Tag Archives: Daniel Kahneman

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”.


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.


22 Jul

“Most men pursue pleasure with such breathless haste that they hurry past it.
Soren Kierkegaard

Happiness is a concept that is difficult to pin down. However Daniel Kahneman gives an interesting lecture describing a distinction between two kinds of happiness.

He says that we have happiness in the moment, where a “moment” is defined as being a period of around three seconds that our conscious mind holds. This happiness in the moment is contrasted with the happiness of the memory of the event, i.e. looking back at what happened given our constructed story of what happened.

This perspective sits well with the idea that William James puts forward in defining the difference between the self as “I” and the self as “me”, where the former is the “consciousness of the self in the here and now” and the latter is the “self which we tell others about, is autobiographical or the “me” which again is a coherent account of who we think we are based on past experiences, current events and aspirations for the future.

This distinction does draw into focus what you are trying to achieve in your pursuit of happiness. This is worth considering given what so many psychological studies reveal about how our memories don’t necessarily give a true picture of our past but are rather highlights or what we prefer to remember for better or worse.

Kahneman talks about a cool study which shows that people who have a colonoscopy that finishes particularly painfully will remember the procedure in a worse light than one that was longer and more painful yet ended on a relatively mild note. The implication is that you remember better the last part of a bad experience which then colours your memory of the whole experience.

In terms of enjoying the moment I can recommend the increasingly popular mindfulness approach which is essentially “bringing one’s complete attention to the present moment, and non-judgmentally“. The last few years has seen a lot of positive studies proving the efficacy of mindfulness in increasing happiness as well as reducing stress, improving sleep, relationships and helping with psychological problems such as depression.

Other Philosophers

Of course plenty of philosophers have considered happiness over the years and it’s interesting to look at what they say in the light of Kahneman’s distinction.

Epicurus says what you need to be happy is:

– food and shelter
– time to think
– friends to talk to
– autonomy from a tyrannical boss
– a fine woman

Seneca says that you should expect the worst, so as to be happy with what eventually does happen. This approach requires accepting what you can’t control.

Montaigne contemplates the simple and carefree life of a goat and suggests that rather than reciting what other people think, it is preferable to understand for yourself how to achieve more happiness and fulfilment.

Nietzsche talks about how you can attain fulfilment through effort that may not be pleasant, using the analogy of getting to the top of a mountain. As a cyclist I can agree with this.

For some very practical and positive ideas to help in the pursuit of happiness, see my review of Bertrand Russell’s excellent book.

Agnes Repplier said “It is not easy to find happiness in ourselves, and it is not possible to find it elsewhere“.

Personally I tend to take the Nietzschean approach to fulfilment, and so I have to make an effort to focus on the moment in a more mindful way. I think choosing one thing to focus on and doing it to the best of your ability fits with this. Multitasking is not a productive way to do things and neither is taking on too much, so it’s preferable to learn to let go of things so you can focus on less things and do them well, which can give more fulfilment.

A helpful aphorism from Richard Feynman goes: “Don’t think about what you want to be, but what you want to do“.

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