Tag: Leo Tolstoy

Signaling: The Language Peacocks, Gazelles, and Humans All Speak

Signaling and countersignaling are hidden methods of communicating with each other.

We do it all the time as a way to “prove” we are who and what we claim to be.

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The Basics

We are constantly signaling. Every minute of the day, we send signals to others to convey that we are intelligent, successful, attractive, healthy, well-adjusted people with impeccable taste. We signal to our bosses, coworkers, partners, friends, family, strangers on the street—just about everyone. Usually, we can’t just tell people we have a particular positive quality. Talk is cheap and most people have no reason to believe us. We only rely on straightforward assertions when the stakes are low. Plus, there are few things less appealing than bragging. So instead of telling others who we are and how great we are, we use signals.

Signaling is the area where you live and the car you drive. It’s how you take your coffee and whether you drink alcohol or not. It’s the shoes you wear, the newspapers you read, how you spend your Friday nights. People aren’t slaves to signaling; we do have our own preferences. But we are constantly constrained by the impression we want to make. We make choices that signal what we wish to convey.

Signaling is the act of conveying information about ourselves to people in a way that is costly for us and therefore believable. Without the associated cost of sending a signal, we would not be able to trust the information being sent. For instance, if it’s easy to signal that we are amazing without actually being amazing, then the signal would be comparatively worthless and no one would pay attention to it. Thus, effective signals take up a lot of time and energy, but are essential as a means of communication because the information they convey is trustworthy.

Signaling is such a fundamental part of the way we function that failing to recognize it means we miss out on an additional layer of detail in the world. It explains many behaviors that might seem illogical—like why we pay so much for wedding rings, why open offices interfere with productivity, why the smartest people have the messiest handwriting, and why giving gifts is valuable even if it’s a waste of time and money.

By understanding signaling, we can get better at efficiently conveying the information we want others to pick up on. We can assess if what we’re signaling is really worth the effort. We can learn to better detect what other people are indicating to us—and if it’s genuine or just a show. In this post, we’ll look at the origins of signaling, how it works, some of the many ways we use it, and the situations in which it doesn’t work.

Examples of Signaling

“Today, depending on group norms and circumstances, status can be derived from factors as diverse as academic achievement, one’s skills as a sea turtle hunter, and even the ability to drink a lot of beer.” The Cambridge Handbook of Consumer Psychology

Let’s take a look at some of the common instances of signaling you might see in your everyday life.

Advertising is rife with signals. Most ads are not really about espousing the positive qualities of a product or service. They might not even mention those at all. Instead, ads signal the kind of people a product is intended for—sending the message that buying it will further help signal their identity. There’s a big difference between a chocolate bar commercial that shows a bunch of college students partying on the beach and one that shows a working parent relaxing once their kids are in bed. When we stand in a shop or browse a website deciding which shampoo or coffee to buy, those advertising signals influence our decisions. We’re drawn to the products that signal they’re for people like us, and in turn, will signal our identities.

Another theory posits that companies use expensive advertising to signal confidence in their product. Your local plumber isn’t going to buy a Superbowl ad because they (rightly) don’t believe their service can earn enough money to justify it. A company that spends millions on a campaign, however, clearly thinks their product is good enough for it to be worthwhile. When we watch a costly advertisement, we pick up on that confidence and assume we’re looking at a high-quality product. In Principles of Economics, Volume 1, Gregory Mankiw writes, “In the signaling theory of advertising, the advertisement itself contains no real information, but the firm signals the quality of its product to consumers by its willingness to spend money on advertising… An action is being taken not for its intrinsic benefits but because the willingness to take that action conveys private information to someone observing it.”

Sociologists sometimes refer to the broken windows theory, which states that the visible effects of low-level crime, if unchecked, will send a signal that worse crimes are acceptable. The classic example is a neighborhood where an empty building has a broken window. If no one repairs it, it signals that no one is keeping an eye on the state of the neighborhood. Vandals might then break a few more windows or graffiti the building. People might start squatting in it. Things escalate and before anyone knows it, the whole neighborhood has gone downhill. As an old saying goes, if you let a camel poke its nose into the tent, you’ll end up with the whole camel sleeping in there. Small acts of negligence are significant if they act as signals.

