We perceive people as taller if they have a prestigious job title.

We perceive people as taller if they have a prestigious job title.

We see people as taller if they have a prestigious job title.

Is a first officer of an aeroplane always shorter than the captain? Of course not. Many first officers will become captains, and I assume most have finished growing upwards before they become pilots. But the prestige of the captain’s title lends him an air of authority which results in his being perceived as taller.

In cultures around the world size is associated with value, even in children. Desserts which children like the most are estimated as larger, for example. And coins are rated as larger if their value is higher.

It is the same with people. People are rated as more dominant if they are bigger and they are estimated to be bigger if they are more dominant. The equation of dominance and size seemed to be hard-wired into us.

However, Blaker and Van Vugt concluded from their studies that the equation of prestige and size is likely to be learned from culture. Children see bigger people as more dominant, but not as having more prestige. Adults rate bigger people as more dominant and prestigious.

The equation goes both ways. Adults also estimate people with prestigious job titles as being taller than they really are.

 

Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

The first people to speak will influence you.

The first people to speak will influence you.

The first people to speak will influence you.

Imagine once more that you are awaiting your turn to speak. This time it is not to give your general recommendation of the best course of action, but to give your firm judgement on something. It might be the price you think a product should be sold for, or how long the Tories will claim that austerity is needed, or whether the price of pork bellies will go up or down next week.

You think the answer is “A”, and that is what you are going to say when it is your turn.

The first person says “B”.

The next person agrees, “B”.

And so on. Everyone before you has said “B”.

What do you say?

I have written before about reputational cascades, where you don’t say what you really feel because you don’t want to risk the bad opinion of the others in your group. However, there is another kind of cascade – an “informational cascade”. This is where you begin to doubt your own judgement because of those before you giving a different answer. You don’t go along with the others out of fear of rejection this time, but because you begin to think you must have been wrong.

Solomon Asch conducted an experiment in the 1950s on whether people would conform to the majority view in this way. He showed the group one line on its own, and a group of 3 lines. With each of 18 sets like this they went around the room asking people which line of the 3 was closest to the one on its own.

Actually, only one person in the group was a real participant. The rest were stooges, who all agreed on an incorrect line in 12 of the 18 tests. 32% of the time (about one third) the real participant went along with them and also chose the (very obviously) wrong answer. About 75% of the participants went along with the wrong, majority choice at least once.

 

Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

The first person to speak has the most influence.

The first person to speak has the most influence.

Imagine you are waiting to give your view on a subject. You are pretty sure of your conviction that “A” is the best course of action for the group. The first person to speak, perhaps the leader, surprises you by advocating “B”.

The next person in line around the table also says “B”.

And the next.

And the next.

You are fifth in line. Everyone so far has said “B”, followed by nods and grunts of approval from the leader and others.

Do you still have the courage of your convictions? Do you go against the flow and risk approbation and disapproval by saying “A”?

Of course, this is a rhetorical question. The answer would depend on what paths A and B are, and your perceived consequences of either, as well as the dynamics within the group and how much is personally at stake for you.

However, I’m sure you can see how much pressure there would be on you to go along with everybody else and say “B”, despite your internal beliefs.

It is entirely possible that everyone around the table except the first to speak thought the same as you. Perhaps the second to speak was not all that sure though, and went along with the first just to fit in. And that added pressure on the third who did the same. This produced what is known as a “reputational cascade”. This is when each person goes along with the leader, or the first speaker, to avoid the hostility or bad opinion of the rest of the group.

It is easy to see how this could happen. It can be avoided by the leader not giving their views first and by stressing that they want everybody’s honest opinion, regardless of what it is.

 

Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

Group discussions lead to more extreme views.

Group discussions lead to more extreme views.

You might think that a group discussion would temper people’s opinions as they hear different viewpoints and arguments from all sides. However, the opposite is very often true. Group discussions commonly lead to more extreme views.

Most groups are groups for a reason. They have a common purpose or goal, and therefore often have views generally leaning in the same direction to one extent or another. An clear example is a political party, but a less obvious one is the board of directors of a company. The members of the board have a common purpose: the success of the company (or at least – call me a cynic if you will – the personal bonus which may come from short term profits). They are also likely to have been chosen by the CEO, who is not likely to choose people with wildly differing views on how the company should be run.

So, although the board may seem to be a disparate bunch, they are likely to share the same ethos of how business should be conducted, just to different degrees.

It is the same with most groups. Even if they do not appear to be at first, many are self-selecting to be made up of similarly-thinking people. Because of this, any topic likely to be discussed within the group is likely to be an argument about the degree to which a proposition is correct rather than whether it is correct or not.

Let’s take a subject which might be discussed in a left-leaning political party: nationalisation of the railways. There will be some within the party who think that nationalisation absolutely must take place, and others who think that it would be a good idea on balance. There are unlikely to be many who think it is a terrible idea, because if they thought that way they are unlikely to have joined the party in the first place. The average view in that group, then, is going to be that nationalisation is a good idea.

Those with extreme views are always more vocal than those with moderate views because they are usually more certain. Those with moderate views are more considered and nuanced, seeing the value in differing opinions. Anyone who puts forward the idea that private ownership is better (if somehow they found themselves in the party) is bound to get shouted down, and is therefore less likely to voice their opinions.

Because of all this, in the discussion, the loudest and most common voices will be spouting the most extreme views, and the opposite views will not be heard at all. With counter-arguments not being heard, the average person’s opinion is only going to be pushed in one direction – towards the extreme.

Schkade, Sunstein and Hastie found exactly this in their experiments on the subject. They found that, after group discussions, both group verdicts and individual views were more extreme than they had been beforehand. They also found that consensus within the group was increased, but so was the disparity between that group and others.

 

Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

“Free” is a powerful word.

“Free” is a powerful word.

As I have written before, we tend to equate quality with price: you get what you pay for. However, the idea of getting something for free can override any considerations of quality.

Most transactions have an up-side and a down-side. The up-side of buying something is that you receive a product that you desired. The down-side is that you have to give up some money to get it.

If something is free there is no down-side. You receive the product and you have not had to give up anything to get it. This is remarkably appealing even if what you might otherwise have given up was paltry, and almost worthless anyway.

Dan Ariely conducted an experiment where he and his colleagues were selling two different kinds of chocolate. A high-quality Lindt one for 15 cents and a lower-quality Hershey’s one for just 1 cent. 73% of people who bought a chocolate opted for the higher quality one. He then dropped the price of each by 1 cent. This made the favoured Lindt chocolate just 14 cents, but the Hershey’s Kiss was now free. (I should mention that the sale was being made at a till where people were already paying for other products, so inconvenience of having to dig their money out was not a factor.)

The number who opted for the Hershey’s Kiss (now it was free instead of the outrageous price of 1 cent) went up from 27% to 69%! Clearly a simple 1 cent drop in price cannot account for such a turnaround. After all, the Lindt chocolate was also 1 cent cheaper. It was the lure of getting something for free.

 

Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

Expensive wine does taste better.

Expensive wine does taste better.

When wine lovers drink wine they believe to be expensive, blood oxygen increases in the area of the brain concerned with feeling pleasure. This was shown in research by Plassman et al in 2008. The wine actually tastes better to them just because they think it is expensive and therefore believe it is good quality.

How often have you heard the old adage, “You get what you pay for”? It is ingrained into us, as we grow up, that more expensive products are better quality.

Of course, you know that that is not always the case. I’m sure you can think of many instances when you bought something expensive that broke, or something cheap which went on and on and on. However, if you are trying to choose between two similar products, you are likely to assume that the more expensive one will be better.

It is generally when we do not have the expert knowledge required to assess quality properly that we fall back on the price to inform us. However, it is not always as clear cut that more expensive is perceived as better. Your state of mind can change that. For example, if you have just spent time tackling your struggling finances, then cheaper is more likely to be seen as good value. If you have just spent time trying to fix a broken item and are now buying a replacement, you are more likely to think of cheaper as lower quality.

All other things being equal though, we equate price with quality, even though this is often not the case. Take medicine, for example. This is an area where people will pay more for quality. People will pay far more for big name brands, assuming them to be of superior quality. As I write this Tesco sells packs of 16 Nurofen 200mg tablets for £1.90. They obviously sell enough that Nurofen continues to make a profit on them. However, a pack of 16 tablets of Tesco’s own brand of ibuprofen costs only £0.35!

There is no doubt that Nurofen’s big brand name has an impact, but many people assume that because Nurofen costs so much more it must be that much better. However, both Nurofen’s and Tesco’s tablets each have 200mg of the active ingredient. There is no good reason to believe that the Nurofen brand works better.

Actually, I should revise that. There is one very good reason Nurofen may work better and faster than a supermarket’s own cheap brand: your belief that it will.

 

Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

Just the thought of money makes us unsociable

Just the thought of money makes us unsociable

Money makes us unsociable

Just the thought of money makes us more insular, more unsociable, and makes us want to be more independent.

Kathleen Vohs et al conducted various experiments to study the way people’s behaviour changes when they have money on their minds. One of my favourites had participants fill out a form in a small room. They “happened” to be filling out the form on a desk in front of a computer monitor which, in some cases, had a screensaver of a floating dollar bill. After the form was finished the experimenter said they had to go and fetch something, and whilst they did that would the participant please set up two chairs for a face to face meeting.

