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All the Biases: Too Much Information part 2, the Weird Stuff July 4, 2022

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches.
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Continuing on with my analysis of the biases listed in this graphic.  The next section has the awkwardly long name of “Bizarre, funny, visually-striking or anthropomorphic things stick out more than non-bizarre/unfunny things.”  Well, I can improve on that.  I’d rather call it “We don’t notice the boring stuff.”

Here’s their list under this sub-heading:

  • Bizarreness Effect
  • Humor Effect
  • Von Restorff Effect
  • Picture Superiority Effect
  • Self-relevance Effect
  • Negativity Bias

Let’s take a look!

  • Bizarreness Effect

Pretty obvious.  Supposedly we remember weird stuff better than ordinary stuff.  Apparently this one is somewhat disputed; there is apparently conflicting evidence about whether this is real.  I guess if something is so bizarre as to incomprehensible, we might not really take it in well enough to remember it.

  • Humor Effect

We remember funny stuff better than ordinary stuff.   Again, pretty obvious.  Example:  There are college classes I took where I don’t remember any specific things we learned.  I sure can’t do quantum mechanics calculations anymore.  But the one course where the professor kept us in helpless laughter the whole class, with stories of his childhood and his rotten little brother, I remember much more of that class material.  (There was a waitlist to get into that class, it was so popular!)

Another example of this, back when my spouse was an estate planning attorney, he first needed to educate his clients about some basics on estates and trusts.  Rather than boring them with a lot of rules and regulations, he told stories to get his points across, and making them funny helped.  So later, when a client asked why they needed to include something in their plan, he could just remind them about “your wife’s next husband, Biff the personal trainer” or “Bill Gates in the IRS Grocery store”.  This also relates to how people remember stories better than lists of things, which I hope will also show up somewhere in this list of biases.

  • Von Restorff Effect

When looking at a group of mostly similar things, the one that is most different will be more easily remembered.  This especially goes for visual groups, and marketers use this on us all the time.  They will make sure that the choice they want us to make is highlighted in some way.  But it also applies to written lists.  For example, look at this list: “desk, chair, bed, table, chipmunk, dresser, stool, couch”.  If you try to recall the items later, the one that you will most easily recall would probably be “chipmunk” because it was the one that was different.

But if each thing on the list has something eye-catchingly unique about it, then the effect no longer works. When everything is special, then nothing is special.  For instance, in this this picture, an argument can be made for any of the four images, as to why it’s the one that’s unique.  As a result, none of them may stand out as more memorable than the others.

  • Picture Superiority Effect

We remember images better than we remember text.  Which is one reason why I almost always include some kind of image in each of my blog posts.

  • Self-relevance Effect

As I look this up, I find a lot more entries under the name “self-reference effect” which as far as I can tell is the same thing.  We remember things better when they involve us personally.

Thinking about advertising, and given all of these effects above, it would make sense that the best, most attention grabbing ad campaign of all time would encompass all of them.  It would be strange, funny, significantly different from any other ad of the time, personally relevant to the viewer, and include memorable images.  And my candidate for the most memorable ad campaign of all time checks all of those boxes.

The man your man could smell like

(If you aren’t of the right age to remember this commercial, you can see the original here.)

  • Negativity Bias

When making an evaluation, we pay more attention to negative traits than we do to positive ones.  Example:  Say we are thinking about a generally honest person and a generally dishonest person.  If the honest person does something dishonest, we will change our opinion of them and consider them now to be dishonest.  But if a dishonest person does something honest, that doesn’t make us now consider them to be an honest person, it was just a dishonest person doing one thing out of character.

I think that this one might belong under another section, since it’s not really about noticing a non-boring thing.  For now I’m going to move it to the “we notice flaws in others” section, and when I examine that section I’ll see if I decide to leave it there.


This subsection was all pretty obvious, although I didn’t know the name “Von Restorff Effect” before.  (Honestly, that one hardly seems to need a name, it’s just more like “Noticeable things are noticeable”.  Duh.)  As always, does anyone have any good examples of these effects?

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All the Biases: Too Much Information part 1 July 2, 2022

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches.
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I’m going to start a new occasional series, based on this graphic, which takes Wikipedia’s list of cognitive biases and sorts them into groupings:

I realize that you can’t possibly read that, so you can see the full version here.  Original source story where I found this graphic is here.

Now, cognitive biases are one of my favorite subjects.  Understanding how our own brains mess up and lead us astray can really help us when we are striving for clearer thinking. So I thought I’d start working through this chart one group at a time, as a good chance to review individual cognitive biases, learn about some new ones, and see if I agree with the groupings in the graphic. (more…)

Thinking about Sincerity January 7, 2020

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Rants, Responses.
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When theists try to convert unbelievers, they often try to reinforce how sincere they are about what they believe.  And they often seem surprised that their sincerity isn’t taken as a sign that their assertions should be accepted.

So this is a thought experiment to illustrate the weakness of “sincerity”.

For the purposes of this experiment, let’s assume that a god actually exists, and that it’s the christian biblegod, or something very similar.

Imagine that standing in front of you are five people.  And each one of those people says “God talks to me”.  Are they right?  They each sound completely sincere about this, and in fact each one assures you that they really really know this to be true.

(I’ve provided you with lovely stickman artwork, showing off my amazing skill at Powerpoint.  You’re welcome.)

But here’s who you’re actually seeing: (more…)

That one weird thing that didn’t happen July 7, 2018

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches.
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This morning, just before I woke up, I was having some long complicated dream about marble racing.  (That’s not completely out of the blue; I’ve been waching “Let’s Plays” of Myst III Exile, and it has a whole section of rolling ball puzzles.) As part of the dream, however, one of the things that came up was that Dan Barker had just died.  (Dan is a co-founder of FFRF, if you don’t recognize the name.)

After I got up, I checked the internet, and as far as I can tell, he’s fine.  Not dead.  This was a total non-event.

This kind of thing happens to people all the time.  Someone or something pops into our minds and for a moment it seems significant.  And then it turns out that it isn’t significant, and we FORGET.  All those old songs you thought about, but didn’t then hear on the radio.  All those old friends you were just thinking of that didn’t call you.  That famous person you were reminded of, and who didn’t have any big news that day.  This is normal, boring, and we just have no reason to remember these things, or how often they happen.

So the few times when, by coincidence, you DO happen to hear that old song, or get a call from that old friend, it seems completely amazing!  Hey everybody, I must be psychic!  I was just thinking about that person, and here’s a news story about them!  What are the odds?

The odds are, that since so many people are thinking about so many things, that once in awhile that coincidence should happen.   What would be weird would be if those coincidences never happened.

As an example, how many people do you think are listening to a Michael Jackson song right now?  Probably quite a lot.  How many people were listening to one, or had just listened to one, when the news broke that Michael Jackson had died?  Probably a similar number.  And a lot of of those people probably told everyone they knew about their amazing coincidence, and how it meant something.

But all it meant was that human brains are very susceptible to confirmation bias.  We remember the hits, and forget all the misses.  We forget all the boring stuff and remember only what was interesting and different.  The price of keeping our brains free of everyday clutter is that it messes with our understanding of coincidences.

You won’t believe the BEST reason for being an atheist! February 5, 2018

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches, Responses.
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18 comments

A while back Jim posed a question on his blog, The Common Atheist.

His request was “If each of you would share right here one of your best arguments for atheism…”

And I replied with one of my best reasons, but since it was in a comment thread I tried to keep my answer brief.  However, I think the point I was making deserves a more careful discussion.  So here’s a full post about it. (more…)

Amazing Graphic – All the Biases October 4, 2017

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches.
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My spouse put me on to this image:

This is a chart of ALL the known cognitive biases, grouped into rough categories.  This is one of my favorite subjects to learn about, because it really helps me understand why people do inexplicable things.

What are cognitive biases?  (I also like to call them “brain glitches.”)  They are the ways humans mess up when thinking, making consistent sorts of mistakes and being illogical in predictable ways.

In a way, it makes sense that we have some of these glitches. We simply do not have enough brain capacity and brain power and speed to completely think through everything in our lives.  We can sit down and ponder through a few things logically, but that’s tiring and often too slow.  Most of the time we function on “rules of thumb” and mental shortcuts, and for most of human history those worked well enough, usually.  But maybe not so well in our complicated modern world.