Diego Gambetta and Heather Hamil write in Streetwise: How Taxi Drivers Establish Customers’ Trustworthiness that professional taxi drivers learn to pick up on the myriad ways prospective customers signal that they are safe to pick up. We’ve all heard numerous times about the risks of getting into a stranger’s car. But it’s easy to forget that the danger goes both ways. Letting a stranger get into your car is also a tremendous risk. Even in the age of apps like Uber, drivers often have far less information about passengers than the passengers have about the driver. Traditional drivers who collect passengers from street corners or phone calls have even less background knowledge.

The ability to read signals, then, is truly a life or death matter for taxi drivers. Gambetta and Hamil write, “For example, savvy drivers pick up passengers only at well-lit corners, not in dark alleys and savvy passengers go to safe places if they want to be picked up.” Unsafe passengers can and do mimic this behavior, but it carries a higher risk of them being seen or caught on CCTV getting into a taxi. The authors go on to write that “when asked, drivers often say their assessment of customers’ trustworthiness is driven by ‘gut feelings’ or ‘a sixth sense.’ Our expectation is that a logic underlies these feelings and that it consists of several cognitive steps, including an intuitive application of signaling theory.” If your profession involves any direct interactions with customers, you probably have an intuitive awareness of the signals that indicate if you can trust them or not.

With people we are not close to or have not known for long, we usually signal a desire to get along by ignoring any flaws or shortcomings and being polite. The psychiatrist Scott Alexander points out that we often countersignal the strength of an established relationship by doing the opposite. With close friends or long-term partners, it is common for us to make friendly jokes about flaws, or liberally use insults. We know the other person well enough to do this in a way that usually won’t cause genuine offence. We don’t need to signal affection, because it’s already established. They have enough prior information about us.

Honest and Dishonest Signaling

“It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.” ― Leo Tolstoy, The Kreutzer Sonata

We use signals because they are costly and therefore more believable than straightforward information. But that doesn’t mean all signals are “true”—they can be categorized as honest or dishonest. An honest signal means the signaler possesses the trait they claim. A dishonest one means they don’t. If a signal is easy to fake, it degrades the value of the trait it advertises. A picture of someone in a fancy car used to signal wealth. Now that we’ve all heard of people hiring expensive cars for a photo op, it just looks sleazy without other signals indicating they own it.

It is very hard, if not impossible, to fake experience. For example, you could lie about having gone to medical school, but one day in the ER or surgery would reveal you as a fraud. If it were possible to be deceptive about your experience without anyone finding out, everyone would do it all the time. On the whole, signals that are easy to fake soon die out.

Countersignaling

“An effective use of countersignaling requires finesse. Most importantly, the countersignaller must already hold some independent air of mystique.” Tyler Cowen, Discover Your Inner Economist

A multibillionaire casually admits to eating at McDonald’s for breakfast every day. A powerful CEO shows up at the office in jeans and a hoodie. A middle-class mother sends her child to school in a pajama shirt with unbrushed hair. A New York Times bestselling author says, “Oh, I write books,” when asked what they do at a dinner party. A supermodel posts a candid picture without makeup or filters online.

These are all examples of countersignaling; the act of signaling something by not signaling that thing. A jeans-wearing CEO doesn’t need to show up in a suit. Their status is already assured and they don’t need to dress in a way that encourages employees to respect them. Well-off parents don’t need to do battle to get their kids to look smart at school because, unlike less wealthy parents, they are not as worried about being judged as incompetent. We countersignal when we can afford not to make the effort required to signal.

To give some more examples from The Art of Strategy by Avinash K. Dixit, the most educated people often have the messiest handwriting, and the smartest students are sometimes unwilling to raise their hands and answer questions in class. Those who are secure in their reputations feel little need to defend themselves against minor slights. The most talented people may have no need for formal credentials to impress employers.

This is not to say that countersignaling is inherently dishonest or deliberate. It is, in fact, honest signaling. A person who signals their intelligence by making no effort to signal their intelligence may indeed be humble and uninterested in making others feel inadequate. A very wealthy person may avoid showing their wealth for their own safety and to try to prevent other people from asking them for money. A sought-after consultant may try to be hard to contact because they already have more work than they can handle and don’t want to go through the hassle of turning down more. But generally, the term refers to an intentional lack of signaling. It can be hard to distinguish from genuine humility.

