Friday, September 21, 2007

Cognitive Biases

Ah, the wonders of wikipedia. This entry has a list of cognitive biases, a topic dear to my heart. People do not see themselves very well, unaware of some reasons behind their choices.

I didn’t know that most of these had names. Hyperbolic discounting relating to the preference for more immediate benefits, or Information bias the tendency to seek information even when it cannot affect action. Fascinating stuff.

Naturally, I have some quibbles. The list includes several fallacies, which to my eye constitute a different category. Small matter, and the boundaries aren’t that clear. More irritatingly, I am long tired of seeing Vietnam used as an example of sunk-cost (in this case they put it in a subcategory of irrational escalation ). Iraq is now being added to the example. Discounting sunk costs is good logic. Don’t throw good money after bad and all that. What has already been spent is indeed not an economic factor in whether one should go further. Vietnam is not a good example. Even without addressing the issue of whether Vietnam (or Iraq) should be considered a failure, to use a military endeavor as an example is to set all considerations other than money and lives to zero. To not include such issues as morale, deterrence, honor, and promise-keeping is not merely to overlook them, but to insist that they are worth nothing.

If folks who are certain that Vietnam should be the standard example for sunk-cost bias doubt the utility of such things, I would offer analogies from their own behavior. Is it worth bothering to contribute further to a cause or candidate that is down twenty points in the polls? Why bother to vote at all, or carry a banner, or speak at a public meeting if your cause is going down? Yes, now you see. There are other things of value hidden in the equation. As my distant relative General John Stark would say, “Death is not the worst of evils.”

A similar omission shows up in many of the studies and examples given. Because dollar amounts and economic value is the easiest to measure, reading the literature of decision-making can subtly convince us that it is the only, or only important value. The endowment effect, status quo bias, prospect theory and loss aversion illustrate that people will value something owned and familiar more than a similar item which is unowned and unfamiliar. This is hardly surprising. There is a hidden value in those objects which we regard as part of our lives. Our bias towards them is not a bad thing, and should not be regarded as irrational.


Unknown said...

"Third-rate village idiot" might be a better name for this blog.

This drivel in the form of pedantic rationalization for what never happened in the Gulf of Tonkin and "We cannot wait for the mushroom cloud" is stunning.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

And also with you.

Larry Sheldon said...

Mr Mushki does not speak for all of your readers.

It is not clear to me what engendered that outburst. Some kind of "kneejerk" thing?

Kelly said...

Given his apparent comprehension skills, it's doubtful Mr Moshki actually qualifies as a reader.

Der Hahn said...

They need to add a 'single independent actor' social bias.

This is the tendency of people to interpret complex situations involving multiple independent actors as if all the actors are making reflexive responses to the actor they are most familar with.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Excellent. If you want to expand on that, we'll follow along.

Unknown said...


So the Vietnam and Iraq situations have/had "hidden value."
Well hidden, one might add.

As Rush and the guys say of Iraq: 'It's only 4,000 nada'.