The Social Priming Studies in “Thinking Fast and Slow” are not very replicable

train_wreck_at_montparnasse_1895In Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” he introduces research on social priming – the idea that subtle cues in the environment may have significant, reliable effects on behaviour. In that book, published in 2011, Kahneman writes “disbelief is not an option” about these results. Since then, the evidence against the reliability of social priming research has been mounting.

In a new analysis, ‘Reconstruction of a Train Wreck: How Priming Research Went off the Rails‘, Ulrich Schimmack, Moritz Heene, and Kamini Kesavan review chapter 4 of Thinking Fast and Slow, picking out the references which provide evidence for social priming and calculating how statistically reliable they:

Their conclusion:

The results are eye-opening and jaw-dropping.  The chapter cites 12 articles and 11 of the 12 articles have an R-Index below 50.  The combined analysis of 31 studies reported in the 12 articles shows 100% significant results with average (median) observed power of 57% and an inflation rate of 43%.  …readers of… “Thinking Fast and Slow” should not consider the presented studies as scientific evidence that subtle cues in their environment can have strong effects on their behavior outside their awareness.

The argument is that the pattern of 100% significant results is near to impossible, even if the effects known were true, given the weak statistical power of the studies to detect true effects.

Remarkably, Kahneman responds in the comments:

What the blog gets absolutely right is that I placed too much faith in underpowered studies. …I have changed my views about the size of behavioral priming effects – they cannot be as large and as robust as my chapter suggested.

The original analysis, and Kahneman’s response are worth reading in full. Together they give a potted history of the replication crisis, and a summary of some of the prime causes (e.g. file draw effects), as well as showing off how mature psychological scientists can make, and respond to critique.

Original analysis: ‘Reconstruction of a Train Wreck: How Priming Research Went off the Rails‘, Ulrich Schimmack, Moritz Heene, and Kamini Kesavan. (Is it a paper? Is it a blogpost? Who knows?!)

Kahneman’s response

How to overcome bias

How do you persuade somebody of the facts? Asking them to be fair, impartial and unbiased is not enough. To explain why, psychologist Tom Stafford analyses a classic scientific study.

One of the tricks our mind plays is to highlight evidence which confirms what we already believe. If we hear gossip about a rival we tend to think “I knew he was a nasty piece of work”; if we hear the same about our best friend we’re more likely to say “that’s just a rumour”. If you don’t trust the government then a change of policy is evidence of their weakness; if you do trust them the same change of policy can be evidence of their inherent reasonableness.

Once you learn about this mental habit – called confirmation bias – you start seeing it everywhere.

This matters when we want to make better decisions. Confirmation bias is OK as long as we’re right, but all too often we’re wrong, and we only pay attention to the deciding evidence when it’s too late.

How we should to protect our decisions from confirmation bias depends on why, psychologically, confirmation bias happens. There are, broadly, two possible accounts and a classic experiment from researchers at Princeton University pits the two against each other, revealing in the process a method for overcoming bias.

The first theory of confirmation bias is the most common. It’s the one you can detect in expressions like “You just believe what you want to believe”, or “He would say that, wouldn’t he?” or when the someone is accused of seeing things a particular way because of who they are, what their job is or which friends they have. Let’s call this the motivational theory of confirmation bias. It has a clear prescription for correcting the bias: change people’s motivations and they’ll stop being biased.

The alternative theory of confirmation bias is more subtle. The bias doesn’t exist because we only believe what we want to believe, but instead because we fail to ask the correct questions about new information and our own beliefs. This is a less neat theory, because there could be one hundred reasons why we reason incorrectly – everything from limitations of memory to inherent faults of logic. One possibility is that we simply have a blindspot in our imagination for the ways the world could be different from how we first assume it is. Under this account the way to correct confirmation bias is to give people a strategy to adjust their thinking. We assume people are already motivated to find out the truth, they just need a better method. Let’s call this the cognition theory of confirmation bias.