The essence of countersignaling is that those who do it feel no need to signal. The value of countersignaling is that it frees up time, energy and resources. Signaling correctly is an endless, exhausting process where one slip-up can undo previous efforts. Countersignaling is the easier option because it doesn’t involve an active effort. We are most likely to countersignal when a given trait is obvious to any observer. A person moving into an expensive area may not feel the need to signal wealth to their neighbors, because it’s clear from the fact they live there. As Rory Sutherland puts it, “…there is a very big psychological difference between doing something by choice and doing the same thing through necessity.” When we countersignal, we don’t feel insecure or embarrassed about it because we’re in control.

In Discover Your Inner Economist, Tyler Cowen cautions readers to be wary of sharing your good news with too many people, especially ones you want to impress:

Paradoxically, reporting good news can make a person look bad. If we look anxious to reveal good news, our listeners assume that we don’t come by good news very often. Or perhaps our listeners believe we consider the good news a stroke of marvelous luck. Did Michael Jordan need to tell his friends every time he scored thirty points in a game?

If someone hears our good news through the grapevine, they’re far more likely to be impressed. Clearly we must have so much good news that we don’t even bother sharing it!

Information Asymmetry

“People who try to look smart by pointing out obvious exceptions actually signal the opposite.” Naval Ravikant

Signaling is necessary in situations of information asymmetry. One party in a transaction—and it may not be an economic one, simply any exchange of value—has more information than the other. Countersignaling is more appropriate when parties have symmetrical information.

Economist George Akerlof explored how a lack of honest signaling can sustain information asymmetry and damage a marketplace in his 1970 paper, The Market for Lemons: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism. Akerlof described the used car market, where vehicles fall into two loose categories, peaches (quality cars that function as expected) and lemons (cars with hidden flaws). It is incredibly difficult for the average buyer to figure out which category a prospective purchase falls into. There are few reliably honest signals that a car is a peach, while a lemon may show dishonest signals. So, buyers assume the worst. The result is a market where all cars are lemons, because dealers cannot appropriately price peaches. Luckily, this has changed since Akerlof’s time. We now have access to far more symmetrical information, both about individual vehicles and dealerships. With proper signaling, the market is more efficient. If this hadn’t occurred, the used car market could have disappeared altogether.

When we want to prompt another party to signal information we don’t currently possess, we take actions known as screening. We may not directly ask for it, but we encourage them to signal to us. If you ask the seller of a used car to give you a warranty, you’re not outright asking if it’s a lemon. You know that if it is, they won’t agree to it and you shouldn’t buy it. If they agree, that’s a pretty useful signal of the quality. Gregory Mankiw describes this as “an action taken by an uninformed party to induce an informed party to reveal information.” In the same way that markets find ways to screen products to ensure efficiency, we figure out means of screening the signals we receive from other people. A bouncer might ask someone their star sign to figure out if an ID is genuine. If someone claims they went to the same school as us, we might ask if they remember a certain teacher. A landlord might ask a prospective tenant for a deposit and first month’s payment upfront to indicate their ability to pay on time.

Signaling is not a static process in any situation—it’s always evolving.

Signaling in Biology

“Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless; peacocks and lilies for instance.” ― John Steinbeck

The concept of signaling theory originated in biology. Animals constantly signal to other members of their species, such as prospective mates, and to other species, such as potential predators. This enables them to communicate a lot of information without using language in the sense we do. In particular, humans and many animals use signaling to attract mates, by indicating their genetic fitness.

The peacock’s tail has long been a source of confusion for biologists. Charles Darwin wrote that the very sight of a single feather left him nauseated. Why would any living being evolve such extravagant, unwieldy plumage? The colorful birds threw a wrench into the works of his theories. Eventually, Darwin realized that sexual selection has different requirements from more general natural selection. Animals don’t just need to survive; they also need to pass on their genes. This means they need ways of signaling their worthiness to members of the opposite sex that are costly enough to be meaningful. A peacock’s tail is exactly that. To survive with such unwieldy plumage, a bird must be strong, healthy and smart—a good mate. The grander its feathers, the more desirable it is. The same is true for many other seemingly illogical features animals possess. Biologist Amotz Zahavi christened this the handicap principle, based on the idea that animals signal through features that are not beneficial for their physical survival, just their genetic survival.

