Kahneman on overuse of "bias"

Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for his role in the development of behavioural economics -looking at how people can think in ways that we might not think of as rational in some sense. Despite this one thing I find interesting about him is that he now thinks that we overemphasize bias:

Mr. Kahneman: ... we very much overuse the term “bias.” When I started my career, you mentioned the word “error,” and the association would be “random” or “motivated” or “Freudian” error. 50, 60 years ago, that’s how people thought about error. Now you mention error, people are very likely to say, “What’s the bias that caused it?” But in fact, it need not be a bias. A lot of error is random, and there is a radical underestimation of the amount of random error in people’s thinking, and I would like to restore the balance because I think our work, Tversky’s and mine, was, in a sense, too influential. It led people to exaggerate the importance of bias in human affairs and in human thinking, but there are many other ways in which people go wrong than biases.

Ms. Tippett: And I suppose you’re suggesting, also, that if we took that in, that just that distinction would make us just that much — that “random” is not always motivated and malicious. Do you feel like the word “bias” is so much more charged, and that it charges things on top of…?

Mr. Kahneman: Certainly, that’s the case, but also, the fascinating thing about random error, what I call noise, is that it’s invisible, that we’re not aware of it.

Source: An interview for 'On Being'

Random links

Academic achievement across the day: Evidence from randomized class schedules
"Analyzing over 180,000 student-course outcomes, we find causal evidence of cognitive fatigue brought on by scheduling multiple courses in a row. The expected performance of two students in the same class may differ by as much as 0.15 standard deviations simply owing to their prior schedules. All else equal, students perform better in the afternoon than in the early morning."
Refugee Migration and Electoral Outcomes
"in all but the most urban municipalities - allocation of larger refugee shares between electoral cycles leads to an increase in the vote share not only for parties with an antiimmigration agenda but also for centre-right parties, while the vote share for centre-left parties decreases. However, in the largest and most urban municipalities refugee allocation has – if anything – the opposite effect on vote shares for anti-immigration parties. "
Would You Recognize a Dystopia If You Saw One?
"'Dystopia' is not just any bad situation; it is what results from an attempt to create a utopia. Dystopia is necessarily and specifically the consequence of utopianism (the pursuit of utopia in this world, as opposed to the great tradition of utopian speculation). It reflects someone’s program of social and political perfection. As Ursula K. LeGuin observed, 'Every utopia contains a dystopia; every dystopia contains a utopia.' Dystopia is not to be confused with just any awful situation."

When do people become white supremacists?

From the Mother Jones article Inside the radical, uncomfortable movement to reform white supremacists:

Starting in the late 1980s, Tore Bjørgo, a Norwegian sociologist, interviewed white supre­macists as they attempted to leave the Scandina­vian neo-Nazi movement. His findings were counterintuitive: Many became hardcore racists only after they had joined white supremacist groups. Rather than preexisting anti-Semitism or xenophobia, a cocktail of experiences such as isolation, depression, anxiety, or childhood abuse typically served as the stepping stones to extremism. This suggested that the behavioral and social rewards of participating in hate groups are perhaps more fundamental to understanding—and stopping—extremist behavior than the ideology behind it.

There's a certain psychological profile that seems common to those who join extremist groups of whatever sort. I worry that a lot of activity billed as "anti-racist" may be more likely to drive people into white-supremacist organisations rather than away from them.

Here's a different example from Deeyah Khan in the Vox article This filmmaker spent months interviewing neo-Nazis and jihadists. Here’s what she learned.:

... Part of the reason people subscribe to these movements is that they feel shunned in their lives, in their personal lives or in wider society. These movements are deeply rooted in a sense of victimhood, real or imagined. So if we exclude them, if we shout at them, if we condemn them, that completely feeds into that. And then the monster gets bigger, not smaller.

The point about victimhood potentially being real or imagined is important to recognize, and I think that it's a lot easier to sell people on the notion that they're victims rather than victimizers. On people's motivations:

... Much of it doesn’t come from hate. It comes from a lot of other basic human needs that are not being met. To be sure, there are political and social and economic factors involved on both sides, but if you dig deep, you find that it’s about much more than that.

I tried to understand the core psychological draw of these movements. I found that a sense of belonging or purpose was a major factor. These people join these groups and suddenly they have a sense of meaning in life, a belief that they matter, that their voice matters. It’s as though they were once invisible and now they’re seen.

Khan there also talks about the commonalities and interdependence between jihadists and white supremacists which I certainly agree with, but that's a story for another day.

Biography vs. hagiography


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