Thirty years ago, Charles Lord and colleagues published a classic experiment which pitted these two methods against each other. Their study used a persuasion experiment which previously had shown a kind of confirmation bias they called ‘biased assimilation’. Here, participants were recruited who had strong pro- or anti-death penalty views and were presented with evidence that seemed to support the continuation or abolition of the death penalty. Obviously, depending on what you already believe, this evidence is either confirmatory or disconfirmatory. Their original finding showed that the nature of the evidence didn’t matter as much as what people started out believing. Confirmatory evidence strengthened people’s views, as you’d expect, but so did disconfirmatory evidence. That’s right, anti-death penalty people became more anti-death penalty when shown pro-death penalty evidence (and vice versa). A clear example of biased reasoning.

For their follow-up study, Lord and colleagues re-ran the biased assimilation experiment, but testing two types of instructions for assimilating evidence about the effectiveness of the death penalty as a deterrent for murder. The motivational instructions told participants to be “as objective and unbiased as possible”, to consider themselves “as a judge or juror asked to weigh all of the evidence in a fair and impartial manner”. The alternative, cognition-focused, instructions were silent on the desired outcome of the participants’ consideration, instead focusing only on the strategy to employ: “Ask yourself at each step whether you would have made the same high or low evaluations had exactly the same study produced results on the other side of the issue.” So, for example, if presented with a piece of research that suggested the death penalty lowered murder rates, the participants were asked to analyse the study’s methodology and imagine the results pointed the opposite way.

They called this the “consider the opposite” strategy, and the results were striking. Instructed to be fair and impartial, participants showed the exact same biases when weighing the evidence as in the original experiment. Pro-death penalty participants thought the evidence supported the death penalty. Anti-death penalty participants thought it supported abolition. Wanting to make unbiased decisions wasn’t enough. The “consider the opposite” participants, on the other hand, completely overcame the biased assimilation effect – they weren’t driven to rate the studies which agreed with their preconceptions as better than the ones that disagreed, and didn’t become more extreme in their views regardless of which evidence they read.

The finding is good news for our faith in human nature. It isn’t that we don’t want to discover the truth, at least in the microcosm of reasoning tested in the experiment. All people needed was a strategy which helped them overcome the natural human short-sightedness to alternatives.

The moral for making better decisions is clear: wanting to be fair and objective alone isn’t enough. What’s needed are practical methods for correcting our limited reasoning – and a major limitation is our imagination for how else things might be. If we’re lucky, someone else will point out these alternatives, but if we’re on our own we can still take advantage of crutches for the mind like the “consider the opposite” strategy.

This is my BBC Future column from last week. You can read the original here. My ebook For argument’s sake: Evidence that reason can change minds is out now.

echo chambers: old psych, new tech

If you were surprised by the result of the Brexit vote in the UK or by the Trump victory in the US, you might live in an echo chamber – a self-reinforcing world of people who share the same opinions as you. Echo chambers are a problem, and not just because it means some people make incorrect predictions about political events. They threaten our democratic conversation, splitting up the common ground of assumption and fact that is needed for diverse people to talk to each other.

Echo chambers aren’t just a product of the internet and social media, however, but of how those things interact with fundamental features of human nature. Understand these features of human nature and maybe we can think creatively about ways to escape them.

Built-in bias

One thing that drives echo chambers is our tendency to associate with people like us. Sociologists call this homophily. We’re more likely to make connections with people who are similar to us. That’s true for ethnicity, age, gender, education and occupation (and, of course, geography), as well as a range of other dimensions. We’re also more likely to lose touch with people who aren’t like us, further strengthening the niches we find ourselves in. Homophily is one reason obesity can seem contagious – people who are at risk of gaining weight are disproportionately more likely to hang out with each other and share an environment that encourages obesity.