When gazelles and similar animals spot a predator creeping towards them, they don’t always display the flight behavior we might expect. Instead, they engage in a behavior known as “stotting”: they leap dramatically into the air, lifting all four feet at once in a display that uses up a lot of energy and does nothing to help the gazelle get away. It is believed that stotting may be a form of signaling to display to a predator that an animal is strong, healthy and not worth chasing. Pursuing a fast-moving gazelle requires a huge energy expenditure, so predators prefer to pick out elderly, and sick ones that move slower. Stotting sends the signal that a particular animal isn’t worth pursuing.

Some animals are brightly colored to attract mates. Other plants and animals use color for a purpose akin to that of stotting, warding off predators. Aposematism is the term for colors, markings, or other physical features that signal an animal is poisonous or otherwise dangerous if eaten. For example, coral snakes indicate their venom with bright bands of red and yellow or white on black which are easily spotted even from far away. Skunks and badgers have white stripes that serve as the opposite of camouflage and signal their efficient defense mechanisms. To be so visible and still survive, they must be capable of defending themselves. Other species may piggyback on this by mimicking features that signal defenses they don’t actually possess, saving themselves the effort of, for example, producing toxic venom. This is known as Batesian mimicry. If predators cannot tell the difference, they will leave potentially dangerous meals alone to be on the safe side. As with any effective form of signaling, brightly colored markings are costly to an animal—they make it harder for them to hide—which is why they are effective. As a general heuristic, the more conspicuous an organism is, the deadlier it is.

Conspicuous Consumption

“Invention is the mother of necessity.”  ― Thorstein Veblen

Conspicuous consumption is the practice of choosing to purchase goods and services for their capacity to signal wealth and thereby excite respect or envy in others, rather than for their practical value. Economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen debuted the concept in his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class. Veblen noticed that the wealthiest people in society were eager to outright waste their money on useless purchases, purely for the status this would signal. Having the capacity to squander time and money was the ultimate signal of wealth during Veblen’s time, following the Industrial Revolution. The newly created leisure class suddenly had unprecedented wealth and opportunities for demonstrating it. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, conspicuous consumption was purely the domain of the very rich. Afterward, it was open to almost everyone and became a key part of the way we consume—with the need to signal becoming more important than utility in most of our purchases.

Key to conspicuous consumption is the Veblen good: an item that is coveted because it’s expensive. In a reversal of the traditional supply-demand curve, the higher the price, the greater the demand. Since high-quality items tend to be expensive, we often commit the logical fallacy of assuming all expensive items are of high quality. The value of Veblen goods is contingent on their efficacy as signals of wealth. Some Veblen goods are inherently scarce, which is the source of their value, even if they’re not objectively better than cheaper alternatives. Others aren’t scarce, just expensive.

Signaling in the Workplace

In Willing Slaves, Madeleine Bunting writes, “Many professionals in the public sector have come to the painful conclusion that they now have two tasks; to do their job and then to prove they’ve done it.” This is true in many workplaces in cultures that value overwork—people are incentivized to prioritize the appearance of hard work above all else. The result is deliberate efforts to signal productivity, no matter how counterproductive they prove to be for the company or the individual.

Open offices signal collaboration and productivity to investors or prospective hires. The sight of lots of people scuttling around in a bright, colorful space that hums with activity certainly signals positive qualities about a company. Never mind that it’s detrimental to nearly everyone, especially those on a maker schedule. Likewise, individuals in an office environment where they have no quiet space or privacy feel obligated to scurry around, without time to think, pause for lunch, or take a break. It’s all about looking busy, not about getting work done.

In so many offices being present is equated with working. The bigger and more chaotic the office, the more your actual productivity is obscured. Often, your only real solution to signaling your value is increasing your basic visibility. You may not be doing much—gossiping with colleagues, drinking endless cups of coffee, and taking long lunches—but you are physically present. You are signaling your desire to work and commitment to the company. Unfortunately, it would be better for you and your organization if you spent less time at the office, but with more of it being tangibly productive.

