Tag Archives: Cognitive Bias

Politics And The English Language by George Orwell

22 Jan
Note to readers - hover mouse over links for word definitions.

Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

– George Orwell

As one partial to a spot of sesquipedalianism, Orwell’s essay is a particularly poignant piece of prose.

I do get big fat chufties from using fancy sounding long words, but of course logorrheic loveliness adds gravitas groundlessly.

Some delightful consonantal alliteration there, don’t you think?

As there are a million wonderfully diverse words available to the English speaker, it is great to be able to choose a word, however unknown, if it really pins down the quiddity of a concept. But if your audience does not know of that delightfully descriptive term, then what use is it?

I remember learning this showy phrase at a young age:

A slight inclination of the cranium is as inadequate as a spasmodic movement of one optic to an equine quadruped utterly devoid of any visual capacity“.

Translation: a nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse.

As the first one sounds so well spoken, it’s easy to think ‘oo, that sounds like someone clever wrote it, therefore it must be true‘, but the presentation of a message is not necessarily an indicator of its truthfulness, a kind of argument from authority.

A good example is in the previous sentence: I wanted to say ‘veracity‘, but ‘truthfulness‘ is a word that is more easily understood – given it’s used more often – so will be more likely to help you understand the point I’m making. On the other hand, the Latin etymology of the erudite alternative does make it sound more authoritative. There are studies that prove if something is written simply, and even if the font is easier to read, then the reader is more likely to accept the points made – it’s a cognitive bias called cognitive ease.

Anyway, enough waffle. To the essay at hand. In it Orwell describes how to write terse, clear English, which clearly communicates with the reader. He decries the use of obfuscatory language, saying we should use simple concrete language, only adding more words if they add more meaning.

We should use fresh metaphors that evoke a strong image in the mind of a reader, rather than one dulled by overuse – ‘carrot and stick  is a good example.

When a metaphor is new it has a great effect as it brings a sharp image to the mind of the listener, adding weight to the case. However, once one is accustomed to the turn of phrase, it simply becomes an abstract grouping of words with a meaning attached, and loses its visual power. Interestingly many linguists argue that most if not all words were birthed in a metaphor, so its power may have increased in other ways: once it is in common use, it has a well defined meaning and can convey that meaning more efficiently.

C. S. Lewis said: “Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say infinitely when you mean very; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.” Orwell says we should use ‘use’ instead of ‘utilise’, ‘method’ rather than ‘methodology’… the list is literally endless. Sorry about that one – I had to squeeze in that pet hate. Using literally as an intensifier, or in place of its antonym figuratively, is egregious.

He opposes the use of unnecessary words. The pretentious “In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that” should be replaced with “I think“. It may make the presentation appear more grandiose, but it adds no meaning. We all know that when a politician answers a question, they do go on and on with their formulaic phrases; hearing them answer a question with a simple ‘yes‘ or ‘no‘ is quite jarring, yet I see it as refreshingly clear and honest.

Whilst discussing such things it behoves me to point out that ‘while‘ is a perfectly serviceable word. Why do people insist on using its anachronistic predecessor? Dost thou think thine utterances carry increased weight? No, they just sound asinine.

I will say that while I like well written English, I do object to a slavish following of the rules. Old Churchill puts it well: “From now on, ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put”. Orwell says “correct grammar and syntax…are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear“.

Orwell says: “Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against“. Ahem. I ain’t sayin’ nothin’.

Orwell ends his essay with six rules for writing good English, which are nicely summed up in this comment: “Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person.

Russell Brand and the Halo Effect

6 Dec

He's just a very naughty boyI saw Russell Brand’s stand up show Messiah Complex last night.

He was talking about heroes. And caricatures.

Using the examples of Mahatma Gandhi, Che Guevara, Malcolm X and Jesus, he showed that although they are heroes, they weren’t perfect.

For example, Gandhi married his wife when she was 13. Glossing over that initial point, whenever he got imprisoned for a protest, as a devoted wife, she would always come and stay with him in prison. Once, while staying with him, she got ill and was offered the western medicine she needed to make her better. But Gandhi said “no” as they believed in Ayurvedic “medicine”. She died soon afterwards. It so happened that not long after Gandhi fell prey to the same illness. When he was offered the same medicines you can guess what he did…

He then talked about how corporations have appropriated these icons, and reconfigured them to sell their products, e.g. Gandhi by Apple and Guevara by Mercedes.