Another factor that drives the echo chamber is our psychological tendency to seek information that confirms what we already know – often called confirmation bias. Worse, even when presented with evidence to the contrary, we show a tendency to dismiss it and even harden our convictions. This means that even if you break into someone’s echo chamber armed with facts that contradict their view, you’re unlikely to persuade them with those facts alone.

News as information and identity

More and more of us get our news primarily from social media and use that same social media to discuss the news.

Social media takes our natural tendencies to associate with similar minded people and seek information that confirms and amplifies our convictions. Dan Kahan, professor of law and psychology at Yale, describes each of us switching between two modes of information processing – identity affirming and truth seeking. The result is that for issues that, for whatever reasons, become associated with a group identity, even the most informed or well educated can believe radically different things because believing those things is tied up with signalling group identity more than a pursuit of evidence.

Mitigating human foibles

Where we go from here isn’t clear. The fundamentals of human psychology won’t just go away, but they do change depending on the environment we’re in. If technology and the technological economy reinforce the echo chamber, we can work to reshape these forces so as to mitigate it.

We can recognise that a diverse and truth-seeking media is a public good. That means it is worth supporting – both in established forms like the BBC, and in new forms like Wikipedia and The Conversation.

We can support alternative funding models for non-public media. Paying for news may seem old-fashioned, but there are long-term benefits. New ways of doing it are popping up. Services such as Blendle let you access news stories that are behind a pay wall by offering a pay-per-article model.

Technology can also help with individual solutions to the echo chamber, if you’re so minded. For Twitter users, otherside.site let’s you view the feed of any other Twitter user, so if you want to know what Nigel Farage or Donald Trump read on Twitter, you can. (I wouldn’t bother with Trump. He only follows 41 people – mostly family and his own businesses. Now that’s an echo chamber.)

For Facebook users, politecho.org is a browser extension that shows the political biases of your friends and Facebook newsfeed. If you want a shortcut, this Wall Street Journal article puts Republican and Democratic Facebook feeds side-by-side.

Of course, these things don’t remove the echo chamber, but they do highlight the extent to which you’re in one, and – as with other addictions – recognising that you have a problem is the first step to recovery.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How liars create the illusion of truth

Repetition makes a fact seem more true, regardless of whether it is or not. Understanding this effect can help you avoid falling for propaganda, says psychologist Tom Stafford.

“Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth”, is a law of propaganda often attributed to the Nazi Joseph Goebbels. Among psychologists something like this known as the “illusion of truth” effect. Here’s how a typical experiment on the effect works: participants rate how true trivia items are, things like “A prune is a dried plum”. Sometimes these items are true (like that one), but sometimes participants see a parallel version which isn’t true (something like “A date is a dried plum”).

After a break – of minutes or even weeks – the participants do the procedure again, but this time some of the items they rate are new, and some they saw before in the first phase. The key finding is that people tend to rate items they’ve seen before as more likely to be true, regardless of whether they are true or not, and seemingly for the sole reason that they are more familiar.

So, here, captured in the lab, seems to be the source for the saying that if you repeat a lie often enough it becomes the truth. And if you look around yourself, you may start to think that everyone from advertisers to politicians are taking advantage of this foible of human psychology.

But a reliable effect in the lab isn’t necessarily an important effect on people’s real-world beliefs. If you really could make a lie sound true by repetition, there’d be no need for all the other techniques of persuasion.

One obstacle is what you already know. Even if a lie sounds plausible, why would you set what you know aside just because you heard the lie repeatedly?

Recently, a team led by Lisa Fazio of Vanderbilt University set out to test how the illusion of truth effect interacts with our prior knowledge. Would it affect our existing knowledge? They used paired true and un-true statements, but also split their items according to how likely participants were to know the truth (so “The Pacific Ocean is the largest ocean on Earth” is an example of a “known” items, which also happens to be true, and “The Atlantic Ocean is the largest ocean on Earth” is an un-true item, for which people are likely to know the actual truth).