Meetings are another counterproductive signal. The assumption seems to be that the fuller your calendar is, the more important and valuable you are because everyone wants and needs to talk to you. In reality, however, meetings are often poorly run and their objectives are undefined. They are a waste of time, as they cut into the energy you have for learning, deliberate thinking, and actually producing something useful.

Conclusion

Signaling is a hidden dimension of the way we communicate. It crosses the barriers of language, culture, even species. We intuitively learn how to read the signals we encounter in our everyday lives. Being aware of signaling can help us better grasp the information we’re receiving and become more discerning about dishonest signaling or countersignaling. We also need to be aware of what we ourselves are signaling, not just what we’re saying. We can’t just expect to be believed. We need to consider our signals.

Confirmation Bias And the Power of Disconfirming Evidence

Confirmation bias is our tendency to cherry-pick information that confirms our existing beliefs or ideas. Confirmation bias explains why two people with opposing views on a topic can see the same evidence and come away feeling validated by it. This cognitive bias is most pronounced in the case of ingrained, ideological, or emotionally charged views.

Failing to interpret information in an unbiased way can lead to serious misjudgments. By understanding this, we can learn to identify it in ourselves and others. We can be cautious of data that seems to immediately support our views.

Confirmation Bias: Why You Should Seek Out Disconfirming Evidence

When we feel as if others “cannot see sense,” a grasp of how confirmation bias works can enable us to understand why. Willard V. Quine and J.S. Ullian described this bias in The Web of Belief as such:

The desire to be right and the desire to have been right are two desires, and the sooner we separate them the better off we are. The desire to be right is the thirst for truth. On all counts, both practical and theoretical, there is nothing but good to be said for it. The desire to have been right, on the other hand, is the pride that goeth before a fall. It stands in the way of our seeing we were wrong, and thus blocks the progress of our knowledge.

Experimentation beginning in the 1960s revealed our tendency to confirm existing beliefs, rather than questioning them or seeking new ones. Other research has revealed our single-minded need to enforce ideas.

“What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.”

— Warren Buffett

Like many mental models, confirmation bias was first identified by the ancient Greeks. In The History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides described this tendency as such:

For it is a habit of humanity to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not fancy.

Our use of this cognitive shortcut is understandable. Evaluating evidence (especially when it is complicated or unclear) requires a great deal of mental energy. Our brains prefer to take shortcuts. This saves the time needed to make decisions, especially when we’re under pressure. As many evolutionary scientists have pointed out, our minds are unequipped to handle the modern world. For most of human history, people experienced very little new information during their lifetimes. Decisions tended to be survival based. Now, we are constantly receiving new information and have to make numerous complex choices each day. To stave off overwhelm, we have a natural tendency to take shortcuts.

In “The Case for Motivated Reasoning,” Ziva Kunda wrote, “we give special weight to information that allows us to come to the conclusion we want to reach.” Accepting information that confirms our beliefs is easy and requires little mental energy. Contradicting information causes us to shy away, grasping for a reason to discard it.

In The Little Book of Stupidity, Sia Mohajer wrote:

The confirmation bias is so fundamental to your development and your reality that you might not even realize it is happening. We look for evidence that supports our beliefs and opinions about the world but excludes those that run contrary to our own… In an attempt to simplify the world and make it conform to our expectations, we have been blessed with the gift of cognitive biases.

“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion, draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects.”

— Francis Bacon

How Confirmation Bias Clouds Our Judgment

The complexity of confirmation bias arises partly from the fact that it is impossible to overcome it without an awareness of the concept. Even when shown evidence to contradict a biased view, we may still interpret it in a manner that reinforces our current perspective.

In one Stanford study, half of the participants were in favor of capital punishment, and the other half were opposed to it. Both groups read details of the same two fictional studies. Half of the participants were told that one study supported the deterrent effect of capital punishment, and the other opposed it. The other participants read the opposite information. No matter, the majority of participants stuck to their original views, pointing to the data that supported it and discarding that which did not.

Confirmation bias clouds our judgment. It gives us a skewed view of information, even when it consists only of numerical figures. Understanding this cannot fail to transform a person’s worldview — or rather, our perspective on it. Lewis Carroll stated, “we are what we believe we are,” but it seems that the world is also what we believe it to be.