But then these heroes had already been appropriated by causes, each “hero” we know, being a caricature of the real person behind the icon.

To continue showing the side we don’t like to see: Guevara was a rather violent individual who was known to enjoy personally shooting his adversaries dead. He also enjoyed killing dogs!

Similarly Mother Teresa, arguably the epitome of the modern-day saint, is painted as a loving, caring and selfless individual, and in many ways she was. However, she was also exceptionally cruel, a liar and a thief. She did the same as Gandhi, keeping her Calcutta hospice primitive and run down, while flying to a clinic in California when she herself got ill. Rather than upgrading her clinic in Calcutta, she spend millions from donations on building convents for her own, eponymous order, going against the promises she made to her donors. Hitchens, who wrote a book about her, said :“She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.

Even the purportedly meek and gentle Jesus was the one who first introduced the idea of torturing non-believers by being burnt alive, for ever.

The point is, that the people behind the icons were not perfect. They were just people like anyone else. They did good things and bad things. Some did very bad things. We just choose to focus on the good things.

This is as a result of the cognitive bias called the Halo Effect.

Daniel Kahneman defines this bias in his excellent book Thinking Fast And Slow: “The tendency to like (or dislike) everything about a person – including things you have not observed”.

He gives this example:
You meet a woman named Joan at a party and find her personable and easy to talk to. Now her name comes up as someone who could be asked to contribute to a charity. What do you know about Joans generosity? The correct answer is that you know virtually nothing, because there is little reason to believe that people who are agreeable in social situations are also generous contributors to charity. But you like Joan and you will retrieve the feeling of liking her when you think of her. You also like generosity and generous people. By association, you are now predisposed to believe that Joan is generous. Real evidence of generosity is missing in the story of Joan and the gap is filled by a guess that fits one’s emotional response to her.

He recounts another good example of the effect:
Solomon Asch presented descriptions of two people and asked for comments on their personality. What do you think of Alan and Ben?
    Alan: intelligent – industrious – impulsive – critical – stubborn – envious
    Ben: envious – stubborn – critical – impulsive – industrious – intelligent
If you are like most of us, you viewed Alan much more favourably than Ben. The initial traits in the list change the very meaning of the traits that appear later. The stubbornness of an intelligent person is seen as likely to be justified and may actually evoke respect, but intelligence in an envious and stubborn person makes him more dangerous.

It’s something I’ve become aware of in myself in the past. My judgements of a persons opinion used to be overly affected by their style, their voice, their attractiveness and their body language, rather than on the value of their opinion. It’s a subtle and subconscious version of the Ad Hominem fallacy. I still do this of course – we all do – but much less than I used to. I have been trying to judge the opinions and actions of people more objectively, outside the context of their personalities and style (while at the same time trying to empathise, so I can understand their thoughts within that same context).

When I first saw Russell Brand on TV I thought he was a self-obsessed idiot. I couldn’t stand his style, and found his humour annoying, so gave him no credence. But then I started to listen to what he had to say on celebrity and on revolution and gained new respect for him.

A prime example of falling prey to the Halo Effect.

To overcome this, Kahneman says you need to realise how little information you have, and obtain separate, independent judgements on an issue before coming to any conclusions.

The Halo Effect works with negatives too, where it’s sometimes called the Devil Effect: “Some leaders can become so demonised that it’s impossible to assess their achievements and failures in a balanced way“.

Back to Brand’s show. He showed a picture of Hitler as a young child, pointing out his humanity, that he was a person, just like all of us. Bravo for making that point – not many people are brave enough to point out this vitally important aspect, especially when talking about the biggest hate figure in our culture. Dehumanising someone as evil is counter productive.

There’s clearly projection going on here – we often see the worst aspects of ourselves in other people, and get rather upset by them.

Brand stated that “a hero is a symbolic representation of qualities we all want”. And so it can become more than just a caricature, it can be a projection from us.

This was backed up this morning with the quote Jacob Zuma made when describing Nelson Mandela: “We saw in him what we seek in ourselves“.

(Again, Mandela wasn’t perfect – he cheated on his first wife. He argued that the ANC should use violence, and was responsible for torturing and killing hundreds of people. He even held some segregationist views himself, believing that only blacks should be involved in the fight for political self-determination.)

