The Confirmation Bias in Action: “When I Looked Closer, It’s Obvious I’m Right”

Decision-making biases are challenging, to say the least. Often times, we don’t know that they’re affecting our ability to make logical and rational decisions. The first step in combating these biases is knowing what they are. The next step would then be identifying when we use these biases. On that note, I came across a funny comic that perfectly illustrated the confirmation bias in action.

The confirmation bias is just dripping from this comic. It might not always be easy to see when we’re operating under the confirmation bias, but “luckily,” we might have an easier time of seeing it in someone else.

A couple of years ago, I offered some other ways for combating the confirmation bias (once you know that it’s a thing). One of these ways is a two-pronged approach: seeking out contradictory information. It may sound easy to go out and look for information that doesn’t conform to your opinion, but it can actually be quite difficult. The difficulty is amplified by the fact that much of our social media sites are doing their best to show us content that conforms to our beliefs and opinions (in part because that’s what they think we want). As a result, it *might* be easier to seek out people with contradictory opinions.

When you’re trying to combat the confirmation bias by being exposed to different information, seeking out a person with a contradictory opinion is usually superior to seeking out contradictory information. Why? Because the person can engage with you and refute the things you might mutter under your breath as you’re reading the contradictory information. Essentially, you’d be engaging in the Socratic method.

If seeking out someone with a contradictory opinion sounds interesting to you, I’d encourage you to find someone who’s aware that you’re trying to combat your own confirmation bias. That is, you don’t want your first experience in this regard to be with someone who’s going to screech at you that your ideas are crazy.

All Rivers Lead to the Ocean

All rivers lead to the ocean. All roads lead to Rome. One tree, many branches. There are a number of phrases and idioms with a message that “we’re all connected” in some way. Last summer, I posted a paper (in a series of posts) I wrote that included guidance from many of the world’s religions by way of quotes on a variety of topics. A couple of weeks ago, I came across a post at Lifehacker that I wish I had the time to have written.

The author takes seven lessons from world religions and then finds evidence for those lessons in a given religion’s teachings. I should say, it’s not clear to me whether the author worked forwards (come up with a lesson and then find evidence for that lesson in the text) or backwards (read the religious texts and then conclude there are similarities), but regardless, the quotes from the religious texts do seem to show similarities.

The seven lessons:

  1. The Golden Rule
  2. Work for the happiness of others, especially the poor/unfortunate
  3. Focus on the present
  4. Aim for achievements, not money
  5. Interact with the community
  6. Take responsibility for your actions
  7. Know yourself (make up your own mind)

The author’s parting quote is a succinct piece of advice when it comes to religion:

Stay curious and keep questioning—but also don’t discount the wisdom of the ages.

~

As we get further and further connected through technology, I wonder if we’re actually become further disconnected from ourselves and each other. There are absolutely advantages to being able to reach someone with the swipe of a thumb or the click of a finger, but as a couple of the above lessons seem to indicate, that can make it harder to focus on the present or to know one’s self. If we’re always reaching out and never taking the time to look within, it can certainly make it harder to have a developed sense of self.

Reading my words or someone else’s words likely won’t convince you to “go within.” It has to be a decision you make on your own. A switch inside of you that decides… it’s time. My wish for you: that time is sooner rather than later.

The Problem with Big Data: Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

I’ve used the subtitle in a previous post and I think the application to the content of this post also makes it worthwhile to use again. I was reading a post from Tim Ferriss the other day and it made me think of statistics. The post is about alternative medicine, but understanding that isn’t entirely necessary for the point I’m making. Here’s some context:

Imagine you catch a cold or get the flu. It’s going to get worse and worse, then better and better until you are back to normal. The severity of symptoms, as is true with many injuries, will probably look something like a bell curve.

The bottom flat line, representing normalcy, is the mean. When are you most likely to try the quackiest shit you can get your hands on? That miracle duck extract Aunt Susie swears by? The crystals your roommate uses to open his heart chakra? Naturally, when your symptoms are the worst and nothing seems to help. This is the very top of the bell curve, at the peak of the roller coaster before you head back down. Naturally heading back down is regression toward the mean.

