Tag: Bias

Job Interviews Don’t Work

Better hiring leads to better work environments, less turnover, and more innovation and productivity. When you understand the limitations and pitfalls of the job interview, you improve your chances of hiring the best possible person for your needs.

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The job interview is a ritual just about every adult goes through at least once. They seem to be a ubiquitous part of most hiring processes. The funny thing about them, however, is that they take up time and resources without actually helping to select the best people to hire. Instead, they promote a homogenous workforce where everyone thinks the same.

If you have any doubt about how much you can get from an interview, think of what’s involved for the person being interviewed. We’ve all been there. The night before, you dig out your smartest outfit, iron it, and hope your hair lies flat for once. You frantically research the company, reading every last news article based on a formulaic press release, every blog post by the CEO, and every review by a disgruntled former employee.

After a sleepless night, you trek to their office, make awkward small talk, then answer a set of predictable questions. What’s your biggest weakness? Where do you see yourself in five years? Why do you want this job? Why are you leaving your current job? You reel off the answers you prepared the night before, highlighting the best of the best. All the while, you’re reminding yourself to sit up straight, don’t bite your nails, and keep smiling.

It’s not much better on the employer’s side of the table. When you have a role to fill, you select a list of promising candidates and invite them for an interview. Then you pull together a set of standard questions to riff off, doing a little improvising as you hear their responses. At the end of it all, you make some kind of gut judgment about the person who felt right—likely the one you connected with the most in the short time you were together.

Is it any surprise that job interviews don’t work when the whole process is based on subjective feelings? They are in no way the most effective means of deciding who to hire because they maximize the role of bias and minimize the role of evaluating competency.

What is a job interview?

“In most cases, the best strategy for a job interview is to be fairly honest, because the worst thing that can happen is that you won’t get the job and will spend the rest of your life foraging for food in the wilderness and seeking shelter underneath a tree or the awning of a bowling alley that has gone out of business.”

— Lemony Snicket, Horseradish

When we say “job interviews” throughout this post, we’re talking about the type of interview that has become standard in many industries and even in universities: free-form interviews in which candidates sit in a room with one or more people from a prospective employer (often people they might end up working with) and answer unstructured questions. Such interviews tend to focus on how a candidate behaves generally, emphasizing factors like whether they arrive on time or if they researched the company in advance. While questions may ostensibly be about predicting job performance, they tend to better select for traits like charisma rather than actual competence.

Unstructured interviews can make sense for certain roles. The ability to give a good first impression and be charming matters for a salesperson. But not all roles need charm, and just because you don’t want to hang out with someone after an interview doesn’t mean they won’t be an amazing software engineer. In a small startup with a handful of employees, someone being “one of the gang” might matter because close-knit friendships are a strong motivator when work is hard and pay is bad. But that group mentality may be less important in a larger company in need of diversity.

Considering the importance of hiring and how much harm getting it wrong can cause, it makes sense for companies to study and understand the most effective interview methods. Let’s take a look at why job interviews don’t work and what we can do instead.

Why job interviews are ineffective

Discrimination and bias

Information like someone’s age, gender, race, appearance, or social class shouldn’t dictate if they get a job or not—their competence should. But that’s unfortunately not always the case. Interviewers can end up picking the people they like the most, which often means those who are most similar to them. This ultimately means a narrower range of competencies is available to the organization.

Psychologist Ron Friedman explains in The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace some of the unconscious biases that can impact hiring. We tend to rate attractive people as more competent, intelligent, and qualified. We consider tall people to be better leaders, particularly when evaluating men. We view people with deep voices as more trustworthy than those with higher voices.

Implicit bias is pernicious because it’s challenging to spot the ways it influences interviews. Once an interviewer judges someone, they may ask questions that nudge the interviewee towards fitting that perception. For instance, if they perceive someone to be less intelligent, they may ask basic questions that don’t allow the candidate to display their expertise. Having confirmed their bias, the interviewer has no reason to question it or even notice it in the future.

Hiring often comes down to how much an interviewer likes a candidate as a person. This means that we can be manipulated by manufactured charm. If someone’s charisma is faked for an interview, an organization can be left dealing with the fallout for ages.

The map is not the territory

The representation of something is not the thing itself. A job interview is meant to be a quick snapshot to tell a company how a candidate would be at a job. However, it’s not a representative situation in terms of replicating how the person will perform in the actual work environment.

For instance, people can lie during job interviews. Indeed, the situation practically encourages it. While most people feel uncomfortable telling outright lies (and know they would face serious consequences later on for a serious fabrication), bending the truth is common. Ron Friedman writes, “Research suggests that outright lying generates too much psychological discomfort for people to do it very often. More common during interviews are more nuanced forms of deception which include embellishment (in which we take credit for things we haven’t done), tailoring (in which we adapt our answers to fit the job requirements), and constructing (in which we piece together elements from different experiences to provide better answers.)” An interviewer can’t know if someone is deceiving them in any of these ways. So they can’t know if they’re hearing the truth.

One reason why we think job interviews are representative is the fundamental attribution error. This is a logical fallacy that leads us to believe that the way people behave in one area carries over to how they will behave in other situations. We view people’s behaviors as the visible outcome of innate characteristics, and we undervalue the impact of circumstances.

Some employers report using one single detail they consider representative to make hiring decisions, such as whether a candidate sends a thank-you note after the interview or if their LinkedIn picture is a selfie. Sending a thank-you note shows manners and conscientiousness. Having a selfie on LinkedIn shows unprofessionalism. But is that really true? Can one thing carry across to every area of job performance? It’s worth debating.

Gut feelings aren’t accurate

We all like to think we can trust our intuition. The problem is that intuitive judgments tend to only work in areas where feedback is fast and cause and effect clear. Job interviews don’t fall into that category. Feedback is slow. The link between a hiring decision and a company’s success is unclear.

Overwhelmed by candidates and the pressure of choosing, interviewers may resort to making snap judgments based on limited information. And interviews introduce a lot of noise, which can dilute relevant information while leading to overconfidence. In a study entitled Belief in the Unstructured Interview: The Persistence of an Illusion, participants predicted the future GPA of a set of students. They either received biographical information about the students or both biographical information and an interview. In some of the cases, the interview responses were entirely random, meaning they shouldn’t have conveyed any genuine useful information.

Before the participants made their predictions, the researchers informed them that the strongest predictor of a student’s future GPA is their past GPA. Seeing as all participants had access to past GPA information, they should have factored it heavily into their predictions.

