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Imagine this scenario. A leader wants to invade another country, but his intelligence service tells him that there is no plausible reason to do that. So what does he do? He rejects the intelligence and creates one that will support his plan. Now let’s play “who am I thinking about”?

Odds are you are betting on Dick Cheney. Wrong. I was thinking of Moses who sent spies to report back about the land of Canaan, otherwise known as the “promised land”, before he invades it. He really wanted to conquer Canaan; he led his people in the desert for forty years (although the distance from Egypt to Canaan can be covered in 2 weeks on foot) and the people were grumbling, so it was pay-up or shut-up time.

The spies returned with their gloomy but probably accurate assessment that “the land devours its inhabitants.” Did he make a U-turn and go to the Arabian desert instead, where God has deposited fabulous amounts of oil? No. He executed the spies for defying the wish of God as he perceived it, let alone his own fervent wish to confirm his proto-Zionist paradigm. He then sent another set of spies who came back with the expected report: “the land overflows with milk and honey.” The rest, as they say, is history.

 

Confirmation bias

The purpose of this story is not a lesson in the bible, nor is it an essay on history. It is a demonstration of our propensity to seek data that confirm what we already believe. Unlike Cheney, I suspect Moses really believed his preconceived notion. He was even ready to kill anybody who would challenge it.

How could enlightened human beings be so un-enlightened? The answer is that our enlightenment is relatively very young (about 300 years old, since the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century) and veneer-thin. Our brains, on the other hand, were wired millions of years ago to make snap decisions in order to survive in a hostile environment. The cognitive system that makes fast decisions

The cognitive system that makes fast decisions (Kahneman’s System 1) depends on stored memories and associations to make deductions about the immediate present. You face an approaching marauding band and your associative system puts menacing faces and weapons together, and the conclusion is arrived at in milliseconds: Make yourself scarce or die.

We have another cognitive system (Kahneman’s system 2), whose function is to double check, raise uncertainty, and doubt. It comes into play when there is no imminent danger and the associative system is glaringly inconsistent with reality. If we think we see pigs flying, system 2 will nullify our initial impression. But if the threatening postures of the band are consistent with our previous experiences, system 2 is suppressed.

You’d think that confirmatory bias would be rare in the hallowed halls of science. Statistical analysis, for instance, is based on nullifying the hypothesis, not confirming it. Only if it fails to nullify do we accept the hypothesis.

Yet, every honest scientist would admit to having a confirmation bias, a belief—an abiding certainty—that his or her hypothesis must be correct and the experiment should be a slam dunk. Sometimes, the bias surreptitiously creeps into the experimental design so as to give a better chance to the favored hypothesis to be proved correct.

 

Ebola and other rare events

Why do people buy lottery tickets? The chances of winning the grand prize are less than being struck by lightening. Yet, we entertain the fantasy of the former and don’t give a second thought to the latter. Why are people deathly afraid of a terrorist attack, where the chances of being personally injured are vanishingly small, but are not as concerned about being hit by a truck?

It all comes down to people overestimating and overweighing. People overestimate the probabilities of unlikely events, and overweight unlikely events in their decisions.

There is a lot of money to be made out of this irrationality. It’s called insurance. Why do people take out flight insurance? It makes absolutely no financial or probabilistic sense, but vivid images of a plane crash are etched in our memory and influences the decision made by the associative system.

Fear, the primordial feeling that kept us alive as a species, is a double-edged sword; it also propels us to irrationality. How many people died of Ebola in the U.S? One! Yet every year just over 30,000 people die in the U.S. from gunshot wounds. Every two years, more U.S. citizens are killed by gunshot wounds than were lost in the entire Vietnam war. Are there any quarantines of people who carry guns?

People are afraid, nay angry, at healthcare workers returning from West Africa who are totally asymptomatic and not infectious. Facebook is full of anger, even cruelty toward the people who deserve to be treated as heroes. One caller to a TV station suggested their houses should be burned down, echoes of the great plague in medieval Europe.

A TV network, CNBC, catering to presumably highly educated viewers, ran a segment featuring Dr. Anthony Fauci of the NIH and an infectious disease expert from Columbia-Presbyterian in New York. Both explained that the risk of getting infected by a returning asymptomatic healthcare worker is vanishingly small. Yet, a running poll taken while they were talking showed 82% in favor of further tightening the quarantines. So if it isn’t education, what is it? It is fear informed (how ironic) by the tendency to overestimate and overweight rare events, and the predilection to confirm our biases.

When we have a ready explanation for anything, the associative system 1 predominates and preempts any second-guessing by the skeptical doubting Thomas system (system 2). Our brain is programmed to be lazy; too much energy is expended in really thinking critically.

FDR didn’t understand the neuropsychology of fear, but he well understood the corrosive effect it has on society when he famously exhorted the nation,

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

I can hardly blame the people; in emergencies, they are made to react from the gut, not the brain. But I do blame the politicians who exploit this human frailty to their own ends. When the dust settles, when passions are doused with a dose of reality, will any of these political “leaders” apologize? I am afraid I am more likely to get infected with Ebola.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.

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