Sunday, September 19, 2010

Cognitive Bias Occurs Within the Sciences 18

Biases are not confined to the area of artistic criticism or musicology. Tomorrow, from within the “hard” science of biology, I am going to examine the intense and damaging effects of some of the cognitive biases we have been discussing.  A sample of these biases is shown below.


  • Authority bias – the tendency to value an ambiguous stimulus (e.g., an art performance) according to the opinion of someone who is seen as an authority on the topic.

  • Availability heuristic – estimating what is more likely by what is more available in memory, which is biased toward vivid, unusual, or emotionally charged examples.

  • Pareidolia – a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) is perceived as significant, e.g., seeing images of animals or faces in clouds, the man in the moon, and hearing hidden messages on records played in reverse.

  • Herd instinct – common tendency to adopt the opinions and follow the behaviors of the majority to feel safer and to avoid conflict.

  • Ingroup bias – the tendency for people to give preferential treatment to others they perceive to be members of their own groups.

The cognitive biases above that are highlighted in red are consistent with apophenia:

Our sense of the uncanny toward such coincidental repetition is explained by apophenia--a cognitive bias toward seeing patterns and purposive behavior that usually serves us well, but that sometimes leads to false positives, such as seeing "Intelligent Design" in nature, faces in clouds, and deliberate coordination between unrelated events. Wikipedia, this blog, and the Skeptic's Dictionary have excellent entries on aphophenia. When we have these mistaken impressions of pattern or agency, but can't discern the nature of the connection or the agent (because, after all, there isn't one), we are sometimes struck with the feeling of something mysterious or occult at work--Fate, a spell or curse, or some invisible and magically-empowered entity toying with us.


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