Five Basic Human Psychological Flaws

In preparation for New Year’s resolutions, LiveScience put together a sort of advice column meets science article with five different scientists each discussing a basic psychological flaw that all humans share. As I’ve said before, I always find this kind of information extremely interesting since it’s something we tend to deny or ignore, when openly acknowledging our unavoidable biases would be the best way of overcoming them. So let’s acknowledge them here!

Check out the article at LiveScience for the full scoop, but here are some excerpts:

1. We Fear the Other

… Social psychologists call this “in-group” bias; cognitive psychologists see its advantages in fluent, speeded-up processing of the familiar. We’re long used to who we are, and so no real thought is necessary to deal with ourselves. Thus, in order to preserve our precious laziness of thought, we heavily invest in surrounding ourselves with people just like us. We segregate into neighborhoods and work and leisure environments where any others closely approximate us in age, race, income, political allegiance and even sexual orientation or the accepted type of facial hair.

The consequence is that we never get to meet anyone who isn’t like us. This, in turn, leads to failing to imagine any Other, and to a loss of desire to even consider the Other as someone who exists, a real human being just like us, except not just like us…

2. We Indulge in Ill-Informed Stereotypes

… I study the brain in love. My colleagues and I have put over 80 men and women into a brain scanner (MRI), and we found no gender differences in romantic passion. This Single in America study tells it like it is: Men are just as eager to find a partner, fall in love, commit long term and raise a family. And the sooner journalists (particularly those writing for women’s magazines), social scientists (particularly those convinced that men are evil), TV and radio talk-show hosts, and all the rest of humanity that berates men begin to embrace these findings, the faster we will find — and keep — the love we want.

3. We Go With Our Gut

The emerging view in psychology is that morality is something we feel more than think. Rather than reasoning our way to decide what is right and what is wrong, there is now overwhelming evidence to suggest that moral evaluations are “gut” reactions that we justify after the fact with what seem like principled arguments…

When victims of misfortune are close to us — when we can see and feel their suffering — we are capable of incredible generosity and self-sacrifice. When our connection to victims is less visceral, however, even when we “know” full well of their suffering in a cognitive sense, we are often unmoved by their plight and able to rationalize our inaction… Our tendency to mistake what we feel for what we think, especially in the realm of moral judgment and
decision-making, plays a central role in intergroup conflict and moral hypocrisy, and because the problem lies as much in our guts as in our minds, it is a challenging weakness to overcome…

4. We Lack Empathy

In my view, the most pervasive limitation in people is the ability to accurately understand the feelings and needs of others, and to fully appreciate their own impact on other people.

This ability is typically conceptualized in terms of “empathy,” “emotional intelligence,” “social intelligence” or “interpersonal intelligence,” and it clearly varies in strength from person to person.

While I think that people broadly recognize the value of this ability for selfish gain (e.g., to be an adept communicator, or to “charm” others), it also plays a critical role in caring for others — empathy most certainly does this in motivating altruistic behavior…

5. We Act Out of Self-Preservation

One of the most disturbing things I have learned about people is that they are very self-protective, sometimes at the expense of others. My research in sexual harassment demonstrates that people will blame others in a manner that protects their own interests. People who unconsciously find themselves to be similar to victims of sexual harassment will assign a relatively stronger level of blame to sexual harassers. This is not particularly disturbing; what is disturbing is that people who unconsciously find themselves to be similar to sexual harassers tend to let people off the hook for sexual harassment and even go so far to blame the victims of the harassment…

These are pretty simple things, as with many biases and fallacies; the notable thing with all of these problems is that we all have them, whether we realize it or not.

If you think about it, all of these issues come down to faults in critical thinking. As the third point notes, we allow ourselves to behave immorally by rationalizing our feelings instead of applying our moral framework to the facts of the case. If we practice putting feelings aside and instead dispassionately analyzing the facts in front of us, we can avoid every one of these issues. That kind of thinking is what makes science go round, so the more we practice thinking like scientists, the easier it may be to stick to our morals instead of our guts. 

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Chronic Human Overconfidence

Why We Reason has a nice short article on overconfidence that I wanted to share, because it’s something that everyone should be taught. 

David Brooks put it best in a recent TED talk: “95 percent of professors report that they are above average teachers, 96 percent of college students say that they have above average social skills… [and] 19% of Americans say that they are in the top 10% of earners.” The list goes on – most people think they are above average drivers, have above average intelligence, humor, etc. You get the idea.