In the end, participants who were able to interview the students made worse predictions than those who only had access to biographical information. Why? Because the interviews introduced too much noise. They distracted participants with irrelevant information, making them forget the most significant predictive factor: past GPA. Of course, we do not have clear metrics like GPA for jobs. But this study indicates that interviews do not automatically lead to better judgments about a person.

We tend to think human gut judgments are superior, even when evidence doesn’t support this. We are quick to discard information that should shape our judgments in favor of less robust intuitions that we latch onto because they feel good. The less challenging information is to process, the better it feels. And we tend to associate good feelings with ‘rightness’.

Experience ≠ expertise in interviewing

In 1979, the University of Texas Medical School at Houston suddenly had to increase its incoming class size by 50 students due to a legal change requiring larger classes. Without time to interview again, they selected from the pool of candidates the school chose to interview, then rejected as unsuitable for admission. Seeing as they got through to the interview stage, they had to be among the best candidates. They just weren’t previously considered good enough to admit.

When researchers later studied the result of this unusual situation, they found that the students whom the school first rejected performed no better or worse academically than the ones they first accepted. In short, interviewing students did nothing to help select for the highest performers.

Studying the efficacy of interviews is complicated and hard to manage from an ethical standpoint. We can’t exactly give different people the same real-world job in the same conditions. We can take clues from fortuitous occurrences, like the University of Texas Medical School change in class size and the subsequent lessons learned. Without the legal change, the interviewers would never have known that the students they rejected were of equal competence to the ones they accepted. This is why building up experience in this arena is difficult. Even if someone has a lot of experience conducting interviews, it’s not straightforward to translate that into expertise. Expertise is about have a predictive model of something, not just knowing a lot about it.

Furthermore, the feedback from hiring decisions tends to be slow. An interviewer cannot know what would happen if they hired an alternate candidate. If a new hire doesn’t work out, that tends to fall on them, not the person who chose them. There are so many factors involved that it’s not terribly conducive to learning from experience.

Making interviews more effective

It’s easy to see why job interviews are so common. People want to work with people they like, so interviews allow them to scope out possible future coworkers. Candidates expect interviews, as well—wouldn’t you feel a bit peeved if a company offered you a job without the requisite “casual chat” beforehand? Going through a grueling interview can make candidates more invested in the position and likely to accept an offer. And it can be hard to imagine viable alternatives to interviews.

But it is possible to make job interviews more effective or make them the final step in the hiring process after using other techniques to gauge a potential hire’s abilities. Doing what works should take priority over what looks right or what has always been done.

Structured interviews

While unstructured interviews don’t work, structured ones can be excellent. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes how he redefined the Israel Defense Force’s interviewing process as a young psychology graduate. At the time, recruiting a new soldier involved a series of psychometric tests followed by an interview to assess their personality. Interviewers then based their decision on their intuitive sense of a candidate’s fitness for a particular role. It was very similar to the method of hiring most companies use today—and it proved to be useless.

Kahneman introduced a new interviewing style in which candidates answered a predefined series of questions that were intended to measure relevant personality traits for the role (for example, responsibility and sociability). He then asked interviewers to give candidates a score for how well they seemed to exhibit each trait based on their responses. Kahneman explained that “by focusing on standardized, factual questions I hoped to combat the halo effect, where favorable first impressions influence later judgments.” He tasked interviewers only with providing these numbers, not with making a final decision.

Although interviewers at first disliked Kahneman’s system, structured interviews proved far more effective and soon became the standard for the IDF. In general, they are often the most useful way to hire. The key is to decide in advance on a list of questions, specifically designed to test job-specific skills, then ask them to all the candidates. In a structured interview, everyone gets the same questions with the same wording, and the interviewer doesn’t improvise.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic writes in The Talent Delusion:

There are at least 15 different meta-analytic syntheses on the validity of job interviews published in academic research journals. These studies show that structured interviews are very useful to predict future job performance. . . . In comparison, unstructured interviews, which do not have a set of predefined rules for scoring or classifying answers and observations in a reliable and standardized manner, are considerably less accurate.

Why does it help if everyone hears the same questions? Because, as we learned previously, interviewers can make unconscious judgments about candidates, then ask questions intended to confirm their assumptions. Structured interviews help measure competency, not irrelevant factors. Ron Friedman explains this further:

It’s also worth having interviewers develop questions ahead of time so that: 1) each candidate receives the same questions, and 2) they are worded the same way. The more you do to standardize your interviews, providing the same experience to every candidate, the less influence you wield on their performance.

What, then, is an employer to do with the answers? Friedman says you must then create clear criteria for evaluating them.

Another step to help minimize your interviewing blind spots: include multiple interviewers and give them each specific criteria upon which to evaluate the candidate. Without a predefined framework for evaluating applicants—which may include relevant experience, communication skills, attention to detail—it’s hard for interviewers to know where to focus. And when this happens, fuzzy interpersonal factors hold greater weight, biasing assessments. Far better to channel interviewers’ attention in specific ways, so that the feedback they provide is precise.

Blind auditions

One way to make job interviews more effective is to find ways to “blind” the process—to disguise key information that may lead to biased judgments. Blinded interviews focus on skills alone, not who a candidate is as a person. Orchestras offer a remarkable case study in the benefits of blinding.

In the 1970s, orchestras had a gender bias problem. A mere 5% of their members were women, on average. Orchestras knew they were missing out on potential talent, but they found the audition process seemed to favor men over women. Those who were carrying out auditions couldn’t sidestep their unconscious tendency to favor men.

Instead of throwing up their hands in despair and letting this inequality stand, orchestras began carrying out blind auditions. During these, candidates would play their instruments behind a screen while a panel listened and assessed their performance. They received no identifiable information about candidates. The idea was that orchestras would be able to hire without room for bias. It took a bit of tweaking to make it work – at first, the interviewers were able to discern gender based on the sound of a candidate’s shoes. After that, they requested that people interview without their shoes.

The results? By 1997, up to 25% of orchestra members were women. Today, the figure is closer to 30%.

Although this is sometimes difficult to replicate for other types of work, blind auditions can provide an inspiration to other industries that could benefit from finding ways to make interviews more about a person’s abilities than their identity.

Competency-related evaluations

What’s the best way to test if someone can do a particular job well? Get them to carry out tasks that are part of the job. See if they can do what they say they can do. It’s much harder for someone to lie and mislead an interviewer during actual work than during an interview. Using competency tests for a blinded interview process is also possible—interviewers could look at depersonalized test results to make unbiased judgments.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic writes in The Talent Delusion: Why Data, Not Intuition, Is the Key to Unlocking Human Potential, “The science of personnel selection is over a hundred years old yet decision-makers still tend to play it by ear or believe in tools that have little academic rigor. . . . An important reason why talent isn’t measured more scientifically is the belief that rigorous tests are difficult and time-consuming to administer, and that subjective evaluations seem to do the job ‘just fine.’”

