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More Faults in Human Thought

by Guy McCardle

August 1, 2011

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Donate Our brains are amazing, but certainly not infallible. The items that follow are examples of cognitive bias. A cognitive bias is a pattern of poor judgment often triggered by a particular situation. This can lead to perceptual distortion or illogical interpretation of facts or situations. What follows are five common examples:

Self-fulfilling Prophesy - A self-fulfilling prophecy is simply a prediction that causes itself to become true. For example, assume that I am nervous and I believe I am going to do poorly in Astrophysics class. Because of this belief I stop putting effort into my studies and quit paying attention in class. What is the result? I end up doing poorly, just like I thought I would.

Herd Mentality - This is also known as "mob mentality" and is basically peer pressure. It is the tendency to adopt the opinions and follow the behaviors of the majority to feel safer and to avoid conflict. This explains, I suppose, the phenomenon of ultra baggy low-rider pants and the success of Lady Gaga.

Reactance - This is the urge to do the opposite of what someone wants you to do out of a need to resist a perceived attempt to constrain your freedom of choice. It is a form of rebellion against authority. As you might imagine, reactance is common among teenagers. "Reverse psychology" is form of reactance that works particularly well on children. Just tell them to do the opposite of what you really want, and they will rebel and actually end up doing what you want. Sometimes.

Hyperbolic Discounting - It is the tendency for people to prefer a smaller, immediate payoff over a larger, delayed payoff. Would you rather have me give you $20 right now or $100 a year from now? Most people would choose the $20 today. Multiple studies show this. On a larger scale, hyperbolic discounting is what accounts for lottery winners taking a fraction of their prize in a lump sum instead of getting the whole thing paid in annuities over time. Ever see those "I need cash now" commercials? Companies make a good deal of money from this.

Escalation of Commitment - In military circles we can pretty much describe this with one word, Vietnam (I won't comment on current conflicts). Escalation of commitment is the tendency for people to continue to support previously unsuccessful endeavors. All human beings have numerous decisions to make and inevitably some will have bad outcomes. The logical thing to do in these instances is to change that decision or try to reverse it. Sometimes, however, people feel compelled not only to stick with their decision, but also to further invest in that decision because they have already made such a large expenditure.

Suppose I have invested most of my life savings in homeopathic snake oil, but it turns out that no one wants to buy it. After a couple months it is obvious that my business is going to fail. The logical thing to do would be to cut my losses and drop the business. However, man not being a logical creature and because I have so much of my savings involved, I feel committed to the business and invest even more money into the endeavor hoping that the additional cash will turn the business around. This is also what is known in my family as "throwing good money after bad".

by Guy McCardle

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