A poem by Shannon L. Alder illustrates this concept:

Read it with sorrow and you will feel hate.
Read it with anger and you will feel vengeful.
Read it with paranoia and you will feel confusion.
Read it with empathy and you will feel compassion.
Read it with love and you will feel flattery.
Read it with hope and you will feel positive.
Read it with humor and you will feel joy.
Read it without bias and you will feel peace.
Do not read it at all and you will not feel a thing.

Confirmation bias is somewhat linked to our memories (similar to availability bias). We have a penchant for recalling evidence that backs up our beliefs. However neutral the original information was, we fall prey to selective recall. As Leo Tolstoy wrote:

The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.

“Beliefs can survive potent logical or empirical challenges. They can survive and even be bolstered by evidence that most uncommitted observers would agree logically demands some weakening of such beliefs. They can even survive the destruction of their original evidential bases.”

— Lee Ross and Craig Anderson

Why We Ignore Contradicting Evidence

Why is it that we struggle to even acknowledge information that contradicts our views?

When first learning about the existence of confirmation bias, many people deny that they are affected. After all, most of us see ourselves as intelligent, rational people. So, how can our beliefs persevere even in the face of clear empirical evidence? Even when something is proven untrue, many entirely sane people continue to find ways to mitigate the subsequent cognitive dissonance.

Much of this is the result of our need for cognitive consistency. We are bombarded by information. It comes from other people, the media, our experience, and various other sources. Our minds must find means of encoding, storing, and retrieving the data we are exposed to. One way we do this is by developing cognitive shortcuts and models. These can be either useful or unhelpful.

Confirmation bias is one of the less-helpful heuristics which exists as a result. The information that we interpret is influenced by existing beliefs, meaning we are more likely to recall it. As a consequence, we tend to see more evidence that enforces our worldview. Confirmatory data is taken seriously, while disconfirming data is treated with skepticism. Our general assimilation of information is subject to deep bias.

Constantly evaluating our worldview is exhausting, so we prefer to strengthen it instead. Plus holding different ideas in our head is hard work. It’s much easier to just focus on one.

We ignore contradictory evidence because it is so unpalatable for our brains. According to research by Jennifer Lerner and Philip Tetlock, we are motivated to think critically only when held accountable by others. If we are expected to justify our beliefs, feelings, and behaviors to others, we are less likely to be biased towards confirmatory evidence. This is less out of a desire to be accurate, and more the result of wanting to avoid negative consequences or derision for being illogical. Ignoring evidence can be beneficial, such as when we side with the beliefs of others to avoid social alienation.

Examples of Confirmation Bias in Action

Creationists vs. Evolutionary Biologists
A prime example of confirmation bias can be seen in the clashes between creationists and evolutionary biologists. The latter use scientific evidence and experimentation to reveal the process of biological evolution over millions of years. The former see the Bible as being true in the literal sense and think the world is only a few thousand years old. Creationists are skilled at mitigating the cognitive dissonance caused by factual evidence that disproves their ideas. Many consider the non-empirical “evidence” for their beliefs (such as spiritual experiences and the existence of scripture) to be of greater value than the empirical evidence for evolution.

Evolutionary biologists have used fossil records to prove that the process of evolution has occurred over millions of years. Meanwhile, some creationists view the same fossils as planted by a god to test our beliefs. Others claim that fossils are proof of the global flood described in the Bible. They ignore evidence to contradict these conspiratorial ideas and instead use it to confirm what they already think.

Doomsayers
Take a walk through London on a busy day, and you are pretty much guaranteed to see a doomsayer on a street corner, ranting about the upcoming apocalypse. Return a while later and you will find them still there, announcing that the end has been postponed.

In When Prophecy Fails, Leon Festinger explained the phenomenon this way:

Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief, that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting people to his view.

Music

Confirmation bias in music is interesting because it is actually part of why we enjoy it so much. According to Daniel Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music:

As music unfolds, the brain constantly updates its estimates of when new beats will occur, and takes satisfaction in matching a mental beat with a real-in-the-world one.