Competency tests are already quite common in many fields. But interviewers tend not to accord them sufficient importance. They come after an interview, or they’re considered secondary to it. A bad interview can override a good competency test. At best, interviewers accord them equal importance to interviews. Yet they should consider them far more important.

Ron Friedman writes, “Extraneous data such as a candidate’s appearance or charisma lose their influence when you can see the way an applicant actually performs. It’s also a better predictor of their future contributions because unlike traditional in-person interviews, it evaluates job-relevant criteria. Including an assignment can help you better identify the true winners in your applicant pool while simultaneously making them more invested in the position.”

Conclusion

If a company relies on traditional job interviews as its sole or main means of choosing employees, it simply won’t get the best people. And getting hiring right is paramount to the success of any organization. A driven team of people passionate about what they do can trump one with better funding and resources. The key to finding those people is using hiring techniques that truly work.

Unlikely Optimism: The Conjunctive Events Bias

When certain events need to take place to achieve a desired outcome, we’re overly optimistic that those events will happen. Here’s why we should temper those expectations.

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Why are we so optimistic in our estimation of the cost and schedule of a project? Why are we so surprised when something inevitably goes wrong? If we want to get better at executing our plans successfully, we need to be aware of how the conjunctive events bias can throw us way off track.

We often overestimate the likelihood of conjunctive events—occurrences that must happen in conjunction with one another. The probability of a series of conjunctive events happening is lower than the probability of any individual event. This is often very hard for us to wrap our heads around. But if we don’t try, we risk seriously underestimating the time, money, and effort required to achieve our goals.

The Most Famous Bank Teller

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman gives a now-classic example of the conjunctive events bias. Students at several major universities received a description of a woman. They were told that Linda is 31, single, intelligent, a philosophy major, and concerned with social justice. Students were then asked to estimate which of the following statements is most likely true:

  • Linda is a bank teller.
  • Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

The majority of students (85% to 95%) chose the latter statement, seeing the conjunctive events (that she is both a bank teller and a feminist activist) as more probable. Two events together seemed more likely that one event. It’s perfectly possible that Linda is a feminist bank teller. It’s just not more probable for her to be a feminist bank teller than it is for her to be a bank teller. After all, the first statement does not exclude the possibility of her being a feminist; it just does not mention it.

The logic underlying the Linda example can be summed up as follows: The extension rule in probability theory states that if B is a subset of A, B cannot be more probable than A. Likewise, the probability of A and B cannot be higher than the probability of A or B. Broader categories are always more probable than their subsets. It’s more likely a randomly selected person is a parent than it is that they are a father. It’s more likely someone has a pet than they have a cat. It’s more likely someone likes coffee than they like cappuccinos. And so on.

It’s not that we always think conjunctive events are more likely. If the second option in the Linda Problem was ‘Linda is a bank teller and likes to ski’, maybe we’d all pick just the bank teller option because we don’t have any information that makes either a good choice. The point here, is that given what we know about Linda, we think it’s likely she’s a feminist. Therefore, we are willing to add almost anything to the Linda package if it appears with ‘feminist’. This willingness to create a narrative with pieces that clearly don’t fit is the real danger of the conjunctive events bias.

“Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” 

— Dwight D. Eisenhower

Why the best laid plans often fail

The conjunctive events bias makes us underestimate the effort required to accomplish complex plans. Most plans don’t work out. Things almost always take longer than expected. There are always delays due to dependencies. As Max Bazerman and Don Moore explain in Judgment in Managerial Decision Making, “The overestimation of conjunctive events offers a powerful explanation for the problems that typically occur with projects that require multistage planning. Individuals, businesses, and governments frequently fall victim to the conjunctive events bias in terms of timing and budgets. Home remodeling, new product ventures, and public works projects seldom finish on time.”

Plans don’t work because completing a sequence of tasks requires a great deal of cooperation from multiple events. As a system becomes increasingly complex, the chance of failure increases. A plan can be thought of as a system. Thus, a change in one component will very likely have impacts on the functionality of other parts of the system. The more components you have, the more chances that something will go wrong in one of them, causing delays, setbacks, and fails in the rest of the system. Even if the chance of an individual component failing is slight, a large number of them will increase the probability of failure.

Imagine you’re building a house. Things start off well. The existing structure comes down on schedule. Construction continues and the framing goes up, and you are excited to see the progress. The contractor reassures you that all trades and materials are lined up and ready to go. What is more likely:

  • The building permits get delayed
  • The building permits get delayed and the electrical goes in on schedule

You know a bit about the electrical schedule. You know nothing about the permits. But you bucket them in optimistically, erroneously linking one with the other. So you don’t worry about the building permits and never imagine that their delay will impact the electrical. When the permits do get delayed you have to pay the electrician for the week he can’t work, and then have to wait for him to finish another job before he can resume yours.

Thus, the more steps involved in a plan, the greater the chance of failure, as we associate probabilities to events that aren’t at all related. That is especially true as more people get involved, bringing their individual biases and misconceptions of chance.

In Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger, Peter Bevelin writes:

A project is composed of a series of steps where all must be achieved for success. Each individual step has some probability of failure. We often underestimate the large number of things that may happen in the future or all opportunities for failure that may cause a project to go wrong. Humans make mistakes, equipment fails, technologies don’t work as planned, unrealistic expectations, biases including sunk cost-syndrome, inexperience, wrong incentives, changing requirements, random events, ignoring early warning signals are reasons for delays, cost overruns, and mistakes. Often we focus too much on the specific base project case and ignore what normally happens in similar situations (base rate frequency of outcomes—personal and others). Why should some project be any different from the long-term record of similar ones? George Bernard Shaw said: “We learn from history that man can never learn anything from history.”

The more independent steps that are involved in achieving a scenario, the more opportunities for failure and the less likely it is that the scenario will happen. We often underestimate the number of steps, people, and decisions involved.

We can’t pretend that knowing about conjunctive events bias will automatically stop us from having it. When, however, we are doing planning where a successful outcome is of importance to us, it’s useful to run through our assumptions with this bias in mind. Sometimes, assigning frequencies instead of probabilities can also show us where our assumptions might be leading us astray. In the housing example above, asking what is the frequency of having building permits delayed in every hundred houses, versus the frequency of having permits delayed and electrical going in on time for the same hundred demonstrates more easily the higher frequency of option one.

It also extremely useful to keep a decision journal for our major decisions, so that we can more realistic in our estimates on the time and resources we need for future plans. The more realistic we are, the higher our chances of accomplishing what we set out to do.

