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Posts Tagged ‘cognitive bias

Test what you know, but avoid congruence bias

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A few posts ago I discussed confirmation bias, where individuals interpret everything they experience as reinforcing their existing beliefs. It’s not surprising that humans fall prey to this trap. We have to make sense of our surroundings, so we develop mental models to do so. They’re our models, based on our mental, so it’s no surprise we think highly of them.

No model of the world can capture all of its complexity. We can model industrial processes at a certain level, but we can’t get all the way down to the interactions of individual atoms. Fortunately, we don’t have to to generate accurate depictions of reality. As statistician George E. P. Box noted, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”

Many humans realize they will move through life more effectively by testing and updating their mental models, but you need to test your model correctly. If you test your mental models and other hypotheses through direct testing, rather than testing possible alternative models, you are experiencing congruence bias. You’re testing your model, which is great, but you’re not entertaining other ways of approaching the problem, which is not so great. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn argued that scientists work within a paradigm, which is the dominant framework for creating, testing, and determining hypotheses at a given time. When experimental results aren’t as expected, scientists can either work to shore up the existing paradigm or create a new one.

My wife, Virginia Belt, is a director and formerly taught acting at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. She emphasizes the need for actors to try different tactics to get what they want. Think of the young child who tries everything he can think of to have you buy him a treat at the grocery store or the cat that really, really (really) wants a piece of sausage from your pizza. You can take the same approach to life. If you find your model isn’t working well any more, such as after a promotion at work, joining a new improv group or entering into a new relationship, try different tactics to see what does work. Ginny always exhorts her students to make positive choices, to focus on what they want rather than what they don’t want. If you call Domino’s and say you don’t want anchovies, you’ll either get no pizza because you haven’t given them enough information or get a pizza that costs $50 because it has every other available topping on it.

As anyone who has ever tried anything new well knows, individuals who break away from the pack meet a lot of resistance. Having the strength to break out of congruence bias at a personal level is tough — having the strength to do it in the face of a tenure board is even tougher. Let’s leave the paradigmatic fights for the professionals and focus on our own world views for a while. We’ll be better off in the end.

Cognitive Biases are Fun!

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George Carlin once pointed out that comedy depends on exaggeration — to make something funny, you must distort one aspect of the situation or description to introduce humor.

If you’re thinking, “I don’t have to exaggerate anything…I make enough mistakes to feed a hundred comics for a year,” you’re probably right. We’re all susceptible to cognitive biases that skew our ¬†judgment. If you’ve read any of Dan Ariely’s work (Predictably Irrational, The Upside of Irrationality, and The Honest Truth About Dishonesty) or read the pop psych literature, you know the human mind is a frighteningly powerful yet flawed instrument.

I have good news: you can identify and minimize the impact of cognitive biases. What’s more, performers can use them to create humorous situations on stage. I downloaded a list of cognitive biases and will do my best to explore how they affect the world where business and funny intersect.

I first thought of writing a series of posts after a ComedySportz gig for health care professional employed by the Oregon penal system. One of their handouts (I always grab the handouts) listed about 120 cognitive biases and logical traps affecting the reasoning inmates and others use to assess their circumstances. I’ll leave the connection between prison, work, and comedy to your fertile brains.

First up? Everyone’s favorite trap: confirmation bias.