Gilovich, 2, part 1

The new book by Thomas Gilovich (author of the 1991 volume HOW WE KNOW WHAT ISN’T SO: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life, just discussed here) and coauthor Lee Ross is THE WISEST ONE IN THE ROOM: How You Can Benefit From Social Psychology’s Most Powerful Insights.

As in the earlier book, some 2/3 or more consists of discussion of various psychological discoveries about how people perceive things, with the balance about how these understandings can be applied to personal and social issues. (In a loose sense, then, this is a ‘self-help’ book.)

The early chapters echo subjects from the earlier book, but are more broadly applied.

Chapter 1, “The Objectivity Illusion” concerns how people aren’t so much objective observers of the world as they are subject to “naive realism”, the idea that what we experience is what is real, and somehow assume that others perceive the same ‘reality’ that we do. Whereas in fact, our perception of events (example: driving past a political protest) depends on our own prior beliefs. Interesting point I had not realized: the idea that people are subject to the ‘Lake Wobegon effect’ (everyone thinks they’re an above-average driver) is to some extent valid — because people use differing standards for what constitutes, e.g., a good driver (edit: mentioned later, p88). Example of people defending tastes in 60s vs. 80s music; their defenses use very different examples of each!

Great quote from British philosopher Isaiah Berlin, p31t — it’s the first para under the digit 1 on this page.

The general principle of perceiving bias in others, but not ourselves, affects how people regard sports announcers and debate moderators, who can never please everybody. p34b:

If you are like most people, you probably think the media generally are overly critical of the party and candidates you favor, and insufficiently critical of the party and candidates you oppose. You find media coverage of political and social issues frustrating because those on your side seem to be “telling it like it is,” while the other side’s contributions consist of little more than a series of lies, distortions, and half-truths.

And thus about the media, 35b

Because people tend to think of their own take on events not as a “take” but as a veridical assessment of what is taking place, anyone who tries to offer an even-handed account of events will tend to be seen as biased and hostile to the perceiver’s interests. This is one reason that the fourth estate is held in such low regard by the public. Right wingers in the United States curse the “lamestream” media, while those on the left complain that the major news outlets maintain a mindless neutrality by giving extreme right-wing perspectives the same coverage and treatment as much more centrist positions offered by those on their side of the political spectrum. And both groups regard the networks’ “pandering” to the other side as blatantly dishonest, whereas they see the network that shares their perspective as a source of refreshingly clear thinking.

(Well, yes, I do find Rachel Maddow, for example, a source of refreshingly clear thinking, so am I really subject to my own bias in the same a Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck fan is about those guys’ conspiracy theories? I’d like to not think so… especially since conspiracy theories can be understood via the same suite of psychological insights that are discussed in books like this.)

Chapter 2, “The Push and Pull of Situations”, discusses what in other books is called “priming” — we respond to situations quite differently depending on how they are presented. Examples: how war bonds were promoted and sold; how participation rates for savings plans or organ donations depend on whether they are presented as Opt-in vs. Opt-out. Eliminate obstacles: recycling is promoted by cities providing colored recycling bins.

There’s insight here into slippery-slope situations, including the famous Milgram experiment. In that case subjects were trapped in a situation with no clear way to stop. Many things happen in series of small steps; another example, how gay rights expanded to include social acceptance of same-sex marriage.

And the fundamental attribution error, FAE, whereby we attribute one’s situation to their essence; we confuse the person with the role. Leonard Nimoy was not really Spock. New Orleans residents who didn’t flee Katrina didn’t ‘choose’ not to leave (and were thereby irresponsible); they had no way to leave. Slave owners, even Thomas Jefferson, perceived slaves as unable to manage their own lives.

Lesson for the wisest one in the room: don’t rush to judgment until you appreciate situations and constraints in which people actied.

Chapter 3, “The Name of the Game”, is about how people *understand* the situation they’re in. How Social Security, signed in 1935, was framed as a type of savings plan, not a transfer of wealth; how issues like abortion are framed differently by rival sides; how organ donations and college tuitions depend on what people perceive as the meaning of their actions. Even smart people, like surgeons, choose differently depending on an option is framed. Framing can depend on how rates are expressed, the choice of denominator. Lesson: if your preference is risky, frame the issue as about which to select; if less risky, about which to reject.

Chapter 4, “The Primacy of Behavior”, is about how *acting* as if you are winning can promote the confidence in yourself and *in others*. Discussion of William James about how emotion follows the body’s response to events (cf Haidt), and how in evolution reflective thought is a later development than instinctive action (again). Self-perception theory vs. cognitive dissonance (Festinger). Lesson: just get the ball rolling; but bribes can backfire. At the same time, we’re all subject to rationalizations. Lesson: consider if someone else offered the same rationalization. Discussion of how this applies to the idea of evil, and the “banality of evil” p125-126.

This uncomfortable truth is crucial to an understanding of the link between rationalization and evil—an understanding that starts with the awareness that sane people rarely, if ever, act in a truly evil manner unless they can successfully rationalize their actions. Hollywood films notwithstanding, villains who proudly embrace evil are virtually nonexistent in real life. The problem is that people are extraordinarily adept at rationalizing. …

[[ Listening to political news just now puts this entire topic in a larger context, that is, that the ideas in books like these are subtle, and would almost certainly be dismissed by the many in the population of who perceive only simple black and white truths, about, in this example, ‘evil’. Any subtle introspection on this matter, or many another, would be dismissed by the typical conservative base as elitist university thinking, a threat to religious faith, and a liberal conspiracy. It will always be this way. ]]

Final passage in this chapter is about a book by a Holocaust survivor who tried to identify common traits of the various ‘heroes’ who helped Jews escape. There were no common traits. Heroic efforts more typically begin in a series of small steps.

Chapter 5, “Keyholes, Lenses, and Filters”, evokes some of the more specific mental biases and logical errors people are prone to, as discussed in the earlier book. Cherry-picking data (Iraq). How our range of vision is limited; how we can hold only 5 to 9 ideas in our head at any one time; how we have ideological lenses; how information is restricted by circumstances of the world. Two types of thinking: intuitive and rational. Confirmation bias, “the mother of all biases” — beware want we *want* to believe. People shown counter-evidence double-down, because we regard counter-evidence with more scrutiny than we do confirming evidence, and finds ways to dismiss the former.

Consider if the opposite might be true. Alas, the Catholic Church abandoned the idea of a “devil’s advocate”, and as a consequence the rate of confirming saints has soared in recent decades.

And so on: hidden information; self-fulfilling prophecies; pluralistic ignorance; groupthink.

Will do one more post about this book, to cover the second section, “Wisdom Applied”.

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