The conjunctive events bias teaches us to be more pessimistic about plans and to consider the worst-case scenario, not just the best. We may assume things will always run smoothly but disruption is the rule rather than the exception.

Mental Model: Bias from Conjunction Fallacy

The bias from conjunction fallacy is a common reasoning error in which we believe that two events happening in conjunction is more probable than one of those events happening alone. Here’s why this happens and how we can overcome the fallacy.

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Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky spent decades in psychology research to disentangle patterns in errors of human reasoning. The duo discovered a variety of logical fallacies that we tend to make when facing information that appears vaguely familiar. These fallacies lead to bias — irrational behavior based on beliefs that are not always grounded in reality.

In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, which summarizes his and Tversky’s life work, Kahneman introduces biases that stem from the conjunction fallacy – the false belief that a conjunction of two events is more probable than one of the events on its own.

What is Probability?

Probability can be a difficult concept. Most of us have an intuitive understanding of what probability is, but there is little consensus on what it actually means. It is just as vague and subjective a concept as democracy, beauty or freedom. However, this is not always troublesome – we can still easily discuss the notion with others. Kahneman reflects:

In all the years I spent asking questions about the probability of events, no one ever raised a hand to ask me, “Sir, what do you mean by probability?” as they would have done if I had asked them to assess a strange concept such as globability.

Everyone acted as if they knew how to answer my questions, although we all understood that it would be unfair to ask them for an explanation of what the word means.

While logicians and statisticians might disagree, to most of us probability is simply a tool that describes our degree of belief. For instance, we know that the sun will rise tomorrow and we consider it near impossible that there will be two suns up in the sky instead of one. In addition to the extremes, there are also events which lie somewhere in the middle of the probability spectrum, such as the degree of belief that it will rain tomorrow.

Despite its vagueness, probability has its virtues. Assigning probabilities helps us make the degree of belief actionable and also communicable to others. If we believe that the probability it will rain tomorrow is 90%, we are likely to carry an umbrella and suggest our family do so as well.

Probability, Base Rates, and Representativeness

Most of us are already familiar with representativeness and base rates. Consider the classic example of x number of black and y number of white-colored marbles in a jar. It is a simple exercise to tell what the probabilities of drawing each color are if you know their base rates (proportion). Using base rates is the obvious approach for estimations when no other information is provided.

However, Kahneman managed to prove that we have a tendency to ignore base rates in light of specific descriptions. He calls this phenomenon the Representativeness Bias. To illustrate representativeness bias, consider the example of seeing a person reading The New York Times on the New York subway. Which do you think would be a better bet about the reading stranger?

1) She has a PhD.
2) She does not have a college degree.

Representativeness would tell you to bet on the PhD, but this is not necessarily a good idea. You should seriously consider the second alternative because many more non-graduates than PhDs ride in New York subways. While a more significant proportion of PhDs may read The New York Times, the total number of New York Times readers with only high school degrees is likely to be much larger, even if the proportion itself is very slim.

In a series of similar experiments, Kahneman’s subjects failed to recognize the base rates in light of individual information. This is unsurprising. Kahneman explains:

On most occasions, people who act friendly are in fact friendly. A professional athlete who is very tall and thin is much more likely to play basketball than football. People with a PhD are more likely to subscribe to The New York Times than people who ended their education after high school. Young men are more likely than elderly women to drive aggressively.

While following representativeness bias might improve your overall accuracy, it will not always be the statistically optimal approach.

In his bestseller Moneyball, Michael Lewis tells a story of Oakland A’s baseball team coach, Billy Beane, who recognized this fallacy and used it to his advantage.

When recruiting new players for the team, instead of relying on scouts he relied heavily on statistics of past performance. This approach allowed him to build a team of great players that were passed up by other teams because they did not look the part. Needless to say, the team achieved excellent results at a low cost.

Conjunction Fallacy

While representativeness bias occurs when we fail to account for low base rates, conjunction fallacy occurs when we assign a higher probability to an event of higher specificity. This violates the laws of probability.

Consider the following study:

Participants were asked to rank four possible outcomes of the next Wimbledon tournament from most to least probable. Björn Borg was the dominant tennis player of the day when the study was conducted. These were the outcomes:

A. Borg will win the match.
B. Borg will lose the first set.
C. Borg will lose the first set but win the match.
D. Borg will win the first set but lose the match.

How would you order them?

Kahneman was surprised to see that most subjects ordered the chances by directly contradicting the laws of logic and probability. He explains:

The critical items are B and C. B is the more inclusive event and its probability must be higher than that of an event it includes. Contrary to logic, but not to representativeness or plausibility, 72% assigned B a lower probability than C.

If you thought about the problem carefully, you drew the following diagram in your head. Losing the first set will always, by definition, be a more probable event than losing the first set and winning the match.
Screen Shot 2016-08-05 at 6.28.30 PM

The Linda Problem

As discussed in our piece on the Narrative Fallacy, the best-known and most controversial of Kahneman and Tversky’s experiments involved a fictitious lady called Linda. The fictional character was created to illustrate the role heuristics play in our judgment and how it can be incompatible with logic. This is how they described Linda.

Linda is thirty-one years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in antinuclear demonstrations.

Kahneman conducted a series of experiments, in which he showed that representativeness tends to cloud our judgments and that we ignore the base rates in light of stories. The Linda problem started off with the task to estimate the plausibility of 9 different scenarios that subjects were supposed to rank in order of likelihood.

Linda is a teacher in elementary school.
Linda works in a bookstore and takes yoga classes.
Linda is active in the feminist movement.
Linda is a psychiatric social worker.
Linda is a member of the League of Women Voters.
Linda is a bank teller.
Linda is an insurance salesperson.
Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

Kahneman was startled to see that his subjects judged the likelihood of Linda being a bank teller and a feminist more likely than her being just a bank teller. As explained earlier, doing so makes little sense. He went on to explore the phenomenon further:

In what we later described as “increasingly desperate” attempts to eliminate the error, we introduced large groups of people to Linda and asked them this simple question:

Which alternative is more probable?

Linda is a bank teller.
Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

This stark version of the problem made Linda famous in some circles, and it earned us years of controversy. About 85% to 90% of undergraduates at several major universities chose the second option, contrary to logic.

What is especially interesting about these results is that, even when aware of the biases in place, we do not discard them.

When I asked my large undergraduate class in some indignation, “Do you realize that you have violated an elementary logical rule?” someone in the back row shouted, “So what?” and a graduate student who made the same error explained herself by saying, “I thought you just asked for my opinion.”