But some of these just seem to be idiosyncrasies of the way our brain is wired.  And we are all subject to them, to some extent.  But understanding these has certainly been helpful for me, both in catching myself thinking sloppily, or understanding why other people behave the way they do.

To see a full size image that you can actually read, please go here.

(And once I finish with sporking the Mormon guidebook, I think I might start a blog series based off this graphic, looking at sets of biases in the way they are grouped together in the chart.)

Inner Demons January 19, 2017

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Books, Brain Glitches, Responses.
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Still reading Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature.  I’ve just finished the chapter on what it is about human brains that leads us into violence that ought to be avoidable.  Again, this chapter really could be a whole book on its own.

He sums up at the end of this chapter by re-listing five “inner demons” and I think his list is a good summary.  He didn’t number the list, but I’m going to here:

  1. People, especially men, are overconfident in their prospects for success; when they fight each other, the outcome is likely to be bloodier than any of them thought.
  2. People, especially men, strive for dominance for themselves and their groups; when contests of dominance are joined, they are unlikely to sort the parties by merit and are likely to be a net loss for everyone.
  3. People seek revenge by an accounting that exaggerates their innocence and their adversaries’ malice; when two sides seek perfect justice, they condemn themselves and their heirs to strife.
  4. People can not only overcome their revulsion to hands-on violence but acquire a taste for it; if they indulge it in private, or in cahoots with their peers, they can become sadists.
  5. And people can avow a belief they don’t hold because they think everyone else avows it; such beliefs can sweep through a closed society and bring it under the spell of a collective delusion. (pg 570)

The chapter has a really detailed examination of each of these points.  This is a really interesting book, and I wish it was required reading for every politician before they were allowed to take office.

Self-delusion January 14, 2017

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches, Questions, Responses.
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I’m reading Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature.  It’s an enormous and thorough work on the decline of violence.  Each chapter could really be a book on it’s own, and it’s taking me a really long time to work through it.

A day or so ago, though, this sentence jumped out at me.  It’s in a section where he’s discussing why humans tend to think they are more competent, smarter, and luckier than they actually are:

“… Positive illusions are a bargaining tactic, a credible bluff.  In recruiting an ally to support you in a risky venture, in bargaining for the best deal, or in intimidating an adversary into backing down, you stand to gain if you credibly exaggerate your strengths.  Believing your own exaggerations is better than cynically lying about it, because the arms race between lying and lie detection has equipped your audience with the means of seeing through barefaced lies.” (pg 512)

Hmm.  I’ve been looking for reasons why humans tend to be so good at self-delusion, and this idea could factor into the explanation.  But its validity would hinge on humans being reasonably good at detecting lies.  I’m not convinced that they are, especially given recent politics.

What do you think?

Answers to “A Question for Atheists” August 14, 2016

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Questions, Responses.
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Godless Cranium linked to a post at flyinguineapig, with two longish questions for atheists. Flyinguineapig appears to be a strongly christian blogger, but these questions aren’t really the typical “gotcha” questions that I would expect to see on a blog of that sort, so I’ll go ahead and tackle them. Rather than try to answer in the comments at either of those blogs, I’ll post my answers here, and link back to them.  Also, I prefer to write my own answers before I read through everybody else’s answers.

My first question is more general. I see this among atheists and my agnostic friends. People deny the possibility of any deity’s existence because of the lack of some kind of proof. It occurred to me that I have no idea what kind of proof you’re looking for. Furthermore, it seems to me that, in many cases, not just in the case of spirituality, what constitutes proof is at least somewhat subjective. I would love to get a few different perspectives, so my question is, what would prove to you that God exists?

Let me start with this part of the question: “People deny the possibility of any deity’s existence…”  Most atheists I know don’t actually do this, so the question is starting out with rather of a strawman assumption.

The difficult part of this assumption is – how do you define a god?  It’s a really nebulous term.  I know what the christians mean when they talk about their god, but the question here is “any deity”.  What characteristics would a being need to have in order for us to consider it a god?  Let’s look at a few examples: (more…)

The King who Rained Confirmation Bias January 9, 2016

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches.
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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:

http://youarenotsosmart.com/2010/06/23/confirmation-bias/

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:

Littlest angel

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:

Car 54

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!

Herman Munster

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.)

King who rained