If you are a fallible human, as we all are, you might misattribute getting better to the duck extract, but it was just coincidental timing.

The body had healed itself, as could be predicted from the bell curve–like timeline of symptoms. Mistaking correlation for causation is very common, even among smart people.

And the important part of the quote [Emphasis Added]:

In the world of “big data,” this mistake will become even more common, particularly if researchers seek to “let the data speak for themselves” rather than test hypotheses.

Spurious connections galore–that’s what the data will say, among other things.  Caveat emptor.

This analogy reminded me of the first time I learned about correlation and causation in my first psychology class as an undergraduate. It had to do with ice cream, hot summer days, and swimming pools. In fact, here’s a quick summary from wiki:

An example of a spurious relationship can be illuminated by examining a city’s ice cream sales. These sales are highest when the rate of drownings in city swimming pools is highest. To allege that ice cream sales cause drowning, or vice-versa, would be to imply a spurious relationship between the two. In reality, a heat wave may have caused both. The heat wave is an example of a hidden or unseen variable, also known as a confounding variable.

Getting back to what Ferriss was saying near the end of his quote: as “Big Data” grows in popularity (and use), there may be an increased likelihood of making errors in the form of spurious relationships. One way to mitigate this error is education. That is, if the people who are handling Big Data know and understand things like correlation vs. causation and spurious relationships, these errors may be less likely to occur.

I suppose it’s also possible that some, knowing about these kinds of errors and how little the average person might know when it comes to statistics, could maliciously report statistics based on numbers. I’d like to think that people aren’t doing this and it just has more to do with confirmation bias.

Regardless, one way to guard against this inaccurate reporting would be to use hypotheses. That is, before you look at the data, make a prediction about what you’ll find in the data. It’s certainly not going to solve all the issues, but it’ll go a long way towards doing so.

How History’s Most Famous People Scheduled Their Day Doesn’t Matter

Last month, there was a chart that was making its way around showing how some of the most famous creative people scheduled their day.

To be perfectly honest, how they scheduled their day should have little to no effect on how you schedule your day. I appreciated that some articles (like the one from Mic) acknowledged part of the issue:

Since the greats examined here were already generally well-off and moderately successful before the peak of their careers, it’s hard to tell whether the schedules helped them reach success or were a product of it.

The sentence that follows is the most important of the article:

But what is clear is that the vast majority spent large stretches of time doing intellectual and creative work on a regular basis.

Trying to plan how you should spend your day based on how da Vinci or Picasso spent their days is ludicrous. They lived in a completely different time than we do. More than that, the ways that they schedule their days might not be the most advantageous way for you to structure your day. That is, maybe you’re not an early riser — maybe you’re a night owl. Or maybe you’re a hybrid in that some days you stay up late and some days you wake up early.

As the article in Mic alludes to near the end, but doesn’t outright say, there are only two important things to consider here: sleep and exercise. Time and time again, research has shown positive correlations between sleep and creativity and exercise and creativity. If you want to be creative, there’s a better chance that you’ll be successful if you get enough sleep and you get some exercise. Everything else is optional.

To Tech or Not To Tech: Hiking the Appalachian Trail

It’s hard to believe that it’s only been 1 month since my last post. It feels like the last time I wrote something was ages ago. In March, I said that I intended on writing something once a week, but I suppose having an infant, moving, and preparing to start a new job have made that a little harder than I imagined. Nonetheless, I stole away some time today to write about technology and the Appalachian Trail (AT).

A few summers ago (actually, now that I think about it, it was 6 years ago), I had the good fortune to spend some time hiking on the Appalachian Trail. It was my first time on an extended hike and I really enjoyed it. While on the hike, I learned that the trail spans 14 states including the beginning/end in Maine/Georgia. Many folks try to hike the whole thing in a summer. Lots succeed, but many more give up. When I hiked part of the AT in 2008, technology wasn’t as advanced as it is today (obviously), but I was wondering how I might want to approach this subject when I decide to hike the AT again.

This thought was sparked by a post in Scientific American bemoaning the use of technology on the trail. I can see where she’s coming from — for sure. Most people decide to go into nature to get away from technology. She also makes some good points as to how technology can help in an emergency (read: bear eats pack).