At first this seems like a sort of harmless statistical misestimation, until you get into examples of people whose function it is to predict things. People who have to make predictions for a living are still horrible at it, and horribly overconfident.

Unlike Williams and Gilovich’ study, downsides to overconfidence can sometimes mean the difference between millions of dollars. Here are two examples.

The first is a study conducted throughout the 2000s by a group of professors at Duke University. They asked chief financial officers of large corporations to predict the returns of the Standard & Poor’s index over the course of the following year. Their findings weren’t encouraging; the correlation between their estimates and reality was slightly less than zero. In other words, the CFO’s hadn’t a clue of where the returns were headed.

And yet, it goes on to say, they were grossly overconfident of their predictions. This is a pervasive and rather dramatic human fallacy, and it affects – well, I don’t want to overestimate here, so I’ll say lots of people. Knowing this is important for reasons I’ve touched on before; we as a population need to realize how many fallacies we’re prey to so that we can be much, much more humble than we currently are. Being open to the possibility of being wrong is important in our personal lives, as well as, as is evident from this article, our professional lives, and basically for everyone’s wellbeing. 

Again, the article at Why We Reason is very short and very convincing, so I recommend you check it out if you’re at all interested.

Babies With a Sense of Justice

I always find articles about cognitive development in babies to be fascinating, because they show the threshold of what we consider to be quintessential human traits. Now a study out of the University of British Columbia shows that somewhere between 5 and 8 months old, babies go from always preferring helpful individuals to preferring individuals who are helpful or not according to the behaviour of the recipient.

The research is pretty well described by LiveScience:

So the researchers set up a series of experiments using puppets to act out scenarios of helping and harming while each of 32 5-month-olds and 32 8-month-olds watched separately. After each experiment, the infants indicated their preference for the puppets’ behaviors by picking their favorite puppet to hold.

The puppets — a series of cheerful characters, including moose, elephants and a yellow duck — were first shown interacting in either nice or mean ways. One puppet would struggle to open a box containing a toy, while another either jumped in to help or cruelly slammed the lid shut.

Next, the infants watched as the puppet that had helped or hindered played with a ball and dropped it. A third puppet then came into the scene, either to take the puppet’s ball away or to hand it back…

The researchers wanted to know if the babies would prefer the ball-giving puppet or the one that took the ball away. They found that 5-month-olds always preferred the ball-giver, no matter whether the puppet that had dropped the ball had been mean or helpful in the previous scene. At this young age, the babies simply liked puppets to be nice in the moment.

But 8-month-olds were more discerning. They liked it when the third puppet gave the ball back to a previously helpful puppet. But they didn’t like it when the third puppet helped out a previously unhelpful puppet. In scenarios involving the mean, toy box-slamming puppet, 8-month-olds favored a third puppet taking its ball away by 13 to three.

The researchers then repeated the experiments with 32 toddlers ages 19 months to 23 months, this time adding a twist. The toddlers got to watch puppets being nice or mean to each other and then got to play the role of rewarder or punisher. Some toddlers were shown one nice puppet and one mean puppet and asked which they’d like to share a treat with. Others were shown a nice puppet and a mean puppet, both with treats, and were asked to take a treat away from one.

In all cases, the toddlers meted out justice according to the puppets’ earlier actions. Thirteen of 16 gave a treat to a nice puppet, while 14 of 16 took treats away from a mean puppet.

LiveScience also has a video of the puppet show and the babies choosing a puppet – it’s kind of adorable.

This finding is pretty cool. I wonder what the physical switch is that enables babies to be more discerning, if there is one distinct switch? For some small context, here’s a graph of a person’s change in brain weight over time, where blue is male and red is female:

Data from Dekaban, A.S. and Sadowsky, D., Changes in brain weights during the span of human life: relation of brain weights to body heights and body weights, Ann. Neurology, 4:345-356, 1978, via University of Washington

Notice that babies at the ages used in this experiment (5 or 8 months) have brains less than half the size of an adult, and maybe half that of a 3-year-old. They have a long way to go before everything clicks.