The issue is not constrained to students and but also affects professionals.

The naturalist Stephen Jay Gould described his own struggle with the Linda problem. He knew the correct answer, of course, and yet, he wrote, “a little homunculus in my head continues to jump up and down, shouting at me—‘but she can’t just be a bank teller; read the description.”

Our brains simply seem to prefer consistency over logic.

The Role of Plausibility

Representativeness and conjunction fallacy occurs because we make the mental shortcut from our perceived plausibility of a scenario to its probability.

The most coherent stories are not necessarily the most probable, but they are plausible, and the notions of coherence, plausibility, and probability are easily confused by the unwary. Representativeness belongs to a cluster of closely related assessments that are likely to be generated together. The most representative outcomes combine with the personality description to produce the most coherent stories.

Kahneman warns us about the effects of these biases on our perception of expert opinion and forecasting. He explains that we are more likely to believe scenarios that are illustrative rather than probable.

The uncritical substitution of plausibility for probability has pernicious effects on judgments when scenarios are used as tools of forecasting. Consider these two scenarios, which were presented to different groups, with a request to evaluate their probability:

A massive flood somewhere in North America next year, in which more than 1,000 people drown

An earthquake in California sometime next year, causing a flood in which more than 1,000 people drown

The California earthquake scenario is more plausible than the North America scenario, although its probability is certainly smaller. As expected, probability judgments were higher for the richer and more detailed scenario, contrary to logic. This is a trap for forecasters and their clients: adding detail to scenarios makes them more persuasive, but less likely to come true.

In order to appreciate the role of plausibility, he suggests we have a look at an example without an accompanying explanation.

Which alternative is more probable?

Jane is a teacher.
Jane is a teacher and walks to work.

In this case, when evaluating plausibility and coherence, there are no quick answers to the probability question, and we can easily conclude that the first one is more likely. The rule goes that in the absence of a competing intuition, logic prevails.

Taming our intuition

The first lesson to thinking clearly is to question how you think. We should not simply believe whatever comes to our mind – our beliefs must be constrained by logic. You don’t have to become an expert in probability to tame your intuition, but having a grasp of simple concepts will help. There are two main rules that are worth repeating in light of representativeness bias:

1) All probabilities add up to 100%.

This means that if you believe that there’s a 90% chance it will rain tomorrow, there’s a 10% chance that it will not rain tomorrow.

However, since you believe that there is only a 90% chance that it will rain tomorrow, you cannot be 95% certain that it will rain tomorrow morning.

We typically make this type of error, when we mean to say that, if it rains, there’s a 95% probability it will happen in the morning. That’s a different claim and the probability of raining tomorrow morning under such premises is 0.9*0.95=85.5%.

This also means the odds that, if it rains, it will not rain in the morning, are 90.0%-85.5% = 4.5%.

2) The second principle is called the Bayes rule.

 It allows us to correctly adjust our beliefs with the diagnosticity of the evidence. Bayes rule follows the formula:

Picture1

In essence, the formula states that the posterior odds are proportional to prior odds times the likelihood. Kahneman crystallizes two keys to disciplined Bayesian reasoning:

• Anchor your judgment of the probability of an outcome on a plausible base rate.
• Question the diagnosticity of your evidence.

Kahneman explains it with an example:

If you believe that 3% of graduate students are enrolled in computer science (the base rate), and you also believe that the description of Tom is 4 times more likely for a graduate student in computer science than in other fields, then Bayes’s rule says you must believe that the probability that Tom is a computer science student is now 11%.

Four times as likely means that we expect roughly 80% of all computer science students to resemble Tom. We use this proportion to obtain the adjusted odds. (The calculation goes as follows: 0.03*0.8/(0.03*0.8+((1-0.03)*(1-0.8)))=11%)

The easiest way to become better at making decisions is by making sure you question your assumptions and follow strong evidence. When evidence is anecdotal, adjust minimally, and trust the base rates. Odds are, you will be pleasantly surprised.

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Commitment and Consistency Bias

We have an instinctual desire to remain consistent with our prior actions and beliefs. This can lead us to behave in irrational ways. Here’s how the commitment and consistency fallacy can lead us to do things that aren’t always in our best interest.

“The difficulty lies not in the new ideas,
but in escaping the old ones, which ramify,
for those brought up as most of us have been,
into every corner of our minds.”

— John Maynard Keynes

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Ben Franklin tells an interesting little story in his autobiography. Facing opposition to being reelected Clerk of the General Assembly, he sought to gain favor with the member so vocally opposing him:

Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favour of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I return’d it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favour.

When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death.

This is another instance of the truth of an old maxim I had learned, which says, “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”

The man, having lent Franklin a rare and valuable book, sought to stay consistent with his past actions. He wouldn’t, of course, lend a book to an unworthy man, would he?

***

Positive Self Image

Scottish philosopher and economist Adam Smith said in The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

The opinion which we entertain of our own character depends entirely on our judgments concerning our past conduct. It is so disagreeable to think ill of ourselves, that we often purposely turn away our view from those circumstances which might render that judgment unfavorable.

Even when it acts against our best interest our tendency is to be consistent with our prior commitments, ideas, thoughts, words, and actions. As a byproduct of confirmation bias, we rarely seek disconfirming evidence of what we believe. This, after all, makes it easier to maintain our positive self-image.

Part of the reason this happens is our desire to appear and feel like we’re right. We also want to show people our conviction. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Society values consistency and conviction even when it is wrong.

We associate consistency with intellectual and personal strength, rationality, honesty, and stability. On the other hand, the person who is perceived as inconsistent is also seen as confused, two-faced, even mentally ill in certain extreme circumstances.

A politician, for example, who wavers, gets labelled a flip flopper and can lose an election over it (John Kerry). A CEO who risks everything on a successful bet and holds a conviction that no one else holds is held to be a hero (Elon Musk).

But it’s not just our words and actions that nudge our subconscious, but also how other people see us. There is a profound truth behind Eminem’s lyrics: I am, whatever you say I am. If I wasn’t, then why would I say I am?

If you think I’m talented, I become more talented in your eyes — in part because you labelling me as talented filters the way you see me. You start seeing more of my genius and less of my normal-ness, simply by way of staying consistent with your own words.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about how teachers simply identifying students as smart not only affected how the teachers saw their work but, more importantly, affected the opportunities teachers gave the students. Smarter students received better opportunities, which, we can reason, offers them better experiences. This is turn makes them better. It’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And the more we invest in our beliefs of ourselves or others—think money, effort, or pain, the more sunk costs we have and the harder it becomes to change our mind. It doesn’t matter if we’re right. It doesn’t matter if the Ikea bookshelf sucks, we’re going to love it.