I think if I were to hike the AT tomorrow, I might bring along a MacBook Air — for the sole purpose of writing. That is, I’d intend to do like David Roberts did and take a hiatus from social media (which for me, mainly means Twitter). I say intend because I’ve learned that making hard-and-fast rules can sometimes make things more difficult to uphold. I suppose I could not get some sort of data plan and therefore it would be quite difficult to check things like Twitter.

When I do decide to hike the whole of the AT (sometime in the next 30 years), our relationship to technology may be very different. Maybe Google Glass (or an iteration thereof) might be more user-friendly. Maybe it’ll be ingrained in the way we live our days like smartphones have become. Maybe there’ll be something after Google Glass and something beyond the impending smartwatches. Regardless of how technology evolves, we’ll always be left with the choice: to tech or not to tech.

How to Solve the Password Problem: Teach Kids When They’re Young

I came across an article a few days ago that explained how to teach humans to remember really complex passwords. As I was reading it, I couldn’t help but think that there’s an important piece to the solution to helping humans remember really complex passwords: habit.

When we first started using computers, coming up with a super-difficult password wasn’t necessary as we were usually just trying to keep our stuff protected from our family members. Then, it was trying to keep things protected from our co-workers. Slowly, that grew and grew until now, someone (or something!) on the other side of the planet can figure out your password and hack into your online accounts.

I wonder, if we were taught how to come up with complex passwords when we were younger, would there still be such a high percentage of people using easy-to-crack passwords? That is, if we only knew passwords to be in the form of “passphrases,” would someone still try to use a word as their password? While there would still probably be some, my guess is that the percentage would drop.

So, how do we teach our kids to use smarter passwords? Well, assuming that kids at some point are still taught how to type in school, I see this as the perfect opportunity to also teach them about how to use passphrases for accounts. Assuming that students will have to logon to a computer to use the program that teaches them how to type, this is the best time to imprint the habit of using an effective password.

Of course, this won’t solve the problem of all the people out there today who still use “password” or “1234password” for their password, but it will help to correct problem by not adding more people to the number of people who use poor password habits.

~

Extending this idea, there may still be some adults or teens out there who are still learning how to type. In these cases, we could have the software that is teaching them how to type also teach them about good password habits. If the adults are learning how to type in some sort of class, this could also be a good place to teach them about good password habits.

A Lesson in Overcomplicated: Gender-Neutral Washrooms

If you’ve ever been part of an organization, there’s a better chance than not that you’ve been involved in a meeting where at some point, you found yourself thinking, “what the heck are we doing?” Well, hopefully you’ve found yourself saying that, otherwise you might have fallen into the trap of overcomplicating something.

There was a great (and short!) post on Pacific Standard about the “problem” of a sign for a gender-neutral bathroom:

“But what would you put on the door?!” said a facility manager at an airport, his concern echoed by an administrator at a university: “When people are looking for a restroom, they look for the ‘man’ or ‘woman’ icon. It’s what we know to look for that means restroom.”

And the sign that answers this problem:

Wow, right?

This situation is a perfect example of how overthinking something can lead to a terrible and overcomplicated solution. Is this sign really necessary to signify that there’s a toilet behind the door (or around the corner, in the case of many airports)? Absolutely not.

While there are many problems we can talk about, let’s look at the key issue: false dilemma. Presumably, upon trying to to develop a solution to this problem, the people in the meeting thought that something had to be added to the existing sign. That is, the sign is usually a little man or a little woman, so we’ve got to make it resemble that little man or woman or people might be confused. There are clearly more options than creating that weird looking sign. From the post, there’s this sign offered:

That seems like a pretty good alternative to me. It’s universal in that many people know what a toilet looks like. To be sure, the person who came up with the idea of this pictorial representation took his laptop to a coffee shop to ask patrons if they could hazard a guess as to what was being the sign: 100% of participants were able to identify what would be behind a door with this sign on it. The author, obviously in jest, explained that his research was limited to a corner in Philadelphia, but I think it’s safe to say that most people would be able to perform as well as his participants.

So, the next time you’re in a meeting where your team is trying to come up with an idea that uses an existing structure/idea, double-check that it might not be better to approach the problem from a different perspective.