Their results show that the illusion of truth effect worked just as strongly for known as for unknown items, suggesting that prior knowledge won’t prevent repetition from swaying our judgements of plausibility.

To cover all bases, the researchers performed one study in which the participants were asked to rate how true each statement seemed on a six-point scale, and one where they just categorised each fact as “true” or “false”. Repetition pushed the average item up the six-point scale, and increased the odds that a statement would be categorised as true. For statements that were actually fact or fiction, known or unknown, repetition made them all seem more believable.

At first this looks like bad news for human rationality, but – and I can’t emphasise this strongly enough – when interpreting psychological science, you have to look at the actual numbers.

What Fazio and colleagues actually found, is that the biggest influence on whether a statement was judged to be true was… whether it actually was true. The repetition effect couldn’t mask the truth. With or without repetition, people were still more likely to believe the actual facts as opposed to the lies.

This shows something fundamental about how we update our beliefs – repetition has a power to make things sound more true, even when we know differently, but it doesn’t over-ride that knowledge

The next question has to be, why might that be? The answer is to do with the effort it takes to being rigidly logical about every piece of information you hear. If every time you heard something you assessed it against everything you already knew, you’d still be thinking about breakfast at supper-time. Because we need to make quick judgements, we adopt shortcuts – heuristics which are right more often than wrong. Relying on how often you’ve heard something to judge how truthful something feels is just one strategy. Any universe where truth gets repeated more often than lies, even if only 51% vs 49% will be one where this is a quick and dirty rule for judging facts.

If repetition was the only thing that influenced what we believed we’d be in trouble, but it isn’t. We can all bring to bear more extensive powers of reasoning, but we need to recognise they are a limited resource. Our minds are prey to the illusion of truth effect because our instinct is to use short-cuts in judging how plausible something is. Often this works. Sometimes it is misleading.

Once we know about the effect we can guard against it. Part of this is double-checking why we believe what we do – if something sounds plausible is it because it really is true, or have we just been told that repeatedly? This is why scholars are so mad about providing references – so we can track the origin on any claim, rather than having to take it on faith.

But part of guarding against the illusion is the obligation it puts on us to stop repeating falsehoods. We live in a world where the facts matter, and should matter. If you repeat things without bothering to check if they are true, you are helping to make a world where lies and truth are easier to confuse. So, please, think before you repeat.

This is my BBC Future column from the other week, the original is here. For more on this topic, see my ebook : For argument’s sake: evidence that reason can change minds (smashwords link here)

How curiosity can save you from political tribalism

Neither intelligence nor education can stop you from forming prejudiced opinions – but an inquisitive attitude may help you make wiser judgements.

Ask a left-wing Brit what they believe about the safety of nuclear power, and you can guess their answer. Ask a right-wing American about the risks posed by climate change, and you can also make a better guess than if you didn’t know their political affiliation. Issues like these feel like they should be informed by science, not our political tribes, but sadly, that’s not what happens.

Psychology has long shown that education and intelligence won’t stop your politics from shaping your broader worldview, even if those beliefs do not match the hard evidence. Instead, your ability to weigh up the facts may depend on a less well-recognised trait – curiosity.

The political lens

There is now a mountain of evidence to show that politics doesn’t just help predict people’s views on some scientific issues; it also affects how they interpret new information. This is why it is a mistake to think that you can somehow ‘correct’ people’s views on an issue by giving them more facts, since study after study has shown that people have a tendency to selectively reject facts that don’t fit with their existing views.

This leads to the odd situation that people who are most extreme in their anti-science views – for example skeptics of the risks of climate change – are more scientifically informed than those who hold anti-science views but less strongly.

But smarter people shouldn’t be susceptible to prejudice swaying their opinions, right? Wrong. Other research shows that people with the most education, highest mathematical abilities, and the strongest tendencies to be reflective about their beliefs are the most likely to resist information which should contradict their prejudices. This undermines the simplistic assumption that prejudices are the result of too much gut instinct and not enough deep thought. Rather, people who have the facility for deeper thought about an issue can use those cognitive powers to justify what they already believe and find reasons to dismiss apparently contrary evidence.