In Too Much Invested to Quit, psychologist Allan Teger says something similar of the Vietnam War:

The longer the war continued, the more difficult it was to justify the additional investments in terms of the value of possible victory. On the other hand, the longer the war continued, the more difficult it became to write off the tremendous losses without having anything to show for them.

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As a consequence, there are few rules we abide by more than the “Don’t make any promises that you can’t keep.” This, generally speaking, is a great rule that keeps society together by ensuring that our commitments for the most part are real and reliable.

Aside from the benefits of preserving our public image, being consistent is simply easier and leads to a more predictable and consistent life. By being consistent in our habits and with previous decisions, we significantly reduce the need to think and can go on “auto-pilot” for most of our lives.

However beneficial these biases are, they too deserve deeper understanding and caution. Sometimes our drive to appear consistent can lure us into choices we otherwise would consider against our best interests. This is the essence of a harmful bias as opposed to a benign one: We are hurting ourselves and others by committing it. 

A Slippery Slope

Part of why commitment can be so dangerous is because it is like a slippery slope – you only need a single slip to slide down completely. Therefore compliance to even tiny requests, which initially appear insignificant, have a good probability of leading to full commitment later.

People whose job it is to persuade us know this.

Among the more blunt techniques on the spectrum are those reported by a used-car sales manager in Robert Cialdini’s book Influence. The dealer knows the power of commitment and that if we comply a little now, we are likely to comply fully later on. His advice to other sellers goes as follows:

“Put ’em on paper. Get the customer’s OK on paper. Get the money up front. Control ’em. Control the deal. Ask ’em if they would buy the car right now if the price is right. Pin ’em down.”

This technique will be obvious to most of us. However, there are also more subtle ways to make us comply without us noticing.

A great example of a subtle compliance practitioner is Jo-Ellen Demitrius, the woman currently reputed to be the best consultant in the business of jury selection.

Whenever screening potential jurors before a trial she asks an artful question:

“If you were the only person who believed in my client’s innocence, could you withstand the pressure of the rest of the jury to change your mind?”

It’s unlikely that any self-respecting prospective juror would answer negatively. And, now that the juror has made the implicit promise, it is unlikely that once selected he will give in to the pressure exerted by the rest of the jury.

Innocent questions and requests like this can be a great springboard for initiating a cycle of compliance.

The Lenient Policy

A great case study for compliance is the tactics that Chinese soliders employed on American war captives during the Korean War. The Chinese were particularly effective in getting Americans to inform on one another. In fact, nearly all American prisoners in the Chinese camps are said to have collaborated with the enemy in one way or another.

This was striking, since such behavior was rarely observed among American war prisoners during WWII. It raises the question of what secret trades led to the success of the Chinese?

Unlike the North Koreans, the Chinese did not treat the victims harshly. Instead they engaged in what they called “lenient policy” towards the captives, which was, in reality, a clever series of psychological assaults.

In their exploits the Chinese relied heavily on commitment and consistency tactics to receive the compliance they desired. At first, the Americans were not too collaborative, as they had been trained to provide only name, rank, and serial number, but the Chinese were patient.

They started with seemingly small but frequent requests to repeat statements like “The United States is not perfect” and “In a Communist country, unemployment is not a problem.” Once these requests had been complied with, the heaviness of the requests grew. Someone who had just agreed that United States was not perfect would be encouraged to expand on his thoughts about specific imperfections. Later he might be asked to write up and read out a list of these imperfections in a discussion group with other prisoners. “After all, it’s what you really believe, isn’t it?” The Chinese would then broadcast the essay readings not only to the whole camp, but to other camps and even the American forces in South Korea. Suddenly the soldier would find himself a “collaborator” of the enemy.

The awareness that the essays did not contradict his beliefs could even change his self-image to be consistent with the new “collaborator” label, often resulting in more cooperation with the enemy.

It is not surprising that very few American soldiers were able to avoid such “collaboration” altogether.

Foot in the Door

The small request growing into bigger requests as applied by the Chinese on American soldiers is also called the Foot-in-the-door Technique. It was first discovered by two scientists – Freedman and Fraser, who had worked on an experiment in which a fake volunteer worker asked home owners to allow a public-service billboard to be installed on their front lawns.

To get a better idea of how it would look, the home owners were even shown a photograph depicting an attractive house that was almost completely obscured by an ugly sign reading DRIVE CAREFULLY. While the request was quite understandably denied by 83 percent of residents, one particular group reacted favorably.

Two weeks earlier a different “volunteer worker” had come and asked the respondents of this group a similar request to display a much smaller sign that read BE A SAFE DRIVER. The request was so negligible that nearly all of them complied. However, the future effects of that request turned out to be so enormous that 76 percent of this group complied with the bigger, much less reasonable request (the big ugly sign).

At first, even the researchers themselves were baffled by the results and repeated the experiment on similar setups. The effect persisted. Finally, they proposed that the subjects must have distorted their own views about themselves as a result of their initial actions:

What may occur is a change in the person’s feelings about getting involved or taking action. Once he has agreed to a request, his attitude may change, he may become, in his own eyes, the kind of person who does this sort of thing, who agrees to requests made by strangers, who takes action on things he believes in, who cooperates with good causes.

The rule goes that once someone has instilled our self-image where they want it to be, we will comply naturally with the set of requests that adhere to the new self-view. Therefore we must be very careful about agreeing to even the smallest requests. Not only can it make us comply with larger requests later on, but it can make us even more willing to do favors that are only remotely connected to the earlier ones.

Even Cialdini, someone who knows this bias inside-out, admits to his fear that his behavior will be affected by consistency bias:

It scares me enough that I am rarely willing to sign a petition anymore, even for a position I support. Such an action has the potential to influence not only my future behavior but also my self-image in ways I may not want.

Further, once a person’s self-image is altered, all sorts of subtle advantages become available to someone who wants to exploit that new image.

Give it, take it away later

Have you ever witnessed a deal that is a little too good to be true only to later be disappointed? You had already made up your mind, had gotten excited and were ready to pay or sign until a calculation error was discovered. Now with the adjusted price, the offer did not look all that great.

It is likely that the error was not an accident – this technique, also called low-balling, is often used by compliance professionals in sales. Cialdini, having observed the phenomenon among car dealers, tested its effects on his own students.

In an experiment with colleagues, he made two groups of students show up at 7:00 AM in the morning to do a study on “thinking processes”. When they called one group of students they immediately told them that the study starts at 7:00 AM. Unsurprisingly, only 24 percent wanted to participate.