Witness the way a group of teenagers will act when someone puts on “Wonderwall” by Oasis or “Creep” by Radiohead. Or how their parents react to “Starman” by Bowie or “Alone” by Heart. Or even their grandparents to “The Way You Look Tonight” by Sinatra or “Non, Je ne Regrette Rien” by Edith Piaf. The ability to predict each successive beat or syllable is intrinsically pleasurable. This is a case of confirmation bias serving us well. We learn to understand musical patterns and conventions, enjoying seeing them play out.

Homeopathy
The multibillion-dollar homeopathy industry is an example of mass confirmation bias.

Homeopathy was invented by Jacques Benveniste, a French researcher studying histamines. Benveniste became convinced that as a solution of histamines was diluted, the effectiveness increased due to what he termed “water memories.” Test results were performed without blinding, leading to a placebo effect.

Benveniste was so certain of his hypothesis that he found data to confirm it and ignored that which did not. Other researchers repeated his experiments with appropriate blinding and proved Benveniste’s results to have been false. Many of the people who worked with him withdrew from science as a result.

Yet homeopathy supporters have only grown in numbers. Supporters cling to any evidence to support homeopathy while ignoring that which does not.

“One of the biggest problems with the world today is that we have large groups of people who will accept whatever they hear on the grapevine, just because it suits their worldview—not because it is actually true or because they have evidence to support it. The striking thing is that it would not take much effort to establish validity in most of these cases… but people prefer reassurance to research.”

— Neil deGrasse Tyson

Scientific Experiments
In good scientific experiments, researchers should seek to falsify their hypotheses, not to confirm them. Unfortunately, this is not always the case (as shown by homeopathy). There are many cases of scientists interpreting data in a biased manner, or repeating experiments until they achieve the desired result. Confirmation bias also comes into play when scientists peer-review studies. They tend to give positive reviews of studies that confirm their views and of studies accepted by the scientific community.

This is problematic. Inadequate research programs can continue past the point where the evidence points to a false hypothesis. Confirmation bias wastes a huge amount of time and funding. We must not take science at face value and must be aware of the role of biased reporting.

“The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.”

— Robertson Davies

Conclusion

This article can provide an opportunity for you to assess how confirmation bias affects you. Consider looking back over the previous paragraphs and asking:

  • Which parts did I automatically agree with?
  • Which parts did I ignore or skim over without realizing?
  • How did I react to the points which I agreed or disagreed with?
  • Did this post confirm any ideas I already had? Why?
  • What if I thought the opposite of those ideas?

Being cognizant of confirmation is not easy, but with practice, it is possible to recognize the role it plays in the way we interpret information. You need to search out disconfirming evidence.

As Rebecca Goldstein wrote in Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Godel:

All truths — even those that had seemed so certain as to be immune to the very possibility of revision — are essentially manufactured. Indeed, the very notion of the objectively true is a socially constructed myth. Our knowing minds are not embedded in truth. Rather, the entire notion of truth is embedded in our minds, which are themselves the unwitting lackeys of organizational forms of influence.

To learn more about confirmation bias, read The Little Book of Stupidity or The Black Swan. Be sure to check out our entire latticework of mental models.

Daily Routines of Famous Creatives: Artists, Writers, Composers

What can we learn from the working habits of famous writers, artists, and composers? And how did they find time each day to do their work?

After reading Mason Currey’s fantastic book, Daily Rituals, the answer is lots.

But if you’re looking for some insight into what makes an ideal daily routine, you’re out of luck. One big insight to the book is that there is no one way to do things. What works for one won’t work for another.

However, whether you’re looking to be more productive or find better distractions, the book is full of useful advice.

Stuck in a creative rut? Try these tips.

Know when to stop.
Kingsley Amis recommends you stop writing when you know what comes next. This, he argues, makes it easier to begin the next day. His son, Martin Amis, recommends you only work for two hours, commenting, “I think most writers would be very happy with two hours of concentrated work.

Meditation, Chocolate, and Coffee
David Lynch recommends meditation. “I have never missed a meditation in thirty-three years,” he wrote in his 2006 book, Catching the Big Fish. Lynch told a reporter in 1990 that he also loves chocolate and coffee.

