Monday, 3 November 2014

What You Look At You See




A topic arose on a facebook group, which was more or less this:

Anyway, newest bit of helpful advice from his wife! "We never had car seats and we survived, it's all just money making"..........:|, I had to walk away.

My response was:

Hands up all the kids who didn't have car seats who died....
... uh ... anyone?
It's called 'attention bias' --noticing only what you already believe is true. It's extremely popular.

In the case of the ‘we didn’t use car seats and we all survived’ the first piece of the problem is exactly as I retorted: hands up all of us who didn’t survive childhood.

A basic problem with the argument is that it only asks for people who could not have died as a result of lacking vehicle safety to confirm that they have not died of that cause. That’s a very convenient demographic to prove that point with… Convenient, but not compelling …

Attention bias causes all kinds of mistakes in thinking and decision-making.

It makes things feel like a big trend (say ‘there is more cancer now than ever before’) when the real change is more likely to be our age and our increased exposure to the demographic that has always had higher cancer rates . . . because in reality cancer rates are dropping steadily.

Attention bias can make us believe that since it hasn’t happened to us, it can’t happen to us (also known as the Gambler’s Fallacy: three coin tosses that come up heads means the next coin toss has a more than 1 in 2 chance of coming up tails, as if the former tosses have any impact on the physics of the next one.)

Not having been killed in a car accident yesterday does not decrease your chances of being killed in one tomorrow… it increases your odds. Because if you’d died yesterday, your odds of dying today would be nil.

Attention Bias is also something our minds can be primed to experience immediately, by having something specific pointed out:

Look around your room –do you see any particular colour pop out at you?

Now, look around your room for things that are blue.

Simply scanning for something in particular makes it stand out against what was, a moment ago, all background. It’s a natural attribute of our minds, which we get far better at as we age.

The first time I noticed the effect of Attention Bias was when I got my braces. I’d never taken notice of people’s teeth before, and suddenly it was the first thing I saw.

By Jason Regan (mouthy  Uploaded by SchuminWeb) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

In real terms, we don’t do statistically analysis very well in our heads. We think things that have happened are very likely to happen again, and things that we have no contact with feel very unlikely to happen.

Some of this comes out in poor advice to teens (like ‘don’t go into professional music, hardly anyone becomes a rock star’ –when it’s really a thriving multi-billion dollar international industry, not just a handful of we-don’t-know-any superstars) and some of it comes out as curmudgeonly nonsense of the ‘we survived it so it’s not dangerous’ kind, as noted above.

You Don’t Have to Believe Everything You Think

Some people find it easier than others, learning to think about their own Attention Bias, and others find it tremendously difficult.

It can help to evaluate the ‘always, never’ statements first … which the first quote really is. The premise is ‘no child ever died in a car accident without a car seat’ . . .  which is a statement I’m fairly confident no one would suggest is true, which helpfully unravels the rest of the nonsense attributed to it very quickly.

Unless it’s a relative you already know is resistant to ever really thinking about anything. Then, it’s just a handy thing to know is going on in the background, so you can happily ignore all their ‘always, never’ statements in the future . . .

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