Stickman Readers' Submissions September 22nd, 2010

Confirmation Bias

Can I start by giving a shout out to Union Hill? Khun Hill, write some more, your fans miss you! Phet, Sawadee2000 and early Dana (anecdotes 1-20 in particular) are also great to read. I enjoy Korski's works of fiction, but dislike his (or anyone's)
pseudo-intellectual rants. Of course, I excuse myself from that rule, and have myself penned a pseudo-intellectual article relevant to recent discussions that I hope you find interesting.

I was sitting, drinking and talking with friends a few weeks ago and the subject of movies from the 80s came up. Somebody mentioned the classic "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" as a shining example. We all had a good laugh, quoted from it ("Bueller?…
Bueller?… Bueller?"), and then talked about something else, and promptly forgot all about it.

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And then, about a week ago, while watching TV and flicking through channels, I came across none other than "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" playing. The next day I'm surfing the internet when out of nowhere there's an article about
movies from the 1980s, including a whole paragraph about "Ferris' Bueller's Day Off". I visit a friend's place and hear Matthew Broderick singing on soundtrack for The Producers. Weird. Then I saw Alan Ruck (who played
Ferris' friend in the movie, whose father had the Ferrari) in an episode of Numb3rs on TV.

What is happening here? Is the universe trying to tell me something? No. This is confirmation bias at work.

Since the initial dinner party conversation, I’ve watched TV plenty of times; read a lot of blogs and news sites; listened to a lot of music; and seen a lot of TV. I'm sure everyone has an example of their own "Ferris Bueller" moments
… and we are preprogrammed to disregard all the other information we take it, all the stuff in our lives unrelated to our “Ferris Bueller.” So with millions and millions of stimulii each day, we only notice something if it's
in the intray at the top of our brain's filing system.

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A few weeks prior, when Matthew Broderick had no recent significance to me, my memories of his character's Day Off were sloshing around in a sea of pop-culture trivia deep in my subconscious. An individual stimilus on this topic would not have attracted
any special attention from my conscious brain. After the discussion at the party, my radar was tuned to add additional weight to any related Ferris Bueller-related stimulus.

We've all seen this in everyday life: Whenever you endure a breakup, somehow the radio stations conspire to play nothing but love songs. When we had our first baby, we suddenly noticed babies everywhere. Sawadee bought a new washing machine, I'm
guessing he noticed a lot more of his friend's washing machines when invited into their house.

These examples I've quoted so far are all very superficial and high level. Real damage can be done when confirmation bias distorts you active pursuit of facts … people rarely read books or watch TV programs that challenge their pre-held views.
We also see this a lot in articles about Thailand. Gentlemen in Pattaya are often described as old, ugly and overweight. People from the Indian subcontinent are described as cheap, smelly and argumentative. Mongering in Thailand is normal and
acceptable behaviour. I wonder what percentage of people in the Half-Chinese Girl debate changed any of their opinions as a result of what they read? Based on the responses, not many.

In science, you move closer to the truth by seeking evidence to the contrary. The classic method for teaching confirmation bias is by showing a set of numbers to a classroom: 2, 4, 6

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The teacher asks the students to guess the rule that generated this set up number by offering up three numbers of their own to test their hypothesis. The teacher will then say “yes” or “no” if the order matches the rule. When
the student thinks they have it figured out, they have to write it down and turn it in. Students typically offer sets like 10, 12, 14 or 22, 24, 26. The teacher says “yes” over and over again, and the majority of people turn in the
wrong answer.

To figure out the rule, students would have to offer sets like 2, 2, 2 or 9, 8, 7 – these, the teacher would say, do not fit the rule. With enough guesses playing against what the students think the rule may be, students finally figure out what
the original rule was (three numbers in ascending order). The exercise is intended to teach you the risks in coming up with a hypothesis and then working to prove it right, instead of working to prove it wrong per the scientific method. Once satisfied,
you stop searching.

Of course, the old psychology joke that made me groan when I heard it: Once you hear about confirmation bias, you start seeing it everywhere!

So, people reading this will have already agreed with me, or completely disagreed with me. That supports my point anyway 🙂 I'd challenge people to deliberately go out of their way to observe the opposite of their views, and see if it changes yours.

Stickman's thoughts:

Interesting theory.

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