Mark Twain, that master of pithy quotes, said “Unconsciously we all have a standard by which we measure other men, and if we examine closely we find that this standard is a very simple one, and is this: we admire them, we envy them, for great qualities we ourselves lack. Hero worship consists in just that. Our heroes are men who do things which we recognize, with regret, and sometimes with a secret shame, that we cannot do. We find not much in ourselves to admire, we are always privately wanting to be like somebody else. If everybody was satisfied with himself, there would be no heroes”.

Undue Influence – Cognitive Bias #57

18 Oct

We like to think we have control over our decisions.

However there is too much research, that proves how prone we are to subtle effects that control our choices, for us to continue with this misapprehension. Here are a few fun experiments I read about in Richard Wiseman’s excellent book Quirkology to back up the point.

Ap Dijksterhuis and Ad van Knippenberg conducted a study which shows that if you ask one group of participants to spend five minutes thinking about a football hooligan, and a second to think about a university professor, you affect their ability at Trivial Pursuit.  The hooligan group correctly answered 46% of questions whereas the professor group scored 60%.

It’s well known that taller people command more respect, and dominate positions of power. For example each inch of height is worth $789 a year on your salary. In America, the proportion of male CEOs of the top 500 companies that are 6 feet or more is 58%. The average across the country is just over 14%.

An interesting study turned this the other way around and proved that “the perceived height of a person can change with their apparent status“. Paul Wilson, who performed the study, introduced his subjects to different groups of students and asked them to assess their height. He introduced them as a student, a lecturer, senior lecturer, or a full professor. The height assessment varied, adding an inch if they were a lecturer, and another if they were a professor.

It seems that the metaphor we use when we talk about ‘looking up to someone’ holds true.

But my favourite experiment is this one: participants were called in to do a psychological test. They filled in a form and handed it to the organisers and that was that, or so they thought. As they were leaving the real experiment began: the participant was asked to hold a drink while the experimenter tied their shoelace. They then handed back the drink and stepped into the elevator where a person tried to initiate conversation with them. Following the same script with each participant, it was measured whether the person responded positively and engaged in conversation. The influence? Whether the drink was a hot coffee or a cold coke full of ice. I don’t recall the exact figures, however it was something like 90% of the people that held a hot drink in their hand were happy to talk, whereas only 30% of the people that held an ice cold drink continued to chat.

And finally, if your heart rate is higher when you meet someone of the opposite sex, you will find them more attractive.

So beware undue influences.

Logical Fallacies II – Evolved To Be Illogical?

7 Sep

We’re all guilty of flawed thinking because our brains evolved to win others round to our point of view – whether or not our reasoning is logical.
– Dan Jones

Continuing from the previous post on this topic, in a recent New Scientist article ‘The Argumentative Ape”, Dan Jones describes some cognitive biases and argues that they may in fact have evolutionary advantages even though they mean we often make logical mistakes as a result.

He describes the example of  “confirmation bias – the mind’s tendency to pick and choose information to support our preconceptions, while ignoring a wealth of evidence to the contrary“.

He says that we are much better at spotting the flaws in someone elses arguments, but blind to the faults in our own. Though there are ways around this, for example I’ve seen other research that shows if we try to justify something in a second language they we will be less biased in our argument.

This ability to argue back and forth may have been crucial to humanity’s success – allowing us to come to extraordinary solutions as a group that we could never reach alone.

He says this helps us to:

– discern whether to trust someone

– helps us toward more critical thought

– give us an ability to convince others of our point of view

Consider the confirmation bias. It is surprisingly pervasive, playing a large part in the way we consider the behaviour of different politicians, for instance, so that we will rack up evidence in favour of our chosen candidate while ignoring their competitor’s virtues. Yet people rarely have any awareness that they are not being objective. Such a bias looks like a definite bug if we evolved to solve problems: you are not going to get the best solution by considering evidence in such a partisan way.

But if we evolved to be argumentative apes, then the confirmation bias takes on a much more functional role. You won’t waste time searching out evidence that doesn’t support your case, and you’ll home in on evidence that does

In addition to confirmation bias and the framing and attraction effects, [there are] many other seemingly irrational biases that might be explained by our argumentative past, including the sunk-cost fallacy – our reluctance to cut our losses and abandon a project even when it would be more rational to move on.