It’s a messy picture, and at first looks like a depressing one for those who care about science and reason. A glimmer of hope can be found in new research from a collaborative team of philosophers, film-makers and psychologists led by Dan Kahan of Yale University.

Kahan and his team were interested in politically biased information processing, but also in studying the audience for scientific documentaries and using this research to help film-makers. They developed two scales. The first measured a person’s scientific background, a fairly standard set of questions asking about knowledge of basic scientific facts and methods, as well as quantitative judgement and reasoning. The second scale was more innovative. The idea of this scale was to measure something related but independent – a person’s curiosity about scientific issues, not how much they already knew. This second scale was also innovative in how they measured scientific curiosity. As well as asking some questions, they also gave people choices about what material to read as part of a survey about reactions to news. If an individual chooses to read about science stories rather than sports or politics, their corresponding science curiosity score was marked up.

Armed with their scales, the team then set out to see how they predicted people’s opinions on public issues which should be informed by science. With the scientific knowledge scale the results were depressingly predictable. The left-wing participants – liberal Democrats – tended to judge issues such as global warming or fracking as significant risks to human health, safety or prosperity. The right-wing participants – conservative Republicans – were less likely to judge the issues as significant risks. What’s more, the liberals with more scientific background were most concerned about the risks, while the conservatives with more scientific background were least concerned. That’s right – higher levels of scientific education results in a greater polarisation between the groups, not less.

So much for scientific background, but scientific curiosity showed a different pattern. Differences between liberals and conservatives still remained – on average there was still a noticeable gap in their estimates of the risks – but their opinions were at least heading in the same direction. For fracking for example, more scientific curiosity was associated with more concern, for both liberals and conservatives.

The team confirmed this using an experiment which gave participants a choice of science stories, either in line with their existing beliefs, or surprising to them. Those participants who were high in scientific curiosity defied the predictions and selected stories which contradicted their existing beliefs – this held true whether they were liberal or conservative.

And, in case you are wondering, the results hold for issues in which political liberalism is associated with the anti-science beliefs, such as attitudes to GMO or vaccinations.

So, curiosity might just save us from using science to confirm our identity as members of a political tribe. It also shows that to promote a greater understanding of public issues, it is as important for educators to try and convey their excitement about science and the pleasures of finding out stuff, as it is to teach people some basic curriculum of facts.

This is my BBC Future column from last week. The original is here. My ebook ‘For argument’s sake: evidence that reason can change minds’ is out now

The two word games that trick almost everyone

270px-Cowicon.svgPlaying two classic schoolyard games can help us understand everything from sexism to the power of advertising.

There’s a word game we used to play at my school, or a sort of trick, and it works like this. You tell someone they have to answer some questions as quickly as possible, and then you rush at them the following:

“What’s one plus four?!”
“What’s five plus two?!”
“What’s seven take away three?!”
“Name a vegetable?!”

Nine times out of 10 people answer the last question with “Carrot”.

Now I don’t think the magic is in the maths questions. Probably they just warm your respondent up to answering questions rapidly. What is happening is that, for most people, most of the time, in all sorts of circumstances, carrot is simply the first vegetable that comes to mind.

This seemingly banal fact reveals something about how our minds organise information. There are dozens of vegetables, and depending on your love of fresh food you might recognise a good proportion. If you had to list them you’d probably forget a few you know, easily reaching a dozen and then slowing down. And when you’re pressured to name just one as quickly as possible, you forget even more and just reach for the most obvious vegetable you can think of – and often that’s a carrot.

