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How to Not Be Fooled – Part #1 – Confirmation Bias

31 July 2009 2 Comments
How to Not Be Fooled – Part #1 – Confirmation Bias

Sorry, you can always be fooled. In fact the moment you think you can’t is when you’re at the highest risk. That said, there are things we can learn that can help. The mind works in certain unconscious ways and once you know about these they’ll set off your critical thinking red-flags next time you encounter a hoaxer.

I’ve been pondering the universe these past two+ years and trying to research various different aspects of humanity (from my armchair). In this series of blogs I’ll try to share or regurgitate what I’ve learned.

Let’s start by discussing Confirmation Bias. Confirmation Bias is the process by which you take a look at something that has already happened and then infer a meaning or a reason for that having happened. Typically comes in the form of “well that was bound to happen because…xyz”. The distinguishing feature of Confirmation Bias is that folks don’t try to test their hypothesis properly and the reasoning is often in support of a position we already held, thus confirming pre-existing biases.

Flim-flam artists take advantage of this to trick us.

In the following video from Derren Browne, a wallet loaded with cash is placed on a busy city street – a bright yellow circle is drawn around the wallet. A hidden camera records the action. No one touches the wallet. Embedding has been disabled but here’s the link [LINK].

If you scan through the comments left by folks viewing the video you’ll see some very creative reasoning going on with all kinds of explanation as to why this works.

“Thats because people in public thinks differently than in private. They are just stuck on some kind of autopilot – (preprogrammed robots)- set of behaviours, what they think they should do in public. That set includes honesty and yellow chalk reminds them that they are observed by other people. It works in every civilized society.”

“I guess one chalk circle makes all the difference”

“why is noone picking it up… cause its ciculed in yellow they think its a trap????”

“There are a LOT of people walking through these streets, so if someone were to pick this wallet up, then a lot of people would notice. Not to mention that there’s a yellow circle surrounding it. It’s been drawn there and it looks intentional. So this would register to someone’s mind that, “Hey, if I pick this up and someone were to see me, they might think I wasn’t there before and am stealing it now.” There’s a lot that goes through someone’s mind.”

“The circle’s a bright color as well so it draws attention. The act of stealing something like a wallet full of money is a shameful and suspicious one. To bring that much attention with a bright color and an abnormal situation of a circle surrounding a dropped wallet would cause people to stop their impulse from stealing it. So they look, but they don’t steal because they would be afraid of being noticed. It’s quite a pity that we can’t have a circle drawn around our belongings when we lose them!”

“The yellow circle makes it so that on the offchance anyone notices the wallet, they’ll think someone will somehow know if they pick it up, which of course is true. It makes me think a lot about primal or instinctual ideas of territory and belonging.”

Admittedly my initial reaction was to jump immediately to the yellow circle, why was it there, how did it protect the wallet and all the while I assumed it was actually the key to the whole thing. I never questioned whether or not this was actually a genuine phenomenon at all!

After watching the video I held the bias that this Yellow Circle thing could protect a wallet and that it worked every time and that all I had to do was to figure out why.

I was operating under a false premise; that yellow circles protected wallets.

Truth is there’s nothing in this video to suggest that. All Derren’s done is play a trick on the viewer by leveraging confirmation bias. It’s highly likely that this experiment was tried repeatedly on numerous street corners until it worked. He might’ve lost numerous wallets before he got the clips of one continuous shot where the wallet wasn’t touched. He might’ve had a big sign held off-camera warning folks not to touch the wallet on the ground. Who knows?

By observing the result of something that’s already happened, and then trying to reverse engineer the reason behind it, we fall foul to Confirmation Bias. Confirmation Bias closes off other options and just leads us to re-enforce our personal biases on a given phenomenon.

Another way to look at it is that you’re Cherry Picking the evidence which supports your way of thinking whilst ignoring the evidence which does not support your bias.

So is confirmation bias bad? Not really, in fact it’s natural. The brain has evolved a great capacity to theorize, hypothesize and imagine. No matter what you do you are stuck with a mind that will try to infer meaning in the world around you. It’s unavoidable. As long as you apply the scientific method, look for evidence supporting your theory, then look for ways to falsify the theory and apply The Scientific Method you will not fall fowl to confirmation bias.


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