How you are asked about your past can change your memory of it

How you are asked about your past can change your memory of it

Police, prosecution lawyers and defence attorneys all have an interest in questioning witnesses to crimes. That shouldn’t be a problem should it? In an ideal world, no. But in an ideal world they wouldn’t be able to alter our memories with the deliberately biased wording of their questions. This is not an ideal world though – and they can.
Loftus and Palmer, in 1974 showed participants a video of two cars colliding. They were then asked how fast the cars were going, but the exact wording was different for each experimental group. The question was “How fast were the cars going when they (smashed / collided / bumped / hit / contacted) each other. Those questioned with the word contacted estimated an average of just over 31mph. Those questioned with the word smashed guessed just over 40 mph. They all saw the same film, but the wording of the question altered their memory of it.
In a similar experiment people were asked the same question, but a week later were asked if there was broken glass on the road afterwards (there wasn’t). As you may have guessed, those who were originally questioned with the word smashed were, a week later, far more likely to misremember seeing broken glass.
Other experiments have shown that if a question such as, “Did the car stop before or after passing the tree?” is asked after watching a film, the memory of a totally non-existent tree can be implanted. That tree then becomes a part of the person’s memory and there is no way for them to backtrack and un-remember it.
Think about the implication for court cases where witnesses are first questioned by someone working for either the prosecution or defence.

When we tell an anecdote, it changes our memory of the event

When we tell an anecdote, it changes our memory of the event

Our memories are not fixed. The memory we have of any event does have, as its basis, some factual details which happened to get lodged in our brains. However, it also consists of a lot of gaps. We don’t usually notice the gaps because they are unconsciously filled in. To us it feels like a smooth, consistent memory which is the same as every other time we recalled it, but it actually could be very different from how it used to be.
When we tell an anecdote it is generally told for a reason. We tell the story to highlight a point, and to that end the gaps in our memory may be filled with convenient, though imagined, details. We are not usually aware of this happening, but it does. These details are then more likely to recalled next time the story is told, for whatever reason. Other, inconvenient, details may be left out and are then more likely to be left out again next time the story is told.
Not only does the anecdote change, but so does our actual memory.
Tversky and Marsh demonstrated this in an experiment. Their participants read a story about two roommates and then had to write an account of one of them, either positive, negative or neutral. After a short gap they were asked to recall the original story. Those who had written a positive account remembered more features consistent with the positive bias, as you might expect. But they also, unknowingly, elaborated, making the roommate appear in an even more positive light. And, of course, vice versa.
Those who wrote a neutral account made fewer errors and elaborated less. Unfortunately it is very rare that we tell a story with no bias whatsoever.

What we perceive is a mixture of what our senses receive and what our brains expect.

What we perceive is a mixture of what our senses receive and what our brains expect.

What we perceive is a mixture of what our senses receive and what our brains expect
In day to day life, we do not perceive an exact replica of the world outside. Instead, our expectations colour what our senses are telling us; what we finally perceive is a blend of reality and expectation.
Imagine you look at a playing card, the Ace of Spades, with a completely open mind. The light from the card gets focused, by your lenses, onto your retina. The patterns formed on your retinal cells get relayed to the back of your brain, which tells you there is a large black spade shape in the middle of the card and an A with a smaller spade on two of the corners. If you know how a pack of cards work, your brain recalls that the card with that pattern is the Ace of Spades. Up until the part where your brain recalls what that patterned card is, the process described is called bottom-up processing because all the data is coming from the basic perceptive organs – the eyes.
Now imagine you look at it convinced it is going to be the ten of hearts. The light is focused onto the retina and the messages are sent to the visual cortex in exactly the same way. However, this time your brain (fully expecting the ten of hearts and saving resources and time by not paying proper attention) ignores those objective signals. They don’t even make it to consciousness and your final perception is that the card is the Ten of Hearts. This is an extreme example, but you get the idea. This is called top-down processing because what you finally perceive comes straight from the top (expectation in the brain).
Normal everyday perception has to involve both bottom-up and top-down processing, so that we can not only sense our environment, but also understand it. However, if our senses are rushed or if we are not putting the effort into proper attention, top-down processing becomes more dominant. When this happens our expectations become more influential in our final perception, distorting what our senses are telling us. What we perceive is a mixture of what our senses take in and what we expect.
For example, Bruner and Postman showed people cards very quickly, some of which were doctored to be different (such as an ace of spades being red instead of black). Some participants simply took longer to recognise the card, but some perceived a red ace of spades as being purple, They expected black but saw red, so their brains mixed the two and they perceived purple.
This happens to us all the time in everyday life. What we perceive is a mixture of what our senses receive and what our brains expect.

Repetition Creates Belief

Repetition Creates Belief

Repeating a lie makes it true.
That statement is, of course, patently false; repetition cannot stop a lie from being a lie. But it can make people believe the lie. This is how…
If a statement is repeated it creates a sense of familiarity in the person who hears or reads it for the second, or third, or umpteenth time. We like familiarity. It makes us feel comfortable. And when we feel comfortable we relax into a state known by psychologists as Cognitive Ease. In this state of cognitive ease we are more likely to accept statements as true because we are, effectively, too relaxed to think about and challenge the details, so it slips by our critical faculties.
Begg, Armour and Kerr showed that repetition of even just a part of a statement can cause the entire statement, when it is finally revealed, more likely to be believed. They repeated the first part of a claim, “The body temperature of a chicken” to one group of their participants, who were subsequently exposed to the full (and, when one thinks about it, obviously false) claim, “The body temperature of a chicken is 144 degrees”. Those participants who had been exposed to the part-claim were more likely to believe it than those who had not.
Reading the first part of the statement (because they had already read it before) caused cognitive ease which persisted through the novel second part, so that second part was more likely to be believed.
As Daniel Kahneman put it, “Familiarity is not easily distinguished from the truth”.
P.S. Why the picture of Trump in a post about lies? Oh, no reason…

Medicine should taste bad

Medicine should taste bad

Research has shown that, because we think medicine tastes bad, horrible medicine can work better than nice medicine!

There is a very simple reason why medicine should taste bad, and it is a word which generally gets a bad rap: placebo. A placebo effect is where our brains fool us into feeling something that isn’t there, simply because we think it is. For example, wine tastes better if it costs us more because our brains fool us into thinking it must be good quality if we paid that much for it. The quality isn’t necessarily there, but we think it is and the expectation makes it tastes better to us.
Placebos are used in drugs trials to verify that it is the active ingredient of the drug which is producing the desired effect, and not just the expectation. However, we as consumers all hold what are known as “naive theories” about how the world works, and the scientists conducting those drugs trials have to be aware of these (as demonstrated here by Farr and Gwaltney).
Naive theories are simple rules of thumb we tend to believe, such as: expensive wine tastes better; cheap products won’t last as long; and medicine tastes bad.
Because we have grown up believing that medicine tastes bad, the taste can now affect the way we respond to medication, as can packaging, colour and other variables (as shown by Wright et al in 2013).
If medicine tastes nice we are not convinced it can be any good. However, if medicine tastes bad we think it must be effective and our brains produce the effect we expect.

Fake News

Fake News

How Does Fake News Work?

What is Fake News?
I don’t recall hearing the term “Fake News” before a year or so ago, but now it is everywhere. Donald Trump makes many claims that journalists are inventing fake news against him, whilst his detractors accuse him of propagating fake news himself. So what is fake news and how does it work?

According to Wikipedia, Fake News is a deliberate spread of misinformation, with the intent to mislead in order to gain financially or politically.

Fake News vs Satire
If a well known comedy programme featured a parody of a news presenter saying that Donald Trump’s hair was actually a miniaturised Siberian Yeti implanted by the Russians as a spy, I would suggest that was satire. Both the source and the content suggest that it is not something which should be believed.

On the other hand, when a Fox news anchor claimed he had multiple FBI sources saying they were 99% sure that Hillary Clinton’s email server had been hacked by foreign intelligence agencies (the claim was retracted a few days later), that was surely Fake News. The content built on arguably real news (the way Hillary Clinton’s email server was set up), and was put out by a man whose job is to read the news on a serious news network. It was clearly intended to make people believe the claim and to put Hillary Clinton in a bad light.

Why and How?
The question of why people would spread Fake News is clear – because it works. It works to smear political opponents. People all too often simply believe what they see and read. A recent study at Stanford University into how well people evaluate stories on social media came up with this conclusion; “Overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak.”

The question of how it works is only slightly less obvious. The short answer is, “Mud sticks”. If you throw mud at someone, some of it at least will stick to them. If you accuse someone of something, at least a few people will believe it no matter how absurd, and even those who don’t believe it completely may be swayed at least a little.

Psychologically, there are several reasons that mud sticks:

“No smoke without fire”. We have grown up with that phrase, and in our naivety may think there must be some small basis to a story if it is on the news.
It takes more effort to disbelieve than to believe; our default is to believe a statement. The problem is worse if you have been exerting yourself, mentally or physically, because you are less likely to put in the effort to evaluate a statement, and therefore more likely just to accept it.
Illusion of Truth effect: familiarity is not easily distinguished from the truth. If something is repeated it becomes more familiar and therefore more likely to be taken as true.

