Saturday, March 30, 2019

When Swimming in Biases, Try Not to Drown

Heuristics or those 'rules of thumb' that we use to cut through dense amounts of information to help us make timely decisions often involve availability biases. We remember ideas and select rationales based on how available they are to us – how close to the surface of our conscious thoughts those rationales lie. (We humans will grab the ideas that are most "available" to us – and sometimes, they are the most absurd.) When we lack enough information about a chain of events, we also draw on heuristics to 'fill in the gaps' between them so that we can better comprehend them. But they are shortcuts, and when we use these methods, we run at least some risk of falling into error. 

Our bias selection today concerns the heuristic that appeals to our human sense of commitment and consistency. As you may well note, these concepts overlap in their context just like many of the informal fallacies and sub-fallacies do. I hope that my germane purpose of helping readers find tools to help them make better choices shines through. While it might be helpful to remember the names of some of the biases, I just want to help people to get some practice at pulling the pieces of these puzzles apart. Observing how biases work can help people to become more self-aware and have greater cause to examine their own ideas. They are the best weapons for resisting undue influence. 

Human beings strive for consistency and use it to help make sense of their daily lives, and our society values it and rewards it. We strive to be seen as consistent, and consistency in our decision-making over time helps us cut through future decisions more easily. Today's decisions build upon decisions made in the past because we've already "been there and done that." We also experience high stress (cognitive dissonance) when our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors fail to weave together consistently. It's the foolish consistencies that, as Emerson puts it, become the hobgoblins that keep us trapped in a course of thought or action because we don't like how we feel when something that threatens us with change. It's very stressful when new information challenges our beliefs, and sometimes we can work backwards from a change in an attempt to resist it by creating new reasons and behaviors that seem to justify unchanging consistency, even when it becomes obsolete. 

The Swimmer's Body Illusion

To illustrate the Swimmer's Body Illusion, I chose an image that borrows from Terry Gilliam's animated sketch from Monty Python's Flying Circus (Season 1, Episode 5). Charles Atlas was a bodybuilder who advertised his fitness program in many magazines, suggesting that anyone who buys and follows it can have a body that looks just like him. Gilliam draws a scrawny stick figure of a man who wants to have a chance with a voluptuous lady at the beach, then contrasts him with his own version of Atlas. At one point in the sketch, when the instruction book for the program arrives at the home of the scrawny man, it falls on him, crushing him.

The problem with this analogy involves the error of attribution concerning cause and effect. Swimmers are slim and have well-developed muscles, so if I want to look like a swimmer, I might think that swimming will eventually change my appearance. The opposite is true. The swimmer's body comes first, and people who look like swimmers and have the optimum body type for swimming first. Their bodies are a product of selection, not a result of the kind of exercise that they do. 

I think of this error as perhaps the most prevalent in all of patriarchy. If you do precisely what Family Smith does, you will end up with a family that is very much like the Smiths. And, naturally, the reverse is true. If your family doesn't turn into a lovely one that ends up like the Smiths' Family, the problem of the swimmer's body fallacy never comes into play. Instead, your family is blamed for 'the failure' and accused of failing to follow the right plan or for failing to be right with God. The truth is that your family can only look like your family, and no one sees what goes on in the homes, hearts, and minds of the Smiths anyway. 

People stay hooked into these kinds of systems because of the pain of the idea that they believed something impossible or misguided. Time, energy, and sacred honor seem to have been spent for nought. Some people will only dig in their heels harder, and with each passing day, their commitment to their original plan strengthens instead of wanes to ward off the pain. The criticisms of self and from others only become self-serving reasons for binding oneself more firmly to the original commitment. People also learn to criticize themselves without 'help' from others in the group because of the shame culture of comparison in the group. 

Those who abandon the cause of becoming like the Smiths must come to terms with the painful fact that they believed in and chased an empty cause based on little more than their desire. No one commits themselves to an empty promise unless they're trying to scam the scammer. Consider also that the slick salesman bears responsibility in the commission of the error too. While everyone involved may have intended to do something good, remember that the very best confidence tricksters pull off their scams so well that few if any people realize what is happening. Manipulators tend to be charismatic, they may even believe their own press as they take advantage of both your weaknesses and your strengths. Public professions of commitment also make the recanting of beliefs very difficult, and con artists exploit that fact, too. 

Don't be afraid to pull apart the different elements of a situation involving what might seem like the Swimmer's Body Illusion. Strip the promises down to their bare factors and consider what might be at risk if you might choose to believe them. What will you gain if the promises prove true, but also consider the risks and the costs? 

If you feel pressure and aren't given sufficient time to think through the benefits and the risks, make time before you offer a commitment. If the promise costs little and involves no risk, just keep in mind that soliciting your cooperation also increases the likelihood that because of consistency, you're more likely to do so again. (Your previous decisions serve as the basis for future behavior, establishing a norm and a pattern.) Be mindful that just because you are willing to participate one day that you are under no obligation to participate in the future. Initial commitments may be minimal and insignificant, designed just to gain your first cooperation and trust. That need not lock you into a predictable pattern. 

Further Reading: