Saturday, April 14, 2012

Psychology of bandwagon effect and other cognitive biases

Cognitive bias is a deviation from what leads to correct decision in a particular situation. Cognitively biased deviation leads to errors in various spheres of life. The following are the common errors occurring due to cognitive biases.
Bandwagon effect
Let us first consider the meaning and origin of the term. Literally, a bandwagon is a wagon which carries the band in a parade, circus or other entertainment. The phrase "jump on the bandwagon" first appeared in American politics in 1848 when Dan Rice, a famous and popular circus clown of the time, used his bandwagon and its music to gain attention for his political campaign appearances. As his campaign became more successful, other politicians strove for a seat on the bandwagon, hoping to be associated with his success. Later, during the time of William Jennings Bryan's 1900 presidential campaign, bandwagons had become standard in campaigns, and "jump on the bandwagon"  was used as a derogatory term, implying that people were associating themselves with the success without considering what they associated themselves with.
The bandwagon effect is a form of groupthink in social psychology. The general rule is that conduct or beliefs spread among people, as fads and trends do, with the probability of any individual adopting it. As more people come to believe in something, others also "jump on the bandwagon" regardless of the underlying evidence. The tendency to follow the actions or beliefs of others can occur because individuals directly prefer to conform, or because individuals derive information from others. Both explanations have been used for evidence of conformity in psychological experiments. When individuals make rational choices based on the information they receive from others, economists have proposed that information cascades can quickly form in which people decide to follow the behavior of others. Cascades explain why behavior is fragile—people understand that they are based on very limited information. As a result, fads form easily but are also easily dislodged. Such informational effects have been used to explain political bandwagons.
The bandwagon effect occurs in voting: some people vote for those candidates or parties who are likely to succeed (or are proclaimed as such by the media), hoping to be on the "winner's side" in the end. The bandwagon effect has been applied to situations involving majority opinion, such as political outcomes, where people alter their opinions to the majority view. Such a shift in opinion can occur because individuals draw inferences from the decisions of others, as in an informational cascade.
Attentional Bias
We normally give increased attention or hyper-attention to both attractive and threatening materials. In cognitive psychology attentional bias refers to hyper-attention to threatening materials. The threat may be unrealistic. For example a person with arachnophobia (fear of spider) always shows attentional bias not only to spider but also anything related to spider. This hyper-attention occurs even with verbal material such as words like spider, web, creeping etc. Psychologists use modified Stroop test to demonstrate attentional bias in persons with phobias.
When the name of a color (e.g., "blue," "green," or "red") is printed in a color not denoted by the name (e.g., the word "red" printed in blue ink instead of red ink), naming the color of the word takes longer and is more prone to errors than when the color of the ink matches the name of the color. The effect is named after American psychologist John Ridley Stroop (1897 – 1973) who first published the effect in 1935. The effect has been used to create a psychological test (Stroop Test) that is widely used in clinical practice and investigation.
To establish the attention bias in persons with phobia the Stroop Test is used in a different manner. If the person is suffering from spider phobia words related to spider such as “spider”, “web”, “creepy” are printed in different colours and the person is asked to name the colour of the word. If the person is phobic to spider he/she takes longer time to name the colour because he/she gives hyper-attention to the feared object. Reduction of attention bias through frequent exposure of the feared object is the remedy for this type of disorders. The modified Stroop Test is also used for measuring the improvement in the condition.
Attentional bias phenomena have been found to occur not only in a number of anxiety disorders (e.g., specific phobia, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder), but also individuals with anxiety by trait. It appears that these traits point in the direction of a hyper-vigilant cognitive style that gives high processing priorities to threat-related stimuli, thereby promoting escalation of fear.
Belief bias
In everyday life people have to evaluate the validity of opinions given or conclusions arrived at by others. People accept or reject these conclusions or opinions depending if they are consistent with their everyday knowledge or prior beliefs. This cognitive process is called belief bias. Belief bias occurs when there is a conflict between existing belief or knowledge and the logical conclusion.
Let us consider the following logical conclusion:
All dogs are animals.
All animals have four legs.
Therefore, all dogs have four legs.
There is no conflict between existing knowledge or belief and the logical conclusion. Let us consider another logical conclusion.
All poodles are dogs.
All dogs are animals.
Therefore, all animals are poodles.
This logical conclusion contradicts with existing common knowledge and therefore it is considered as invalid.
People accept any and all conclusions that happen to fit with their system of beliefs. Beliefs and meaning, not the statistical analysis and other abstract systems invented by philosophers, lie at the core of human thinking. The supremacy of meaningful beliefs appears to be universal. Famous Russian neuro-psychologist Alexander Romanovich Luria asked illiterate farmers from Central Asia o reason deductively, giving them syllogisms of the following sort: “In the Far North, where there is snow, all bears are white. Novaga Zmlya  is in the Far North. What color are the bears there?”  The responses were of this sort: “I don’t know; I’ve seen a black bear, I’ve never seen any others…. Each locality has its own animals; it it’s white, they will be white; if it’s yellow, they will be yellow”. Some responses were: “How can I know?” Luria observed that the farmers simply ignored or forgot premises that contradicted their own knowledge.  
Confirmation bias
Confirmation bias (also called my-side bias or verification bias) is an ally of belief bias. It is a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs. For example, in reading about gun control, people usually prefer sources that affirm their existing attitudes. They also tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position. Biased search, interpretation and memory have been invoked to explain attitude polarization, belief perseverance or continuing existing beliefs after the evidence for them is shown to be false, the irrational primacy effect or a greater reliance on information encountered first in a series and illusory correlation or falsely perceiving an association between two events or situations. Confirmation biases contribute to overconfidence in personal beliefs and can maintain or strengthen beliefs in the face of contrary evidence. Poor decisions due to these biases have been found in military, political, and organizational contexts.
Confirmation bias has been described as an internal "yes-man", echoing back a person's beliefs like Uriah Heep. Uriah Heep is a fictional character created by Charles Dickens in his novel David Copperfield. The character is notable for his cloying humility, obsequiousness, and insincerity, making frequent references to his own "'humbleness". His name has become synonymous with being a yes-man.

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