyalty

The Misconception: You prefer the things you own over the things you don’t because you made rational choices when we bought them.

The Truth: You prefer the things you own because you rationalize your past choices to protect your sense of self.

The Internet changed the way people argue.

Check any comment system, forum or message board and you will find fanboys going at it, debating why their chosen product is better than the other guy’s.

In modern consumer cultures like America, people compete for status through comparing their taste in products. (You can read more on how that works here: Selling Out).

Mac vs. PC, PS3 vs. XBox 360, iPhone vs. Android – it goes on and on.

Usually, these arguments are between men, because men will defend their ego no matter how slight the insult. These are also usually about geeky things that cost lots of money, because these battles take place on the Internet where tech-savvy people get rowdy, and the more expensive a purchase, the greater the loyalty to it.

Fanboyism isn’t anything new, it’s just a component of branding, which is something marketers and advertisers have known about since Quaker Oats created a friendly logo to go on their burlap sacks.

There was, of course, no friendly Quaker family making the oats back in 1877. The company wanted people to associate the trustworthiness and honesty of Quakers with their product. It worked.

This was one of, if not the first, such attempt to create brand loyalty – that nebulous emotional connection people have with certain companies which turns them into defenders and advocates for corporations who don’t give a shit.

In experiments at Baylor University where people were given Coke and Pepsi in unmarked cups and then hooked up to a brain scanner, the device clearly showed a certain number of them preferred Pepsi while tasting it.

When those people were told they were drinking Pepsi, a fraction of them, the ones who had enjoyed Coke all their lives, did something unexpected. The scanner showed their brains scrambling the pleasure signals, dampening them. They then told the experimenter afterward they had preferred Coke in the taste tests.

They lied, but in their subjective experiences of the situation, they didn’t. They really did feel like they preferred Coke after it was all over, and they altered their memories to match their emotions.

They had been branded somewhere in the past and were loyal to Coke. Even if they actually enjoyed Pepsi more, huge mental constructs prevented them from admitting it, even to themselves.

Add this sort of loyalty to something expensive, or a hobby which demands a large investment of time and money, and you get a fanboy. They defend their favorite stuff and ridicule the competition, ignoring facts if they contradict their emotional connection.

So, what creates this emotional connection to stuff and the companies who make doo-dads?

Marketers and advertising agencies call the opposite of fanboys hostages.

Hostages have no choice but to buy certain products, like toilet paper and gasoline. Since they can’t choose to own or not to own the product, they are far less likely to care if one version of toilet paper is better than another, or one gas station’s fuel is made by Shell or Chevron.

On the other hand, if the product is unnecessary, like an iPad, there is a great chance the customer will become a fanboy because they had to choose to spend a big chunk of money on it. It’s the choosing one thing over another which leads to narratives about why you did it.

If you have to rationalize why you bought a luxury item, you will probably find ways to see how it fits in with your self-image.

Branding builds on this by giving you the option to create the person you think you are through choosing to align yourself with the mystique of certain products.

Apple advertising, for instance, doesn’t mention how good their computers are. Instead, they give you examples of the sort of people who purchase those computers. The idea is to encourage you to say, “Yeah, I’m not some stuffy, conservative nerd. I have taste and talent and took art classes in college.”

Are Apple computers better than Microsoft-based computers? Is one better than the other when looked at empirically, based on data and analysis and testing and objective comparisons?

It doesn’t matter.

Those considerations come after a person has begun to see themselves as the sort of person who would own one. If you see yourself as the kind of person who owns Apple computers, or who drives hybrids, or who smokes Camels, you’ve been branded.

Once a person is branded, they will defend their brand by finding flaws in the alternative choice and pointing out benefits in their own.

There are a number of cognitive biases which converge to create this behavior.

The Endowment Effect pops up when you feel like the things you own are superior to the things you do not.

Psychologists demonstrate this by asking a group of people how much they think a water bottle is worth. The group will agree to an amount around $5, and then someone in the group will be given the bottle for free.

Then, after an hour, they ask the person how much they would be willing to sell the bottle back to the experimenter for. They usually ask for more money, like $8.

Ownership adds special emotional value to things, even if those things were free.

Another bias is the Sunk Cost Fallacy. This is when you’ve spent money on something you don’t want to own or don’t want to do and can’t get it back.

For instance, you might pay too much for some takeout food that really sucks, but you eat it anyway, or you sit through a movie even after you realize it’s terrible.

Sunk Cost can creep up on you too. Maybe you’ve been a subscriber to something for a long time and you realize it costs too much, but you don’t end your subscription because of all the money you’ve invested in the service so far.

Is Blockbuster better than Netflix, or Tivo better than a generic DVR? If you’ve spent a lot of money on subscription fees, you might be unwilling to switch to alternatives because you feel invested in the brand.

These biases feed into the big daddy of behaviors which is most responsible for branding, fanboyism and Internet arguments about why the thing you own is better than the thing the other guy owns – Choice Supportive Bias.

Choice Supportive Bias is a big part of being a person, it pops up all the time when you buy things.

It works like this: You have several options, like say for a new television. Before you make a choice you tend to compare and contrast all the different qualities of all the televisions on the market.

Which is better, Samsung or Sony, plasma or lcd, 1080p or 1080i – ugh, so many variables!

You eventually settle on one option, and after you make your decision you then look back and rationalize your actions by believing your television was the best of all the televisions you could have picked.

In retail, this is a well-understood phenomenon, and to prevent Buyer’s Remorse they try not to overwhelm you with choice. Studies show if you have only a handful of options at the point of purchase, you will be less likely to fret about your decision afterward.

It’s purely emotional, the moment you pick. People with brain damage to their emotional centers who have been rendered into Spock-like beings of pure logic find it impossible to decide between things as simple as which brand of cereal to buy. They stand transfixed in the aisle, contemplating every element of their potential decision – the calories, the shapes, the net weight – everything. They can’t pick because they have no emotional connection to anything, no emotional motivations.

To combat postdecisional dissonance, the feeling you have committed to one option when the other option may have been better, you make yourself feel justified in what you selected to lower the anxiety brought on by questioning yourself.

All of this forms a giant neurological cluster of associations, emotions, details of self-image and biases around the things you own.

This is why all over the Internet there are people in word fights over video games and sports teams, cell phones and TV shows.

The Internet provides a fertile breeding ground for this sort of behavior to flourish.

So, the next time you reach for the mouse and get ready to launch an angry litany of reasons why your favorite – thing – is better than the other person’s, hesitate.

Realize you have your irrational reasons, and so do they, and nothing will be gained by your proselytizing.

Links:

Barry Shwartz on choice at TED

Radiolab on choice

Bruce Everiss on fanboys

10 Golden Rules of fanboyism

Coke vs. Pepsi in the MRI machine