Monthly Archives: August 2008

As the Bias Wheel Turns

The period of time immediately following a Party convention is an excellent time to observe confirmation bias on a mass scale.  Take for example this Yahoo News article: Obama Speech Inspires Fans, Turns Off Republicans.  It’s just one of many out today that contain quotes from Obama supporters who were inspired by the speech and feel emboldened by their candidate, and quotes from Obama detractors who say his speech merely reinforced their negative impressions. While this evident confirmation bias shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, it is admitted by almost no one.  The issue isn’t whether anyone should, or can, extract grounded evidence (either pro or con their position) from a campaign speech. Rather, it’s whether someone can countervail their confirmation bias long enough to actually examine truth claims made during a speech and throughout a campaign. The studies on this are not encouraging. The far greater tendency is to rely on interpretation of truth claims, and as we know there’s a robust media industry built on exactly that tendency. But then you not only have the interpreters’ confirmation bias to contend with (and it’s generally very strong), but the bias inherent in the vested interests these interpreter’s hail from. And on and on the bias wheel turns.

For at least a smidgen of clearer examination of truth claims, this site is worth reading, and another good one is here.


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Consider the Source

With the Party conventions dominating the news this week and next, I’ve been reading pieces that address how beliefs are influenced. An op-ed article from the New York Times in June, titled “Your Brain Lies to You”, discusses the phenomenon known as source amnesia. Here’s an excerpt:

The brain does not simply gather and stockpile information as a computer’s hard drive does. Facts are stored first in the hippocampus, a structure deep in the brain about the size and shape of a fat man’s curled pinkie finger. But the information does not rest there. Every time we recall it, our brain writes it down again, and during this re-storage, it is also reprocessed. In time, the fact is gradually transferred to the cerebral cortex and is separated from the context in which it was originally learned. For example, you know that the capital of California is Sacramento, but you probably don’t remember how you learned it.

This phenomenon, known as source amnesia, can also lead people to forget whether a statement is true. Even when a lie is presented with a disclaimer, people often later remember it as true.

Evidently this effect gets worse with time as the information is processed:

A false statement from a noncredible source that is at first not believed can gain credibility during the months it takes to reprocess memories from short-term hippocampal storage to longer-term cortical storage. As the source is forgotten, the message and its implications gain strength.

Hence the magic of the first impression and why it is so coveted by political strategists.  As long as a statement is initially memorable, there’s a decent chance that its source will eventually be forgotten and what was at first a noncredible statement can become a credible one.  This is also why it may not be a good idea to attempt to combat a false rumor by addressing it–and thus repeating it–in public. The research suggests that the more times the message is repeated, the more likely it will be remembered, but its source forgotten.  

On top of that, we are all more likely to select information that jibes with our worldview.

Adding to this innate tendency to mold information we recall is the way our brains fit facts into established mental frameworks. We tend to remember news that accords with our worldview, and discount statements that contradict it.

So the bias begins before we start listening, even if we eventually can’t remember where we received the information – though are certain it must be true.


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Undecided…you sure?

A new study suggests that automatic associations, lurking outside of awareness, are a better indicator of an “undecided” voter’s actual position than his or her conscious response. Here’s an article about the study in Science News.  This study seems to confirm what I think most of us intuitively know – that claims of indecision often veil an unconscious embrace of a given position. This isn’t, of course, the same as overtly lying about a stance on a position. The study suggests that the respondents who claim to be undecided certainly believe themselves to be just that. But, what’s at play in the black box of the unconscious may be hinting at a different stance, one already colored by influences the respondent may not be in touch with.

What’s interesting about this to me are the implications going the other way — claims of rationally “knowing” a position to be the correct one. To take a line from Robert Burton’s book On Being Certain, “knowing what we know” is not necessarily a rational business. More on that in future posts. Below is a an excerpt from the Science News article:

“Political pollsters might learn that there are some questions better left unasked,” remarks psychologist Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. The new findings suggest that pollsters should be skeptical of voters who label themselves as undecided because those voters’ unconscious minds may have other ideas. The conscious answers these people give could be misleading.

Here’s a great post at The Frontal Cortex about this study as well.

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E. coli…It’s What’s for Dinner

Who knows how to make E. coli exciting?  Carl Zimmer over at The Loom, that’s who. He’s been generous enough to post his remarks from a speech he gave at the Chautauqua Institution, and it’s compelling stuff (assuming you’ll allow the life of microbes to fit into your definition of compelling, at least for 20 minutes or so). My 20 minutes was enough to convince me that I’ll be buying his book on my next Amazon go-round. Here’s a taste from the post:

In many ways, E. coli works much like our own cells do. That’s why scientists who studied E. coli have won a dozen or so Nobel Prizes. The French biologist Jacques Monod declared, what is true for E. coli is true for the elephant.

