The King who Rained Confirmation Bias January 9, 2016Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches.
Tags: Cognitive Biases, confirmation bias, TV Shows, You are not so smart
One website I love is called “You Are Not So Smart”, written by David McRaney, which looks into all the different ways that we delude ourselves. Great stuff. He’s migrated it into a podcast now, but the original articles are still on the website.
One of the most important topics he covers is confirmation bias. After you read this, go read his article:
Here’s how he opens that article:
Have you ever had a conversation in which some old movie was mentioned, something like “The Golden Child” or maybe even something more obscure?
You laughed about it, quoted lines from it, wondered what happened to the actors you never saw again, and then you forgot about it. Until…
You are flipping channels one night and all of the sudden you see “The Golden Child” is playing. Weird. The next day you are reading a news story, and out of nowhere it mentions forgotten movies from the 1980s, and holy shit, three paragraphs about “The Golden Child.” You see a trailer that night at the theater for a new Eddie Murphy movie, and then you see a billboard on the street promoting Charlie Murphy doing stand-up in town, and then one of your friends sends you a link to a post at TMZ showing recent photos of the actress from “The Golden Child.”…
He goes on to talk about how that first reference primes us to notice and remember those other references, which otherwise we would have ignored. How what appears to us to be a significant pattern is really nothing of the sort.
I just have one problem with this article. I’ve never seen “The Golden Child”! I don’t really care for Eddie Murphy movies, never noticed this movie on TV or Netflix, so this example just doesn’t resonate with me. But I’ve been having a very similar experience over the last few days that I want to talk about.
A week ago I was remembering back to the TV shows from my childhood, and how some child actors just showed up everywhere. I was specifically remembering how Johnny Whitaker was in everything, so I went looking on YouTube for clips from the old version of Tom Sawyer that he did. (And found them, and I had forgotten that a very young Jodie Foster played Becky Thatcher.) But that reminded me of a version of The Littlest Angel that he had done in the late 60’s:
I found the full version on YouTube. I remembered liking it as a kid, but going back to watch it now, it was really bad. Really, really stupid and bad. Fred Gwynne could actually sing, though, who knew? But overall it was cheesy, poorly written and just painful to watch. (Priming accomplished.)
A few days later, I was bored, and so asked Wikipedia for a random article. What came up? The entry for the really old TV show Car 54 Where Are You? That was pretty cool, because some years back I had caught some reruns of this show, and so I was familiar with it, and even remember how the theme song went. Here’s the stars:
Are you seeing the pattern here?
Now we’re up to lunch Thursday. My spouse and I were at a little restaurant near my office, and it had background music on, the usual fairly current pop stuff, but nothing too distracting. Then they played something that I couldn’t help but listen to. It turns out to be Fall Out Boy’s song Uma Thurman. I had to look that song up, because I couldn’t catch any of the words at the time. What caught my ear about it was the old song that they had sampled. (That was the only thing that caught my ear about the song.)
What had they sampled? The very distinctive theme song to The Munsters! So what pops into my head – this guy of course!
I only noticed this “pattern” because my brain was already primed to notice it from the awful video I watched a week ago. Otherwise I would probably never have noticed it. Confirmation bias in action.
(The title of this post comes from one of the children’s books written and illustrated by Fred Gwynne, which I also remember from my childhood.)