The distance between the chairs, as set out by the participant, was then measured. Those who had filled in the form with a neutral screensaver set them up an average of 80 cm apart. Those who had a dollar bill screensaver in their peripheral vision set them an average of 120 cm apart.

Just having money in the back of their minds (as primed by the dollar bill screensaver) made people set up the chairs 50% farther apart than otherwise. This was a result of them feeling more independent and insular.

 

Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

You are hopeless at noticing change.

You are hopeless at noticing change.

You are hopeless at noticing change

In 1998 Simons and Levin performed an experiment to show just how bad people are at noticing change. A person with a map would approach someone, acting lost, and ask them how to get to somewhere. Whilst that person (an inadvertent participant in the experiment) tried to describe the route a couple of people barged through holding a door.

With well practised choreography the person who had asked directions switched places with one of the door carriers, who then pretended to be the person who had asked questions. The inadvertent participant would continue giving directions, and 50% of the time did not notice that the other person had changed.

This experiment demonstrated outside of the lab something that had been shown just in laboratory conditions before – the fact that we are all hopeless at noticing change. It seems preposterous that we would not notice something major changing from one second to the next, right in front of us. Actually, though, it makes perfect sense.

Look around you now and see just how much there is to notice. Imagine how much brain power it would take to actually memorise all of your surroundings, because of course to notice something has changed you first have to remember what it was before. It would take an unfeasible amount of brain storage to remember just one snapshot of our surroundings, let alone every second of every hour of every day. And what would be the purpose of remembering what is right in front of us? To know what is there we only have to look.

It would make no sense at all to remember everything we perceive from one second to the next. So we don’t. And so we often don’t realise when something has changed. And we don’t remember what passers-by look like. And we make hopeless eyewitnesses.

 

Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

“I wish they would just get on with Brexit”: an example of the sunk cost fallacy?

“I wish they would just get on with Brexit”: an example of the sunk cost fallacy?

In case you haven’t noticed, there is a little thing called Brexit being discussed a bit these days.

I have heard several politicians claiming that people tell them they wish the politicians would just get on with it. It is suggested that now we have come this far down the path, we might as well carry on and get it over with.

This strikes me as being similar to the sunk cost fallacy.

The sunk cost fallacy is the feeling we get that, as we have invested this much money (or time, or resources) into something, that money would be wasted if we changed our minds now. It is a fallacy because that money is gone already. Any decision made now must be made on the basis of the cost against benefit based on the resources available now. What has been spent (or squandered) before now should have no bearing at all. Everything should be based on predictions for the future from where we are today.

Imagine you spent £200 on concert tickets and then lost them. The tendency is to think that, if you bought replacements for another £200, you would have spent £400 on the tickets and that is too high a price. But you wouldn’t have. That initial £200 is gone. It is money you have already lost, regardless of whether you buy replacements or not. The only relevant question is, “Based on what you have in the bank right now, do you want to spend £200 of that on tickets to the concert?”

We are just a few months from pulling out of Europe, with no deal in place despite two years of negotiations. To say “We have gone through 2 years of uncertainty and in-fighting already. We might as well just get it over with, rather than prolong it even more,” is just like saying, “I’ve already spent £200. I might as well just accept the loss and not go to the gig, rather than make it £400.”

The pain of the last 2 years should not have any bearing on whether things are prolonged, potentially with another referendum. The question should simply be: based on where we are now, and what we know now, would it be better just to check that this is really what the majority of people in the UK really want?

Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

Every memory is a shabby reconstruction.

Every memory is a shabby reconstruction.

Every memory is a shabby reconstruction.

Think back to an event in your past. A birthday, a night out, a chance meeting. Bring back that memory. It may seem to you that the memory comes to you whole, but it doesn’t. It is merely a flawed reconstruction.

Every time we dredge up a memory we are actually putting it together again like a jigsaw. Some of the pieces are objectively accurate parts from the scene, but much of it is filler. We remember the gist, but most of the details are just made up to fill in the blanks.

And what we use to fill in the blanks is a schema for the situation – a mental representation of what we would typically expect in such a context.

Brewer and Treyens, in 1981, asked students to wait in a particular room for a few minutes before calling them through to take part in an experiment. The room appeared to be a fairly typical office, and the participants were asked afterwards to recall as much as they could about it. They did not know they were going to have to recall what was in the room, so they hadn’t made any effort to memorise it. However, it was clearly an office and so their “office schema” helped them out by telling them what was probably in there. They therefore “remembered” (actually believing they had seen them) items one would find in an average office, even though they had not been present in this case.

When you reconstruct a memory (which is every time you bring something from the past to mind), you are unaware of fact that you are filling in the blanks. The danger is that something which is added may well become a permanent fixture in your memory, and you have no way of knowing that it was never really there.

 

Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

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