Microbes are also a tremendously important part of the biosphere. For one thing, there are just so many of them.

–If you went outside and picked up a pinch of dirt, you’d be picking up a billion microbes.

–Inside your own body, there are 10 times more microbial cells than your own cells.

–There are so many microbes because they can live so many places. They can live inside a grain of salt, or in acid or in boiling water.

–The sea floor is rife with microbes for half a mile down. According to a recent estimate, the carbon in sea floor microbes alone weigh 90 petagrams. That’s 200 trillion pounds of microbial life.

–There are about a billion times more microbes on Earth than there are stars in the universe.

Because there are so many microbes, and because they have so many different ways of making a living, they’re incredibly important ecologically.  If every human on Earth stepped on a spaceship and abandoned the planet, the ecosystems of the ocean and the land would go on pretty much as before. But if the single-celled life on Earth disappeared, the rest of life would probably die.

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The Nose Knows

The power of scent is getting a lot of ink lately.  A study last year indicated that certain scents delivered during sleep help improve memory.  A study earlier this year indicates that the aroma of cookies entices people to spend more money. And lo and behold, just recently we found out that merely the scent of coffee can calm nerves.

Scientific American has a quite good article that discusses the power of scent in all of its complexity. Here’s a brief “whiff” of a section of the article on unconscious identification by scent:

Although humans probably do not ordinarily use smell to navigate toward the nearest source of chocolate, we do seem to use odors—in most cases, subconsciously—to evaluate potential mates. Each of us has a unique scent: milky exudates of various glands, including the apocrine glands, which are located around the nipples, genitals and armpits, contain roughly 200 chemicals. The ratio of chemicals, which are metabolized into an aromatic brew by skin-dwelling bacteria, varies from person to person. Men and women, for example, have distinct odors governed by different ratios of sex hormones.

Neurons that convey odors from the nose to the brain’s olfactory bulb have close connections with the oldest areas of the human brain: the limbic system, the region that includes the amygdala, which governs emotions such as aggression and fear, and the hippocampus, which controls memory acquisition. Thus, odors trigger subconscious emotional  responses before arriving at the brain’s outermost section, the cerebral cortex, for conscious assessment. What this means, Lundström explains, is that “a great deal of processing odor is done on a nonconscious basis.”

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Follow the Bouncing Ball Blindly

Excellent video below from the group Transport for London (courtesy of BoingBoing via YouTube) that nicely illustrates the concept of change blindness. Here’s an article from the New York Times on the topic as well (quote below is from the article):


Whether lured into attentiveness by a bottom-up or top-down mechanism, scientists said, the results of change blindness studies and other experiments strongly suggest that the visual system can focus on only one or very few objects at a time, and that anything lying outside a given moment’s cone of interest gets short shrift. The brain, it seems, is a master at filling gaps and making do, of compiling a cohesive portrait of reality based on a flickering view.

“Our spotlight of attention is grabbing objects at such a fast rate that introspectively it feels like you’re recognizing many things at once,” Dr. Wolfe said. “But the reality is that you are only accurately representing the state of one or a few objects at any given moment.” As for the rest of our visual experience, he said, it has been aptly called “a grand illusion.” Sit back, relax and enjoy the movie called You.



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What You See Ain’t (Necessarily) What It Be

Three big time magicians, the ‘Amazing’ James Randi, Teller (of Penn and Teller) and the ‘The Great Tomsoni’ recently teamed up with the Barrow Neurolological Insitute of Phoenix to participate in a bit of the ole’ neuroscience research . The result is a paper published in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience on how magicians exploit nuances in how the brain works to accomplish an illusion.  Here’s an article in the Times all about it.  In a nutshell, ‘objective’ reality ain’t all that objective,  especially when someone knows how to manipulate the brain’s perception mechanisms. From the article:

One theory of perception, for instance, holds that the brain builds representations of the world, moment to moment, using the senses to provide clues that are fleshed out into a mental picture based on experience and context. The brain uses neural tricks to do this: approximating, cutting corners, instantaneously and subconsciously choosing what to “see” and what to let pass, neuroscientists say. Magic exposes the inseams, the neural stitching in the perceptual curtain.

And here’s a great post over at Mind Hacks that fills in the picture further.

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