However, for the other group of students, researchers threw a low-ball. The first question was whether they wanted to take part in a study of thinking processes. Fifty-six percent of them replied positively. Now, to those that agreed, the meeting time of 7:00 AM was revealed.

These students were given the opportunity to opt out, but none of them did. In fact, driven by their commitment, 95 percent of the low-balled students showed up to the Psychology Building at 7:00 AM as they had promised.

Do you recognize the similarities between the experiment and the sales situation?

The script of low-balling tends to be the same:

First, an advantage is offered that induces a favorable decision in the manipulator’s direction. Then, after the decision has been made, but before the bargain is sealed, the original advantage is deftly removed (i.e., the price is raised, the time is changed, etc.).

It would seem surprising that anyone would buy under these circumstances, yet many do. Often the self-created justifications provide so many new reasons for the decision that even when the dealer pulls away the original favorable rationale, like a low price, the decision is not changed. We stick with our old decision even in the face of new information!

Of course not everyone complies, but that’s not the point. The effect is strong enough to hold for a good number of buyers, students or anyone else whose rate of compliance we may want to raise.

The Way Out

The first real defense to consistency bias is awareness about the phenomenon and the harm a certain rigidity in our decisions can cause us.

Robert Cialdini suggests two approaches to recognizing when consistency biases are unduly creeping into our decision making. The first one is to listen to our stomachs. Stomach signs display themselves when we realize that the request being pushed is something we don’t want to do.

He recalls a time when a beautiful young woman tried to sell him a membership he most certainly did not need by using the tactics displayed above. He writes:

I remember quite well feeling my stomach tighten as I stammered my agreement. It was a clear call to my brain, “Hey, you’re being taken here!” But I couldn’t see a way out. I had been cornered by my own words. To decline her offer at that point would have meant facing a pair of distasteful alternatives: If I tried to back out by protesting that I was not actually the man-about-town I had claimed to be during the interview, I would come off a liar; trying to refuse without that protest would make me come off a fool for not wanting to save $1,200. I bought the entertainment package, even though I knew I had been set up. The need to be consistent with what I had already said snared me.

But then eventually he came up with the perfect counter-attack for later episodes, which allowed him to get out of the situation gracefully.

Whenever my stomach tells me I would be a sucker to comply with a request merely because doing so would be consistent with some prior commitment I was tricked into, I relay that message to the requester. I don’t try to deny the importance of consistency; I just point out the absurdity of foolish consistency. Whether, in response, the requester shrinks away guiltily or retreats in bewilderment, I am content. I have won; an exploiter has lost.

The second approach concerns the signs that are felt within our heart and is best used when it is not really clear whether the initial commitment was wrongheaded.

Imagine you have recognized that your initial assumptions about a particular deal were not correct. The car is not extraordinarily cheap and the experiment is not as fun if you have to wake up at 6 AM to make it. Here it helps to ask one simple question:

“Knowing what I know, if I could go back in time, would I make the same commitment?”

Ask it frequently enough and the answer might surprise you.

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The Many Ways Our Memory Fails Us (Part 2)

(Purchase a copy of the entire 3-part series in one sexy PDF for $3.99)

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In part one, we began a conversation about the trappings of the human memory, using Daniel Schacter’s excellent The Seven Sins of Memory as our guide. (We’ve also covered some reasons why our memory is pretty darn good.) We covered transience — the loss of memory due to time — and absent-mindedness — memories that were never encoded at all or were not available when needed. Let’s keep going with a couple more whoppers: Blocking and Misattribution.

Blocking

Blocking is the phenomenon when something is indeed encoded in our memory and should be easily available in the given situation, but simply will not come to mind. We’re most familiar with blocking as the always frustrating “It’s on the tip of my tongue!

Unsurprisingly, blocking occurs most frequently when it comes to names and indeed occurs more frequently as we get older:

Twenty-year-olds, forty-year-olds, and seventy-year-olds kept diaries for a month in which they recorded spontaneously occurring retrieval blocks that were accompanied by the “tip of the tongue” sensation. Blocking occurred occasionally for the names of objects (for example, algae) and abstract words (for example, idiomatic). In all three groups, however, blocking occurred most frequently for proper names, with more blocks for people than for other proper names such as countries or cities. Proper name blocks occurred more frequently in the seventy-year-olds than in either of the other two groups.

This is not the worst sin our memory commits — excepting the times when we forget an important person’s name (which is admittedly not fun), blocking doesn’t cause the terrible practical results some of the other memory issues cause. But the reason blocking occurs does tells us something interesting about memory, something we intuitively know from other domains: We have a hard time learning things by rote or by force. We prefer associations and connections to form strong, lasting, easily available memories.

Why are names blocked from us so frequently, even more than objects, places, descriptions, and other nouns? For example, Schacter mentions experiments in which researchers show that we more easily forget a man’s name than his occupationeven if they’re the same word! (Baker/baker or Potter/potter, for example.)

It’s because relative to a descriptive noun like “baker,” which calls to mind all sorts of connotations, images, and associations, a person’s name has very little attached to it. We have no easy associations to make — it doesn’t tell us anything about the person or give us much to hang our hat on. It doesn’t really help us form an image or impression. And so we basically remember it by rote, which doesn’t always work that well.

Most models of name retrieval hold that activation of phonological representations [sound associations] occurs only after activation of conceptual and visual representations. This idea explains why people can often retrieve conceptual information about an object or person whom they cannot name, whereas the reverse does not occur. For example, diary studies indicate that people frequently recall a person’s occupation without remembering his name, but no instances have been documented in which a name is recalled without any conceptual knowledge about the person. In experiments in which people named pictures of famous individuals, participants who failed to retrieve the name “Charlton Heston” could often recall that he was an actor. Thus, when you block on the name “John Baker” you may very well recall that he is an attorney who enjoys golf, but it is highly unlikely that you would recall Baker’s name and fail to recall any of his personal attributes.

A person’s name is the weakest piece of information we have about them in our people-information lexicon, and thus the least available at any time, and the most susceptible to not being available as needed. It gets worse if it’s a name we haven’t needed to recall frequently or recently, as we all can probably attest to. (This also applies to the other types of words we block on less frequently — objects, places, etc.)

The only real way to avoid blocking problems is to create stronger associations when we learn names, or even re-encode names we already know by increasing their salience with a vivid image, even a silly one. (If you ever meet anyone named Baker…you know what to do.)

But the most important idea here is that information gains salience in our brain based on what it brings to mind. 

Whether or not blocking occurs in the sense implied by Freud’s idea of repressed memories, Schacter is non-committal about — it seems the issue was not, at the time of writing, settled.

