Kristof has an intersting piece in today’s NYT about Negroponte’s “Daily Me” This is the future that we see in front of us today. All Newspapers aren’t dying BTW– the super small hyper-local ones are doing just fine. Newspaper reading has changed forever.
What concerns Kristof is Confirmation Bias–reading only the things that support your beliefs. This is dangerous–but only for those who won’t admit its a threat to their understanding.
Here’s a hunk from my book– it’s been awhile. Seemed relevant.
The Emperor’s New Prose
In 1996, New York University physics professor Allan Sokol wrote an article forbiddingly titled, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” published in Social Text, an esteemed academic journal of cultural studies. Among other things, Sokol claimed, “physical ‘reality’ is at the bottom of a social and linguistic construct,” and that the concept of an external world subject to laws of nature is a mistaken piece of post-Enlightenment dogma.
Still with me? Sokol utilized scientific and mathematic principles to back up his argument. He threw around imposing concepts like the “morphogenetic field,” which he called “a cutting edge theory of quantum gravity.” Sokol’s article was so steeped in the language of rigorous academic inquiry that the magazine’s editors didn’t realize it was all a hoax.
Sokol later cheerfully admitted that he purposely wrote the article “so that any competent physicist or mathematician, or undergraduate physics or math major, would realize it was a spoof.” Why? To see if the journal would run an article “liberally salted with nonsense if it sounded good and flattered the editors’ ideological pre-conceptions.” In short, Sokol wanted to test the confirmation bias of the editors of Social Text.
Sokol’s prank shows that often things are not as they appear. That principle applies as much to popular culture as it does to scientific inquiry. While there is likely such a thing as objective reality, any two people in the universe will look at objective reality and see entirely different things. And they could both be right. A dollar may be a dollar, but its value varies around the world on a daily basis.
We don’t all experience the same event or the same picture and draw the same conclusions. Each of us tends to cherry-pick objective events that make it easy for us to “prove” the logic of our opinions. Get used to it. Embrace it. Love it. Considering and accepting your confirmation bias will free you to face it and start to change how often you are trapped by it. Each of us uses the greater events that make up our worldview to prove our confirmation bias. Heck, I’ve done it writing this book. I’ve chosen to count on readers to challenge the examples I’ve described and to which I ascribe meaning to manage my confirmation biases.
Anyone who considers himself immune to this kind of biased thinking should look at mean annual temperatures in Cheraw, South Carolina, where between 1930 and 2000, it cooled by 1.5 degrees. The temperature drop could be seen as an open-and-shut debunking of the concept of global warming, and that might be right if we were talking only about Cheraw, South Carolina. Globally, the last dozen years have yielded the highest temperatures in recorded history. To a dedicated Greenpeace warrior, that fact would underscore the core theme of Al Gore’s messianic film road show, An Inconvenient Truth. Global warming is here, it exists, and we’d better do several things about it, now.
For purposes of this chapter, it doesn’t really matter if the adherents of either viewpoint could be proved right or wrong. What both sides in the global warming debate are doing with their respective scientific facts is exhibiting confirmation bias.
Wason, Come Here…We Need You
Confirmation bias is the brainchild of British psychologist Peter Wason, who observed like many before him that people use information to support their view of the world. Wason distinguished himself by testing the idea that people attach a tremendous amount of subconscious importance to proving a cherished assumption. They seize on examples that back up their ideas and ignore the rest. A sports fan may remember statistics that put his team in a favorable light while ignoring or even forgetting anything that casts doubt on his team’s lauded status.
According to Wikipedians, Wason conducted experiments in which he asked subjects to look at a numerical sequence, such as 2-4-6. He then asked subjects to devise numerical triplets of their own until they could correctly guess the rule behind the original progression of numbers. Most people were wrong at least once or never right at all. But instead of admitting their error, they kept devising triplets to prove their own erroneous hypotheses. Here’s the amazing part: Participants avoided triplets that could eliminate incorrect rules, and resisted coming up with variable hypotheses! Paging Adam Smith.
The responses proved to Wason that people would go to great lengths to avoid considering that they might be wrong. “In the real world, the fixated, obsessive behavior of some of the subjects would be analogous to that of a person who is thinking in a closed system, a system which defies refutation such as existentialism or the majority of religions,” he wrote. “These experiments demonstrate how dogmatic thinking and the refusal to entertain the possibility of alternatives can easily result in error.” Even when staring at facts that contradict their positions, people tend to concede much less of an inconvenient truth than the facts would otherwise support.
Now recall Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winner who showed that what people choose is determined mostly by the way the choice is framed. People will look for an anchor point to cling to, so that any opinion adjustments they make in the direction of truth will be severely limited. The anchor might be as mobile as Tony Hawk’s skateboard, but folks will hew to it nonetheless. Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams has made a killing caricaturing confirmation bias through the bizarro-world ravings of characters like Wally, Dogbert, and especially his comic strips’ pointy-haired CEO. “The irrational part of your brain reinterprets reality in a way that lets you keep your dumb viewpoint against all common sense and evidence,” Adams writes succinctly in his blog.