In cognitive science, we say the carrot is “prototypical” – for our idea of a vegetable, it occupies the centre of the web of associations which defines the concept. You can test prototypicality directly by timing how long it takes someone to answer whether the object in question belongs to a particular category. We take longer to answer “yes” if asked “is a penguin a bird?” than if asked “is a robin a bird?”, for instance. Even when we know penguins are birds, the idea of penguins takes longer to connect to the category “bird” than more typical species.

So, something about our experience of school dinners, being told they’ll help us see in the dark, the 37 million tons of carrots the world consumes each year, and cartoon characters from Bugs Bunny to Olaf the Snowman, has helped carrots work their way into our minds as the prime example of a vegetable.

The benefit to this system of mental organisation is that the ideas which are most likely to be associated are also the ones which spring to mind when you need them. If I ask you to imagine a costumed superhero, you know they have a cape, can probably fly and there’s definitely a star-shaped bubble when they punch someone. Prototypes organise our experience of the world, telling us what to expect, whether it is a superhero or a job interview. Life would be impossible without them.

The drawback is that the things which connect together because of familiarity aren’t always the ones which should connect together because of logic. Another game we used to play proves this point. You ask someone to play along again and this time you ask them to say “Milk” 20 times as fast as they can. Then you challenge them to snap-respond to the question “What do cows drink?”. The fun is in seeing how many people answer “milk”. A surprising number do, allowing you to crow “Cows drink water, stupid!”. We drink milk, and the concept is closely connected to the idea of cows, so it is natural to accidentally pull out the answer “milk” when we’re fishing for the first thing that comes to mind in response to the ideas “drink” and “cow”.

Having a mind which supplies ready answers based on association is better than a mind which never supplies ready answers, but it can also produce blunders that are much more damaging than claiming cows drink milk. Every time we assume the doctor is a man and the nurse is woman, we’re falling victim to the ready answers of our mental prototypes of those professions. Such prototypes, however mistaken, may also underlie our readiness to assume a man will be a better CEO, or a philosophy professor won’t be a woman. If you let them guide how the world should be, rather than what it might be, you get into trouble pretty quickly.

Advertisers know the power of prototypes too, of course, which is why so much advertising appears to be style over substance. Their job isn’t to deliver a persuasive message, as such. They don’t want you to actively believe anything about their product being provably fun, tasty or healthy. Instead, they just want fun, taste or health to spring to mind when you think of their product (and the reverse). Worming their way into our mental associations is worth billions of dollars to the advertising industry, and it is based on a principle no more complicated than a childhood game which tries to trick you into saying “carrots”.

This is my BBC Future column from last week. The original is here. And, yes, I know that baby cows actually do drink milk.

The Devil’s Wager: when a wrong choice isn’t an error

Devil faceThe Devil looks you in the eyes and offers you a bet. Pick a number and if you successfully guess the total he’ll roll on two dice you get to keep your soul. If any other number comes up, you go to burn in eternal hellfire.

You call “7” and the Devil rolls the dice.

A two and a four, so the total is 6 — that’s bad news.

But let’s not dwell on the incandescent pain of your infinite and inescapable future, let’s think about your choice immediately before the dice were rolled.

Did you make a mistake? Was choosing “7” an error?

In one sense, obviously yes. You should have chosen 6.

But in another important sense you made the right choice. There are more combinations of dice outcomes that add to 7 than to any other number. The chances of winning if you bet 7 are higher than for any other single number.

The distinction is between a particular choice which happens to be wrong, and a choice strategy which is actually as good as you can do in the circumstances. If we replace the Devil’s Wager with the situations the world presents you, and your choice of number with your actions in response, then we have a handle on what psychologists mean when they talk about “cognitive error” or “bias”.

In psychology, the interesting errors are not decisions that just happen to turn out wrong. The interesting errors are decisions which people systematically get wrong, and get wrong in a particular way. As well as being predictable, these errors are interesting because they must be happening for a reason.