Misattribution

The memory sin of misattribution has fairly serious consequences. Misattribution happens all the time and is a peculiar memory sin where we do remember something, but that thing is wrong, or possibly not even our own memory at all:

Sometimes we remember events that never happened, misattributing speedy processing of incoming information or vivid images that spring to mind, to memories of past events that did not occur. Sometimes we recall correctly what happened, but misattribute it to the wrong time and place. And at other times misattribution operates in a different direction: we mistakenly credit a spontaneous image or thought to our own imagination, when in reality we are recalling it–without awareness–from something we read or heard.

The most familiar, but benign, experience we’ve all had with misattribution is the curious case of deja vu. As of the writing of his book, Schacter felt there was no convincing explanation for why deja vu occurs, but we know that the brain is capable of thinking it’s recalling an event that happened previously, even if it hasn’t.

In the case of deja vu, it’s simply a bit of an annoyance. But the misattribution problem causes more serious problems elsewhere.

The major one is eyewitness testimony, which we now know is notoriously unreliable. It turns out that when eyewitnesses claim they “know what they saw!” it’s unlikely they remember as well as they claim. It’s not their fault and it’s not a lie — you do think you recall the details of a situation perfectly well. But your brain is tricking you, just like deja vu. How bad is the eyewitness testimony problem? It used to be pretty bad.

…consider two facts. First, according to estimates made in the late 1980s, each year in the United States more than seventy-five thousand criminal trials were decided on the basis of eyewitness testimony. Second, a recent analysis of forty cases in which DNA evidence established the innocence of wrongly imprisoned individuals revealed that thirty-six of them (90 percent) involved mistaken eyewitness identification. There are no doubt other such mistakes that have not been rectified.

What happens is that, in any situation where our memory stores away information, it doesn’t have the horsepower to do it with complete accuracy. There are just too many variables to sort through. So we remember the general aspects of what happened, and we remember some details, depending on how salient they were.

We recall that we met John, Jim, and Todd, who were all part of the sales team for John Deere. We might recall that John was the young one with glasses, Jim was the older bald one, and Todd talked the most. We might remember specific moments or details of the conversation which stuck out.

But we don’t get it all perfectly, and if it was an unmemorable meeting, with the transience of time, we start to lose the details. The combination of the specifics and the details is a process called memory binding, and it’s often the source of misattribution errors.

Let’s say we remember for sure that we curled our hair this morning. All of our usual cues tell us that we did — our hair is curly, it’s part of our morning routine, we remember thinking it needed to be done, etc. But…did we turn the curling iron off? We remember that we did, but is that yesterday’s memory or today’s?

This is a memory binding error. Our brain didn’t sufficiently “link up” the curling event and the turning off of the curler, so we’re left to wonder. This binding issue leads to other errors, like the memory conjunction error, where sometimes the binding process does occur, but it makes a mistake. We misattribute the strong familiarity:

Having met Mr. Wilson and Mr. Albert during your business meeting, you reply confidently the next day when an associate asks you the name of the company vice president: “Mr. Wilbert.” You remembered correctly pieces of the two surnames but mistakenly combined them into a new one. Cognitive psychologists have developed experimental procedures in which people exhibit precisely these kinds of erroneous conjunctions between features of different words, pictures, sentences, or even faces. Thus, having studied spaniel and varnish, people sometimes claim to remember Spanish.

What’s happening is a misattribution. We know we saw the syllables Span- and –nish and our memory tells us we must have heard Spanish. But we didn’t.

Back to the eyewitness testimony problem, what’s happening is we’re combining a general familiarity with a lack of specific recall, and our brain is recombining those into a misattribution. We recall a tall-ish man with some sort of facial hair, and then we’re shown 6 men in a lineup, and one is tall-ish with facial hair, and our brain tells us that must be the guy. We make a relative judgment: Which person here is closest to what I think I saw? Unfortunately, like the Spanish/varnish issue, we never actually saw the person we’ve identified as the perp.

None of this occurs with much conscious involvement, of course. It’s happening subconsciously, which is why good procedures are needed to overcome the problem. In the case of suspect lineups, the solution is to show the witness each suspect, one after another, and have them give a thumbs up or thumbs down immediately. This takes away the relative comparison and makes us consciously compare the suspect in front of us with our memory of the perpetrator.

The good thing about this error is that people can be encouraged to search their memory more carefully. But it’s far from foolproof, even if we’re getting a very strong indication that we remember something.

And what helps prevent us from making too many errors is something Schacter calls the distinctiveness heuristic. If a distinctive thing supposedly happened, we usually reason we’d have a good memory of it. And usually this is a very good heuristic to have. (Remember, salience always encourages memory formation.) As we discussed in Part One, a salient artifact gives us something to tie a memory to. If I meet someone wearing a bright rainbow-colored shirt, I’m a lot more likely to recall some details about them, simply because they stuck out.

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As an aside, misattribution allows us one other interesting insight into the human brain: Our “people information” remembering is a specific, distinct module, one that can falter on its own, without harming any other modules. Schacter discusses a man with a delusion that many of the normal people around him were film stars. He even misattributed made-up famous-sounding names (like Sharon Sugar) to famous people, although he couldn’t put his finger on who they were.

But the man did not falsely recognize other things. Made up cities or made up words did not trip up his brain in the strange way people did. This (and other data) tells us that our ability to recognize people is a distinct “module” our brain uses, supporting one of Judith Rich Harris’s ideas about human personality that we’ve discussed: The “people information lexicon” we develop throughout our lives is a uniquely important module we use.

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One final misattribution is something called cryptomnesia — essentially the opposite of deja vu. It’s when we think we recognize something as new and novel even though we’ve seen it before. Accidental plagiarizing can even result from cryptomnesia. (Try telling that to your school teachers!) Cryptomnesia falls into the same bucket as other misattributions in that we fail to recollect the source of information we’re recalling — the information and event where we first remembered it are not bound together properly. Let’s say we “invent” the melody to a song which already exists. The melody sounds wonderful and familiar, so we like it. But we mistakenly think it’s new.

In the end, Schacter reminds us to think carefully about the memories we “know” are true, and to try to remember specifics when possible:

We often need to sort out ambiguous signals, such as feelings of familiarity or fleeting images, that may originate in specific past experiences, or arise from subtle influences in the present. Relying on judgment and reasoning to come up with plausible attributions, we sometimes go astray.  When misattribution combines with another of memory’s sins — suggestibility — people can develop detailed and strongly held recollections of complex events that never occurred.

And with that, we will leave it here for now. Next time we’ll delve into suggestibility and bias, two more memory sins with a range of practical outcomes.