Jonathan Haidt says “we are simply trying to justify our gut reactions and persuade others to believe our judgments, rather than attempting to come to the most just conclusion. He says ‘Moral argumentation is not a search for moral truth, but a tool for moral persuasion’.

And this fits with what Nietzsche argues in Beyond Good And Evil (reviewed by me here) that philosophers learn not to search for the truth, but to argue more convincingly for their own views.

The idea that we evolved to argue and persuade, sometimes at the expense of the truth, may seem to offer a pessimistic view of human reasoning. But there may also be a very definite benefit to our argumentative minds – one that has proved essential to our species’ success. This means that when people get together to debate and argue against each other, they can counterbalance the biased reasoning that each individual brings to the table.

Studies show that “a group’s performance bears little relation to the average or maximum intelligence of the individuals in the group. Instead, collective intelligence is determined by the way the group argues.

This is clearly argued in James Surowiecki’s book The Wisdom Of Crowds (reviewed by me here).

The tradition of debate can be seen throughout history and cultures. The art of rhetoric is venerated in ancient Greece and Confucian China and is still popular today from parliament to university debating societies.

David Pavett gives a good approach to avoiding the pitfalls of this bias saying: “that to make a case for something, the most important thing you have to do is to consider the strongest possible evidence and arguments against it. If one does not do that then one’s argument is essentially worthless – however much the piling up of evidence that is consistent with one’s conclusion may delight those who are keen to see attacks on those they oppose. A scientist or engineer who relied on this technique would not keep his or her job for long“.

Logical Fallacies

25 Aug

We believe that our intelligence makes us wise when it actually makes us more susceptible to foolishness. Puncture this belief, and we may be able to cash in on our argumentative nature while escaping its pitfalls.
– Dan Jones

How we influence each other is something that I’ve been observing and researching for a few years now. The way I am persuaded by others, and the way others are influenced by me is a fascinating subject. There are so many variables including strength of argument, strength of character of the proponent, cognitive biases, our susceptibility to logical fallacies, and so on.

My aim has been to become more aware of how people influence me, to be less influenced by spurious reasoning and to focus more on a rational and logical basis for my views.

Alas this is not an easy thing. Daniel Kahneman has said that for all his knowledge of biases he’s still susceptible to them. In fact he’s done studies which show that even if one is aware of such biases, especially experts in the field, they still struggle to avoid being influenced by them.

I have long been trying to avoid using logical fallacies when I try to convince someone, trying instead to rely on logic and evidence. For me I’ve realised it is something of a moral imperative.

I am aware that I can lose arguments because of my avoidance of fallacious reasoning, particularly appeals to emotion. People are subtly convinced in so many ways by subconscious cues, or emotional aspects of the person making a proposition, that often the logic behind the argument takes second place.

So here are some examples of logical fallacies worth watching our for:

– One fallacy I’ve been discussing recently is the argument from ignorance (argumentum ad ignorantiam) – assuming that a claim is true because it has not been proven false or cannot be proven false. Bertrand Russell argues this eloquently with his teapot argument.

– The strength of belief of the arguer is a huge influence – people are much more likely to agree with a point of view if they perceive genuine conviction. Inspirational leaders in politics and religion are great examples of this.

– I’ve coined the ivory tower fallacy (argumentum ad turris eburnea) to describe people that dismiss an argument simply because it doesn’t come from a respected or scholarly source.

– Argument by analogy  is a significant issue; this is a very powerful tool and easy to misuse. It makes sense given our use of metaphor to understand so much of the world. It’s arguably how our minds are so adaptable and how humans can focus their understanding on such a variety of diverse areas. Further, linguists show that most, if not all, words originate in a metaphor. So it’s a great tool humans have, though a bias of which to be aware.

– The naturalistic fallacy is one that gets my goat, as I’ve written previously.

– Another is agreeing with a point of view just to keep the peace, perhaps the ‘don’t- rock-the-boat fallacy’.

In conclusion, I think this logical fallacies listing is one of the most useful Wikipedia pages there is. The problem is that we are much better at spotting the flaws in other people’s argument, but tend to be blind to the mistakes we make ourselves. So, if you see me falling for any of them, do call me on it.

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