inherent Psychological biases

The article below presents an interesting experiment in assumption and bias.

A Magician’s Best Trick: Revealing a Basic Human Bias
An encounter with a magician reveals a lesson: Think critically about whether you’re only intermittently thinking critically

By ROBERT SAPOLSKY
Dec. 31, 2014 12:01 p.m. ET

My family and I recently watched a magician perform. He was not of the sleight-of-hand ilk but, instead, had a stunning ability to psychologically manipulate his audience into doing and thinking what he wanted: con man as performance artist. He was amazing.

Afterward, we had the fortune of talking about neuroscience and psychology with him. In the process, he offered a demonstration of a small building-block of his craft.

The Magician gave a dime to a volunteer, my son, instructing him to hide it in one of his hands behind his back. The Magician would then guess which hand held the dime. He claimed that if you’re attuned to subtleties in people’s behavior, you can guess correctly at way above chance levels.

Not that day, though. The Magician wasn’t doing so hot. After a string of wrong guesses, he mumbled to my son, “Hmm, you’re hard to read. More rounds, and The Magician was only running 50-50.

They traded roles. And my son turned out to be really good at this game. The Magician looked impressed. After a stretch of correct guesses, he asked: “Did you play rock/paper/scissors when you were a kid?”

“Yes,” my son said.

“Were you good at it?”

“I suppose so.”

“Ah, makes sense, there are similar skills involved.”

Another string of successful guesses; we were agog. The Magician, looking mighty alert, asked: “So, are you trying to imagine what I’m thinking? Or are you focusing on my facial expressions? Or on something I’m doing with my hands?”

The near perfect streak continued; we were flabbergasted. Finally, another guess by my son—“I’m guessing it’s in your right hand.” The Magician opened his right hand displaying a dime. And then opened his left hand, which contained…another dime.

We dissolved with laughter, seeing what dupes we were. Ohhh, he had dimes in both hands the whole time. We started imagining cons built on manipulating a mark into believing that he has an otherworldly skill at something unexpected, and then somehow exploiting that false belief.

The guy had played us every step of the way. First, there was his “poor” performance at guessing—hey, we concluded, this guy puts on his pants one leg at a time. Then he complimented my son with “Hmm, you’re hard to read.” Next, The Magician gave a plausible explanation for my son’s success: “The experience with rock/paper/scissors, of course.” Finally, as my son’s run continued, The Magician indicated it was now a given that my son was virtuosic at this game: The point now was to analyze how he was doing it. Hook, line and sinker.

Something was painfully obvious. If my son had had a string of failures, with the hand containing no dime, we would have instantly used Critical Thinking 101, saying to the magician: “Hey, open your other hand, let’s make sure both hands aren’t empty.”

But faced with this string of successes, it never occurred to us to say. “Let’s make sure you don’t also have a dime in that other hand.” Instead, I had been thinking: “Wow, my son turns out to be the Chosen One of dime-guessing; my wife and I now have the heavy responsibility of ensuring that he only uses his gift for good; he’ll usher in world peace with his ability; he’ll…”

No wonder I’m embarrassed.

It’s what psychologists call “confirmation bias”: remembering information that supports your opinion better than information doing the opposite; testing things in a way that can only support, rather than negate, your hypothesis; and—the variant we fell for—being less skeptical about outcomes we like than we would about less-pleasing results.

Confirmation bias infests diplomacy, politics, finance and everyday life. This experience offered some wonderful lessons: Think critically about whether you’re only intermittently thinking critically; beware of Ponzis bearing gifts; always examine the mouth and the other hand of a gift horse.