If you met a group of people who always bet “6” when gambling with the Devil, you’d be an incurious person if you assumed they were simply idiots. That judgement doesn’t lead anywhere. Instead, you’d want to find out what they believe that makes them think that’s the right choice strategy. Similarly, when psychologists find that people will pay more to keep something than they’d pay to obtain it or are influenced by irrelevant information in the judgements of risk, there’s no profit to labelling this “irrationality” and leaving it at that. The interesting question is why these choices seem common to so many people. What is it about our minds that disposes us to make these same errors, to have in common the same choice strategies?

You can get traction on the shape of possible answers from the Devil’s Wager example. In this scenario, why would you bet “6” rather than “7”? Here are three possible general reasons, and their explanations in the terms of the Devil’s Wager, and also a real example.

 

1. Strategy is optimised for a different environment

If you expected the Devil to role a single loaded die, rather than a fair pair of dice, then calling “6” would be the best strategy, rather than a sub-optimal one.
Analogously, you can understand a psychological bias by understanding which environment is it intended to match. If I love sugary foods so much it makes me fat, part of the explanation may be that my sugar cravings evolved at a point in human history when starvation was a bigger risk than obesity.

 

2. Strategy is designed for a bundle of choices

If you know you’ll only get to pick one number to cover multiple bets, your best strategy is to pick a number which works best over all bets. So if the Devil is going to give you best of ten, and most of the time he’ll roll a single loaded die, and only some times roll two fair dice, then “6” will give you the best total score, even though it is less likely to win for the two-fair-dice wager.

In general, what looks like a poor choice may be the result of strategy which treats a class of decisions as the same, and produces a good answer for that whole set. It is premature to call our decision making irrational if we look at a single choice, which is the focus of the psychologist’s experiment, and not the related set of choice of which it is part.

An example from the literature may be the Mere Exposure Effect, where we favour something we’ve seen before merely because we’ve seen it before. In experiments, this preference looks truly arbitrary, because the experiment decided which stimuli to expose us to and which to withhold, but in everyday life our familiarity with things tracks important variables such as how common, safe or sought out things are. The Mere Exposure Effect may result from a feature of our minds that assumes, all other things being equal, that familiar things are preferable, and that’s probably a good general strategy.

 

3. Strategy uses a different cost/benefit analysis

Obviously, we’re assuming everyone wants to save their soul and avoid damnation. If you felt like you didn’t deserve heaven, harps and angel wings, or that hellfire sounds comfortably warm, then you might avoid making the bet-winning optimal choice.

By extension, we should only call a choice irrational or suboptimal if we know what people are trying to optimise. For example, it looks like people systematically under-explore new ways of doing things when learning skills. Is this reliance on habit, similar to confirmation bias when exploring competing hypotheses, irrational? Well, in the sense that it slows your learning down, it isn’t optimal, but if it exists because exploration carries a risk (you might get the action catastrophically wrong, you might hurt yourself), or that the important thing is to minimise the cost of acting (and habitual movements require less energy), then it may in fact be better than reckless exploration.

 

So if we see a perplexing behaviour, we might reach for one of these explanations to explain it: The behaviour is right for a different environment, a wider set of choices, or a different cost/benefit analysis. Only when we are confident that we understand the environment (either evolutionary, or of training) which drives the behaviour, and the general class of choices of which it is part, and that we know which cost-benefit function the people making the choices are using, should we confidently say a choice is an error. Even then it is pretty unprofitable to call such behaviour irrational – we’d want to know why people make the error. Are they unable to calculate the right response? Mis-perceiving the situation?

A seemingly irrational behaviour is a good place to start investigating the psychology of decision making, but labelling behaviour irrational is a terrible place to stop. The topic really starts to get interesting when we start to ask why particular behaviours exist, and try to understand their rationality.

 

Previously/elsewhere:

Irrational? Decisions and decision making in context
My ebook: For argument’s sake: evidence that reason can change minds, which explores our over-enthusiasm for evidence that we’re irrational.