Fooling yourself – everyone does it

I’ve long been intrigued in the difference between how people think they think and how they actually think, and the risks that come from this lack of knowledge (e.g. see here and here).

In that vein, there was an intruiging article in the Economist this week that reported on a conjoint study that showed just how stark the difference can be (see here).  In summary though a test was done to assess students team mate choice for a quiz in which they were told they would win money.  They had information on IQ, experience in quizzes and education level.  They also had a photo that happened to show how fat or thin the person was.  Afterwards they were asked what attributes they used to choose, and they all reported that weight was the least important attribute … but the data in fact showed that it was the most important.  In fact, they would give up half (11) of the range of IQ scores to get a thin person.

I am trying to work out what heuristic might make this feel right, and can only come up with one that says thinner people are likely to have a faster metabolic rate than fatter people, and this just might make a difference to their reaction time if not mental agility.  So, all else being equal it might just be valid to choose a thinner person (if not very socially inclusive).  However, it would seem a poor model for choice when you have much better data at hand.

What is really stark to me is not that people are making a choice based on apparently dodgy data, but that they are completely unaware that they are doing it … indeed they believe that they are doing the opposite.  And, worth recalling that these are not educational drop-outs, they were students.  This always seems the sad bit to me – not that we have heuristics for making decisions that can fail us from time to time (usually called cognitive biases), but that we are often aware of the types of failure, and so make them time after time in blissful ignorance.

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3 Responses to Fooling yourself – everyone does it

  1. Greg says:

    Zoran had an alternative piece of logic for the heuristic used. His might well be a better explanation for what is actually going on in someones head though, as mine was a little too logical for a non-thought-through mental shortcut (more like WHY that might be a reasonable thing to have evolved) :-

    Peoples brains use a lot of shortcuts

    This applies to facial recognition where we do not remember all the specifics but distinct markings

    When selecting from a group of faces/individuals we have really two subliminal options – go for the most familiar/recognisable OR go for the most “appropriate”/face that “is right for the task”

    The challenge involved picking a partner for a quiz – so someone who is very smart and/or has a high IQ

    We don’t know IQ of most people, especially not for folks whom we do not know.  because of that our brains look for clues

    NOW COMES THE CRUCIAL PART – as there is no specific hint for “appropriate” for IQ and definitely not the whole fat/thin thing, we are left with a weak “familiar” trigger mixed with “appropriate” trigger.  While this should not necessarily lead to success, we got nothing else.

    Who are the “IQ” gods to you?  For me – famous scientists.  Who are “famous scientists”?  For me – Einstein, Darwin, Hawkins.  REMEMBER – the scientist here MUST be facially recognisable to the brain of the person who is doing the search.

    Any of them fat?  Any of them skinny?  Remember – there does not need to scientific “proof” of the correlation, all you need is plausible explanation of “mental shortcut” people do all the time

  2. Tim Perkin says:

    Cialdini wrote a very good book called “Influence” which I would recommend reading on this subject.

    One important element of this study is that of course as a student going along to a quiz, I expect a good number of them are less interested in winning the quiz and more interested in the event as a fun or even dating opportunity, hence the desire to pick people not solely on IQ.

    Also it would not surprise me if there was a genuine correlation between non-obesity and intelligence. There are documented correlations between exercise and exam results and also diet and exam results.

  3. Pingback: repost : Fooling yourself « Dodgy thinking

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