Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Human Foibles: Cognitive Biases and Logical Fallacies

 Get Nerdy With Me

I am a bit of a nerd when it comes to philosophy and psychology.  Okay actually I am quite a bit of a nerd.  I’m not certain if the study of human behaviour, of logic and rational thought is a particularly encouraging pursuit but it depends on how one looks at it.  It can indeed be discouraging to understand just how fallible we all are, illogical, superstitious, biased, and with flawed memories and yet inclined to be unaware of all this.  I find some hope in the fact that we can be aware and attempt to overcome it.

It might be true that the world is growing less ignorant overall, that more information is available to more people than ever before.  I’ve certainly heard this opinion though I don’t know if it is true.  It seems possible.  But at the same time, most people do not change their opinions readily, and when faced with information that contradicts long held beliefs they are more likely to deny or refute that information even if it comes from someone much more qualified to know about the subject than they are.  The internet allows for much more information to be disseminated but it also allows for much more misinformation to spread and for nearly everyone to express opinions publicly, to be heard, perhaps believed, and it gives a sense of importance, allowing people to believe that their own opinion is equally valid as the opinions of others who are better informed, more experienced or simply more expert in a given subject. 

Cognitive Biases

If you are interested in cognitive biases, Wikipedia gives a good overview.  The biases I see most often are these ones below.  I am as fascinated by them as I am frequently irked.  It’s my goal in life to be less irked. 

Confirmation Bias is the human tendency to search for, accept and believe the information or ‘expert opinions’ that support our own beliefs and perceptions.
Self-Serving Bias is the tendency to attribute out success to our own skills/talents/intelligence than our failures.  Success is due to our brilliance, failure is bad luck or the fault of someone/something outside ourselves.

Belief Bias is attributing more rationality or reasonableness to opinions or sets of data which support our own beliefs and opinions and considering the opposing view or other views unreasonable.

Logical Fallacies

And then there are logical fallacies.   Whether you check the internet or a reference book, the list of potential fallacies is alarmingly long, though in some cases there are two names for the same thing. 

Begging the Question does not mean what most people think it does.  It seems much more logical that it should mean something that forces one to as the question X.  But it doesn’t.  It means a circular argument, such as ‘smoking is harmful because it is bad for you.’  In that case the lack of any real argument there should be obvious but sometimes, when someone truly believes something but can’t articulate why or don’t even really know themselves they use circular arguments and can’t see the error of them. 

Correlation mistaken for Causation is often employed when a proper scientific study is difficult or impossible to pursue, as can be the case where it is unethical to experiment on humans or children.  Some psychological studies done in the past cannot be repeated because today we would consider it unethical to put people into distressing situations.  Nutrition studies can be more difficult since it is unethical to feed things we believe are harmful to people in order to find out what happens or to deprive them of things we believe are good.  A correlation between two variables does not mean one is the cause of the other.  Often there are other variables not taken into account and this can be due to the involvement of confirmation bias.  This one crops up when people insist that they have witnessed evidence that strange things happen when there is a full moon.  Most of us are already primed to consider that full moons may cause strange behaviour, so anything strange that happens during a full moon is more likely to be noticed and remembered. 

Fallacy of a Single Cause is related to the above, being the assumption that something is caused by one single thing when it could actually be a collection of things.

Straw Man Fallacy is an argument given based on a misunderstanding (sometimes deliberate) of the opposing argument.  Sometimes it is used to avoid having to address something and other times it is used to deliberately misrepresent an opponent, typically used in politics.  This is when our confirmation bias kicks in and we believe the straw man arguments of the candidate we support.

Appeal to Emotion Fallacy is an argument made appealing to one or more emotional responses likely to be felt by the people intended to be persuaded.  It might be fear, anger, flattery or wishful thinking/hope.  There are many Appeal To fallacies.  A typical one is the appeal to nature, which is the belief that something is better if it is ‘natural’.  We see this on health and beauty products.

Slippery Slope Fallacy is the argument that if X happens it’s only a matter of time before Y happens too and this would be bad.  This one could be related to the correlation vs cause issue, since studies that show a correlation between X and Y would also need to show if there truly is a cause and thus truly is a slippery slope.

And for just a little more information on the fallible human we all are, my readings in psychology indicate that we have very faulty memories though are generally unaware of it and put much more faith in our memories and the memories of others than we really should.  Perhaps sometimes we have little choice but it’s still disturbing to realise.  A good read, though perhaps a bit discouraging, is
Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Arronson.

This has been a public service announcement. 


  1. Ha! Ha! I will endeavour to not irk you. Love that word ' irk'!
    I also came across 'tetchy' again recently which tickles me.
    My brain is aching trying to sort through the fallacies and biases. This is a conversation I would have with my husband Cris...he too is an INTJ;-)
    Thanks for the public service. xo Jazzy Jack

  2. I probably do get tetchy when irked. Both very good words! I can be found pacing the floor and ranting about the foibles of humanity, my own included. I cannot manage to engage very many people in a conversation about cognitive biases and fallacies and generally rely on only those who really love me to engage. LOL


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