October 29, 2012

The world's most boring profound insight

Brain science reporter Benedict Carey has another good piece in the NYT:
That Guy Won? Why We Knew It All Along 
The economy, “super PAC” money, debate performances, the candidates’ personalities. Roll it all together, and it’s obvious who’s going to win. 
Or, uh, it will be. 
Amid the many uncertainties of next Tuesday’s presidential election lies one sure thing: Many people will feel in their gut that they knew the result all along. Not only felt it coming, but swear they predicted it beforehand — remember? — and probably more than once. 
These analysts won’t be hard to find. They will most likely include (in addition to news media pundits) neighbors, friends, co-workers and relatives, as well as the person whose reflection appears in the glare of the laptop screen. Most will also have a ready-made argument for why it was inevitable that Mitt Romney, or Barack Obama, won — displaying the sort of false, after-the-fact “foresight” that psychologists call hindsight bias. 
“The important thing to know about hindsight bias is that it not only changes how you see the world, but also how you see yourself in it,” said Neal Roese, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, who just published a review paper on the bias with Kathleen D. Vohs of the University of Minnesota. “You begin to think: ‘Hey, I’m good. I’m really good at figuring out what’s going to happen.’ You begin to see outcomes as inevitable that were not.” 
Long the province of political scientists, historians and pollsters, voters’ behavior has more recently attracted the attention of psychologists. They have dug into the field over the past decade or so, finding a wide-open arena in which to test results from lab studies and in some cases drawing interest from campaign strategists. If politics is individual psychology writ large, then thinking about politics should be subject to the same shortfalls and quirks as thinking about anything else. And so it is, to some extent — presenting some of the same opportunities for self-correction. 
The most obvious carry-over to politics is confirmation bias, the reflexive instinct to begin with an assumption — say, that poor people are lazy — and notice only evidence that’s supportive, like malingering, ignoring the efforts of the rest of the $5-an-hour night cleaning crew. 
Hindsight bias is close to the reverse. People retrofit their opinions and judgments to the evidence, in this case to an election result, but just as often to a political decision (or nondecision) that went wrong. Of course it was clear that Saddam Hussein was bluffing about weapons of mass destruction. Anyone could have seen that. Of course the consulate in Benghazi needed beefed-up security.

This combination of Confirmation Bias and Hindsight Bias means that people tend to come out, on net, pretty accurate in their perceptions.
Campaigns exploit this instinct, particularly when appealing to voters who second-guess decisions of someone they put in office, said Mark McKinnon, a former adviser to President George W. Bush and co-founder of No Labels, a nonprofit devoted to bipartisanship. “As the challenger, you need to win over some of those voters,” Mr. McKinnon said in an e-mail. “You need to give them an out for their ‘voters’ remorse.’ It’s not them, you see, it was him.”

Thank God for this bias. Otherwise, we'd be stuck with failed victors until they were finally term-limited out.

There is a lot of interest these days in flaws in perception and rationality. They gave Daniel Kahneman that quasi-Nobel in Economics for perpetrating a lot of old conjuror's tricks on his psych majors. 

But the accurate prediction glass is part full as well as part empty. In fact, it's mostly full, it's just that nobody is very interested in predictions that are highly likely to be right. 

Q. Which college is going to win the football national championship this year?

A. Probably not the team that gave Rick Sanchez an unpaid internship as a color announcer.

Well, that was boring.

In contrast, the Obama-Romney race is pretty exciting because it's hard to predict. The closer something is to a fifty-fifty tossup, the more exciting we find it.

But, as the odds approach 50-50 and excitement and controversy mounts, the return on genuine expertise diminishes. If the Big Event really is a coin flip, then any nimrod has as good of a chance of being right as the finest expert. (This is surprisingly little understood, in part because it's so much fun to make fun of experts. The reality is that what makes an expert an expert is that he's right most of the time about the stuff he ought to be right about, the boring stuff, but nobody can be right all that often about the exciting stuff that's fascinating to the public precisely because it is so uncertain.)

So, the penalties for not knowing what you are talking about when it comes to predicting exciting events are small. Thus, for instance, we see vast numbers of professional pundits getting all worked up over the Gender Gap in this election and few even mentioning the much larger Marriage Gap (as I noted in my current VDARE.com article, which you should definitely make sure to read. Trust me, I'm an expert.)

But, in the short run, so what? The nimrods have almost as much of a chance of being right about what will happen next Tuesday as the seers. Hence, why bother to learn how the world works, since the world is most interested in the outcomes of virtually unpredictable events?

On the other hand, in the long run, the boring, predictable stuff like the Marriage Gap really does matter. In fact, the more predictable it is, the more it matters.

The late, great scientist Arthur Jensen devoted his career to studying something that has turned out to be extremely predictable, but also so vastly important that his name appears to be unmentionable in the week after his death.


TGGP said...

I think you give short shrift to Kahneman. Part of his findings are that you don't even have to try hard or have any "conjuror" talent to trick people, people can trick themselves just fine. You can explicitly tell people to ignore an "anchor", and it will still screw them up! Normally people try to put themselves in situations where their heuristics work, but detecting times when the brain DOESN'T work correctly helps us to understand what's actually going on in there. Sort of like how valuable case studies of brain damaged people have been to psychiatry.

But I agree, Jensen is underrated. I've complained about Rushton's scholarship before, but I'm not aware of any such misstep on Jensen's part.

Anonymous said...

Rick Sanchez's remarks to the ADL in February 2012:


Steve Sailer said...

Kahneman would be more fun if he was more of a mustache-twirling cynic -- Ha-ha, fools! Tricked them again! Sadly, he's kind of a sincere Aspie who has trouble understanding why most people think Linda is going to be a feminist bankteller because he's gone so far out of his way in telling the story to imply that she is.

Jim Bowery said...

Confirmation bias?

The current odds at Intrade are 62% for Obama. Moreover, Obama has not fallen below 50% since January.

What's confirmation bias?

Anonymous said...

still waiting for some other person among the thousands and thousands of commentators, pundits, journalists, and etc to speculate that self-interest among journalists, talking heads, pollsters and pundits lies in the direction of a close race: the media and pollsters will receive more income via advertising buys and viewers and polling requests when the race is close versus a not so close race, and so therefore, these entities tend to promote the candidate that is behind so as to make the race closer. Restated, the media, pundits and pollsters got Romney back in the race in September so as to make it a close race and therefore obtain more income for themselves. Nah, that couldn't be it.....

Auntie Analogue said...


Don't bother me when I'm working my Ouija board.

Had to use the Ouija board because post-tropical storm Sandy's surge diluted the ink water in my Magic 8-Ball.

Boy, do I miss that Criswell guy.

Clutch cargo cult said...

A look at stock market volatility as measured by VIX sees it near all time lows. The market doesn't do uncertainty(as defined by new administration) well. The market has bet big that there will be no change in the White House. I hope the market is wrong but wouldn't bet my money on it.

David said...

"Most will also have a ready-made argument for why it was inevitable that Mitt Romney, or Barack Obama, won — displaying the sort of false, after-the-fact 'foresight' that psychologists call hindsight bias."

I can boast of having confidently predicted Romney, way back on October 9, 2012. I even gave the reason why.

Hindsight my rear end.

irishfan87 said...

I don't get why you hit on Rick Sanchez so much. Basically, he's medium intelligence jock I guess, but he got in trouble for raising an issue you seem at least somewhat sympathetic to.