For seven years I ate at Bob’s Big Boy. I would go at 2:30, after the lunch rush. I ate a chocolate shake and four, five, six, seven cups of coffee—with lots of sugar. And there’s lots of sugar in that chocolate shake. It’s a thick shake. In a silver goblet. I would get a rush from all this sugar, and I would get so many ideas! I would write them on these napkins. It was like I had a desk with paper. All I had to do was remember to bring my pen, but a waitress would give me one if I remembered to return it at the end of my stay. I got a lot of ideas at Bob’s.

Write. Stop. Copy.
In Daily Rituals, Currey writes on Morton Feldman:

When he did find the time to compose, Feldman employed a strategy that John Cage taught him—it was “the most important advice anybody ever gave me,” Feldman told a lecture audience in 1984. “He said that it’s a very good idea that after you write a little bit, stop and then copy it. Because while you’re copying it, you’re thinking about it, and it’s giving you other ideas. And that’s the way I work. And it’s marvelous, just wonderful, the relationship between working and copying.”

Try a dirty hotel.
Maya Angelou likes to work in dirty hotel rooms. “I try to keep home very pretty and I can’t work in a pretty surrounding. It throws me.”

Exercise.
“(J.M.) Coetzee,” says the writer Rian Malan, “is a man of almost monkish self-discipline and dedication. He does not drink, smoke or eat meat. He cycles vast distances to keep fit and spends at least an hour at his writing-desk each morning, seven days a week.

Lie down.
Truman Capote liked to lie down. He told the Paris Review in 1957

I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand. Essentially I think of myself as a stylist, and stylists can become notoriously obsessed with the placing of a comma, the weight of a semicolon. Obsessions of this sort, and the time I take over them, irritate me beyond endurance.

He isn’t the only one.

Marcel Proust, Currey writes …

wrote exclusively in bed, lying with his body almost completely horizontal and his head propped up by his two pillows. … If he felt too tired to concentrate, Proust would take a caffeine tablet, and when he was finally ready to sleep, he would counteract the caffeine with Veronal, a barbital sedative.” One of his friends, warned him “You’re putting your foot on the brakes and the accelerator at the same time.

Turn off the TV
Television drove Joseph Heller back to writing. “I couldn’t,” he says, “imagine what Americans did at night when they weren’t writing novels.”

Err, if you’re really stuck
Thomas Wolfe, Mason writes, “had been unconsciously fondling his genitals, a habit from childhood that, while not exactly sexual … fostered “such a good male feeling” that it had stoked his creative energies. From then on, Wolfe regularly used this method to inspire his writing sessions, dreamingly exploring his “male configurations” until the “sensuous elements in every domain of life became more immediate, real, and beautiful.”

Take a rest
Carl Jung, says “I’ve realized that somebody who’s tired and needs a rest, and goes on working all the same is a fool.”

Use a routine.
Haruki Murakami, speaks to the value of his routine in this 2004 Paris Review interview:

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long—six months to a year—requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.

In his memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Murakami updated us on his routine.

early mornings spent writing, afternoons running increasingly long distances and doing housework, admin and spending time with family

Leo Tolstoy was a firm believer in routine as well. “I must write each day without fail,” he wrote, “not so much for the success of the work, as in order not to get out of my routine.”

Change the routine.
Nicholson Baker, “What I’ve found with daily routines, is that the useful thing is to have one that feels new. It can almost be arbitrary. You know you could say to yourself, ‘from now on, I’m only going to write on the back porch in flip flops starting at four o’clock in the afternoon.’ And if it feels novel and fresh, it will have a placebo effect and it will help you work. Maybe that’s not completely true. But there’s something to just the excitement of coming up with a slightly different routine.”

Avoid email.
John Adams, on concentration (from Daily Rituals)

Often after an hour of working I’ll yield to the temptation to read my email or things like that. The problem is that you do get run out of concentration energy and sometimes you just want to take a mental break. But if you get tangled up into some complicated communication with somebody, the next thing you know you look up and you’ve lost forty-five minutes of time.

I think René Descartes might have the best advice. Currey writes he believed that “idleness was essential to good mental work, and he made sure not to overexert himself. After an early lunch, he would take a walk or meet friends for conversation; after supper, he dealt with his correspondence.”

So, to recap some of the ideas to stimulate your creative juices: turn off email and the TV; go for a long walk in the woods; grab a coffee; read a book; don’t overexert yourself. Oh, and, subscribe to Brain Food.