This study, to me, raises the question of which behaviours are learned, and which are ingrained. It seems clear here that a sense of justice, in the sense shown, is probably inherent, or at least the capability to learn it is. I’m also kind of surprised that the babies could distinguish between different puppets who were only distinguished by the colour of their clothes. It’s never caught my interest as a field of study, but I’m starting to understand why people might like developmental biology… 

Birds Perpetuate Cycles of Violence

A study of Nazca boobies from the Galapagos Islands shows that birds that are abused by adult birds as chicks will grow up to abuse other chicks, to no obvious advantage to themselves (maybe less competition for their own chicks?). This is similar to the phenomenon of abused human children being more likely to be abusive in adulthood, and shows that this phenomenon is not so complex that it doesn’t occur in simpler animals.

From Live Science:

Adult Nazca boobies, seabirds that live in colonies on the Galapagos Islands, often beat up on their neighbors’ young. The new research finds these bullied nestlings turn into bullies as adults…

The bird bullies — mostly female — patrol the breeding colonies, waiting for parents to leave their offspring to go forage. Then the adults pounce on the young birds, biting, pecking and even making sexual advances. The young are often left stressed and bleeding…

The finding that abused Nazca babies become victimizers later on is eerily similar to what social scientists have learned about the cycle of abuse in humans. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about 30 percent of abused and neglected children will grow up to victimize their own children.

Researchers even believe that this cycle may have the same root in both birds and humans: Stress hormones surge after bird abuse, according to a recent study by another Wake Forest researcher, doctoral student Jacquelyn Grace.

“It’s fascinating that what many would consider an extremely complex human phenomenon is also occurring — perhaps through the same physiological mechanism — in Nazca boobies, which are more closely related to crocodiles than mammals,” Grace said in a statement. “Both studies suggest Nazca boobies might be a good model system to begin understanding the mechanisms underlying the cycle of violence in humans.”

Man… birds can be jerks. To be fair though, they’re comparing adult birds abusing unrelated chicks to humans abusing their own children. One would seem to be more evolutionarily advantageous than the other, so it’s probably safe to say that the human phenomenon does indeed have its own unique complexities not captured in the bird model. 

Essentialism: Assigning Arbitrary Value

This article from Why We Reason explains (briefly) why people will assign seemingly disproportional value to objects – like celebrities auctioning off their crap for crazy prices.

Bloom’s idea is that we are all essentialists. That is, we pay special attention to the history of an object – where it has been, what it has touched, and who has touched it. As Bloom explains, we subscribe to “the notion that things have an underlying reality or true nature that one cannot observe directly and it is this hidden nature that really matters.” And, moreover, “the pleasure we get from many things and activities is based in part on what we see as their essences.”

McNerney: So evolution did not favor people who weren’t able to think as essentialists?

Bloom: Yes, think about what a disadvantage it would be if you only assess things as they are. Here’s the interesting part, you could argue that humans have taken it too far. We are so caught up in history that we collect irrelevant things. We care about the difference between an original and a forgery.

The explanation is a bit sparse for my liking, but it’s a start. I especially liked one of the things he says: “Bringing in the evolutionary explanation is always helpful and interesting.” I feel like the evolutionary explanation of biology or psychology isn’t always intuitive, but it’s important and informative to always remember the sort of ultimate “why” behind everything about us.

The Backfire Effect

You Are Not So Smart tells us about the backfire effect: when receiving information that contradicts your viewpoint counterintuitively only makes you stick more stubbornly to your opinion.

Geoffrey Munro at the University of California and Peter Ditto at Kent State University concocted a series of fake scientific studies in 1997. One set of studies said homosexuality was probably a mental illness. The other set suggested homosexuality was normal and natural. They then separated subjects into two groups; one group said they believed homosexuality was a mental illness and one did not. Each group then read the fake studies full of pretend facts and figures suggesting their worldview was wrong. On either side of the issue, after reading studies which did not support their beliefs, most people didn’t report an epiphany, a realization they’ve been wrong all these years. Instead, they said the issue was something science couldn’t understand. When asked about other topics later on, like spanking or astrology, these same people said they no longer trusted research to determine the truth. Rather than shed their belief and face facts, they rejected science altogether.

I like You Are Not So Smart because its information is so basic and applies to everyone. This is the kind of stuff we should’ve learned when we were younger. I don’t think knowing about fallacies would actually prevent us from committing them, but at least learning about the ubiquity of our logical fallacies and self delusions would make people aware that we’re wrong, a lot of the damn time, whether we like it or not and whether or not we can even conceive of ourselves being wrong in a given instance. A strong dose of humility for everyone would resolve a lot of conflict, and prevent a lot of poor decisions.

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