Go Along to Get Along
No one is immune to seeking validation for their views from their peers. This is true at all levels of the Diffusion of Innovation model, innovators included. The vulnerability exists for everyone; it just differs by degrees. Confirmation bias isn’t just for individuals; it is essential for tribes too. Reinforcing bias often helps build and sustain them.
The innovator is the one who tribe members look to for clues about what should interest them. The innovators themselves don’t often get reciprocal feedback from the tribe. Instead, for validation, they refer to external media and other tribes. The world is often a cold and lonely place for innovators, who constitute less than three percent of any tribe. Confirmation is hard to come by. All of the innovators’ contact with outside influences is indirect, not personal. This may make confirmation bias rarer, but it makes it much stronger. Being lonely causes one to question reality a bit more, but the need to anchor onto something reliable becomes very attractive.
The newness of something is especially compelling to innovators who pride themselves on discovering and embracing things before anybody else. Their personal identity is established by recognizing innovation at its most pristine, so proof of newness or novelty is essential. But the attraction to that which is new can become a trap for innovators. They risk credibility and their own cultural currency by making quick attachments to things simply because they are new. If the phenomenon doesn’t live up to expectations (as it often doesn’t), the innovator may lose influence. To paraphrase the old saying, “No one remembers when you’re right, but everyone remembers when you’re wrong.”
By comparison, early adopters bring confirmation bias from inside the tribe. They are leaders in their own right, with a lot of influence, but unlike innovators, they run their preferences by their friends because they care how other members of the tribe view them. Their credibility for taking a position on a new idea or product comes from their ability to channel (think like) their friends and associates.
Both innovators and early adopters have power to confirm their own opinions. People relinquish this power the further down the diffusion scale they reside, such that early and late majorities seek stronger confirmation from their friends, while laggards essentially can’t approve anything on their own. Laggard behavior confirms tastes and opinions through the affirmation of the peer group.
It may be tough for a nation with a pioneer mentality like that of the United States to accept this concept, but “the vision thing” that has become a litmus test for presidential candidates eludes a lot of people. Studies have shown that only about 16 percent of people have a self-generated vision of what they want. For the rest, peers within the tribe inevitably color and drive their choices.
The less logical and more visceral one’s allegiance is to a tribe’s core purpose, the greater the degree to which peer consensus will be a factor. Fans of college and pro sports teams in America can be very insular in their opinions about opposing teams and players. Fans will even project their own unresolved real-life conflicts onto those rivalries—for instance, sitting with their faces painted in their team’s colors—to attempt to validate their views. Tribal reinforcement of confirmation bias can get really heavy-handed. You wouldn’t dare walk into the Dog Pound at a Cleveland Browns game wearing a John Elway jersey. Likewise, there weren’t many vocal Yankees fans in the South before major league baseball expanded beyond two 16-team leagues in 1961 (and before northeasterners began their southward migration in the ’70s).
As with most fads the backlash continues. While social networking is no fad this video does a great job of satirizing the reality of “I publish therefore I am“. Watch out for that fail whale.
Guinness is one of my favorite brands. Diageo has done a commendable job keeping the brand’s value while it scales its appeal. For the uninitiated, Guinness is a lot like produce. Sometimes it’s good sometimes its great sometimes–well not so much. I’ve noticed that more attention has been applied to Guinness’s quality in the glass recently, and my pints are more consistently great. It might just be technology– people serving Guinness now know how to pour it better Slainte ! Oh yea, and Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
Tim Berners-Lee invented the the web. In this video he discusses the next web…
The culture of API. 16 essential minutes. Please don’t miss it.
Applying social media to the enterprise is not as easy as it might sound. Jive is very hot among digital analysts (and your pals here @ Mediathink.). Telcos will be adopting these platforms like crazy this year (and next) as consumers seek to support each other with the adoption of new technology.
This is a long video but Robert Scoble does a nice job parsing it to meet the TubeMogul limit (there are two other segments). If you are really crunched for time skip the strictly entertaining tattoo talk and scroll to 2:05 where the meat of the interview begins. If you are interested in social media and the enterprise–essentially the future of marketing and management– this is an excellent video.
Carl’s Fine Films made this on a Palm Device. Note to companies: you want something like this–your customers need to LOVE you. To LOVE you they must know you. Things that ultimately might be annoying to customers become lyrics to a love song. Open UP.
Microsoft’s look at the future of digital communication technology. This is a great example of seeing the future now. Many of these technologies already exist in some form or fashion. Notice the extensive use of touch– just like the Apple products (iPhone and iTouch). My 9 year old wants a touch tablet netbook and all I wanted was a flying car…