When Trump puts out a claim with no evidence whatsoever, such as “Obama bugged me”, news people all over the world clamour to talk about it and ask him about it, so it gets repeated and repeated (and, Heaven help me, I’ve just done the same). Even if, many of those times it is repeated, the journalists point out that there is no evidence for the claim, the repetition of that claim makes it more and more believed.

In these days of news stories flying around the world again and again, it is becoming increasingly important that we all learn to investigate claims for ourselves. We must make it a habit to look for the source of a story and identify that source’s motivation. We must stop assuming that someone has checked the facts before releasing a story and start checking those facts ourselves. And we must teach our children to do likewise. Now.

For more on cognitive biases check out my website or my book, Bias Beware.

Value for Money

Value for Money

Not long ago, I was out in London and developed a headache. When it didn’t go away of its own accord I popped into a chemist’s to get some tablets. Of course, there was a choice. I could go for one of several well known expensive brands or I could go for the chemist’s “own brand” variety for a fraction of the price.

Normally I wouldn’t hesitate to go for the cheaper option for something like paracetamol – after all, presumably the active ingredient is identical. However, by now this headache was really getting on my nerves and I was tempted to plump for a more expensive, branded version. Not because I thought they should work more quickly, but because I thought maybe my ingrained assumption that price equates to quality would fool the headache into going more quickly!

Because that is how we work, on the whole. In the absence of expert knowledge of how to assess the quality of any given product, we rely largely on price to guide us. After all, if that electric toothbrush costs £250, it must really be incredible. Sure, it may not be five times as good as the one that sells for £50, but it must be at least three times better, right? And taking good care of your teeth is really important. And look, it’s reduced to only £199.95 now – I’d better get it while it’s still on offer.

We generally believe we get what we pay for, even though we have all had expensive products which have broken down and cheap products that have gone on for years. Expensive wine tastes better (as an aside, wine tastes better in a heavier glass too, because we also associate weight with quality), expensive restaurants serve tastier food and expensive toothbrushes, when we have only just acquired them anyway, make our teeth feel “dentist clean” (insert glint of reflecting light off perfect smile here). And expensive drugs work better on our symptoms, naturally (beware of sugar coating though – some studies have shown that bad tasting medicine works better, because it can’t be medicine if it tastes okay, right?).

So here’s the question. Do you expect a higher paid CEO to perform better than a lower paid CEO? If you find out your CEO is paid £5,000,000, rather than the paltry £2,000,000 you were expecting, do you think, “Lucky bugger, there is no way anyone is worth that much (unless they play for the football team I support, and are quite good at kicking pigs’ bladders into nets)!”, or do you think, “Wow! He must be really good. I’m going to go out and buy some shares in this company”?

Oh, in case you were wondering, I bought the cheaper tablets and the headache went away very nicely, thank you very much.

To find out more about how price affects our thinking read my book, Bias Beware, available here.

You probably think you have above average intelligence.

You probably think you have above average intelligence.

You probably think you have above average intelligence. I would agree with you, since you are reading my blog.

It stands to reason that 50% of the population has above average intelligence, and 50% are below average. However, a study by Heck, Simons and Chabris has shown that 65% of Americans consider their intelligence to be above average.

This is not a surprise. Intelligence is considered a good thing, and we like to think well of ourselves. Therefore, to boost our own self-esteem, we consider ourselves above average. It is a kind of self-serving bias.

The effect was greater for men than for women. 70% of men, and 60% of women rated themselves as more intelligent than average. I will leave it to you to speculate why that may have been!

A self-serving bias is only one of several biases probably at play when you are asked how intelligent you are. You may also be affected by who you hang out with, and what you consider to be intelligence.

The statistics showed that those of a lower intelligence were more likely to overestimate, and those of a higher intelligence more likely to underestimate. This could be partly because people are likely to mix with others of a broadly similar mentality and intelligence. For example, those clever enough to get into university are then going to spend their time with other undergraduates and graduates. People they see all around them are very clever, so what they consider “average” may actually be far higher than the national average actually is.

Also, IQ may not be the only thing people are thinking about when asked about intelligence. Maybe someone who would not do well at exams considers themselves very streetwise, and that is the kind of intelligence which is relevant to them and their situation.

It is likely, though, that the overriding reason for 65% considering themselves as above average is the self-serving bias. We all want to feel good about ourselves.


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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If my articles interest you, you would really enjoy my book, Bias Beware, available here.