Tag Archives: Bias

Temporal Binding

via NeuroLogica Blog

brainSkeptics should add another term to their lexicon of self-deception and cognitive biases – temporal binding.

Over the last half-century or so psychologists have been quietly documenting many various ways in which people deceive themselves and distort their thinking. This knowledge, however, has insufficiently penetrated the public consciousness. When it does it is mostly framed as, “isn’t that an interesting quirk of the human mind,” but the deeper lesson, that we cannot trust our own perception and memory, is rarely brought home.

Skeptics have taken modern neuroscience to heart. Our philosophy incorporates what I call “neuropsychological humility” – the basic recognition that our brains are subject to a host of flaws and biases, and therefore we cannot simply rely upon what we remember about what we thought we experienced. Rather, we need to rely upon a rational process and objective evidence as much as possible (part of this is relying on rigorous science to form our empirical conclusions). These flaws and biases are not confined to parlor tricks, contrived psychological experiments, and sitting in the audience of a magic show, but apply in everyday life.

Temporal binding is one tiny slice of the cognitive biases that form our everyday thinking. The overarching concept is that our memories are not passive recorders, nor are they primarily focused on the accurate recall of details. We do have a memory for details, but we also have a thematic memory, which seems to predominate. The thematic memory remembers the meaning of events, and then details are altered to fit this meaning. We construct a narrative and then over time our memory increasingly fits that narrative. This is not a conscious or deliberate process – our memories just morph over time. We are not aware of this process, nor can we distinguish an accurate memory from one that has morphed completely out of alignment with reality. They are both just memories.

Temporal binding is one manifestation of this general phenomenon, and is related to the logical fallacy, post hoc ergo propter hoc – after this therefore because of this. We tend to assume that if A precedes B then it is likely that A caused B. The logical fallacy is in assuming that A did in fact cause B without adequate independent evidence, merely because of the temporal association.

It seems that we evolved to make this assumption. Often A precedes B because it did cause it, and apparently there is a survival advantage to assuming that A probably did cause B, rather than being skeptical of this fact.

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The Power of Confirmation Bias

via NeuroLogica Blog

It is … not enough to have a generally skeptical outlook, or even to call oneself a skeptic. Skepticism is a journey of self-knowledge, exploration, and mastering the various skills that comprise so-called metacognition – the ability to think about thinking.


ConfirmationBias2As an example of the need for metacognitive skills in navigating this complex world there is confirmation bias. This is definitely on my top 5 list of core skeptical concepts, and is a major contributor to faulty thinking. Confirmation bias is the tendency to perceive and accept information that seems to confirm our existing beliefs, while ignoring, forgetting, or explaining away information that contradicts our existing beliefs. It is a systematic bias that works relentlessly and often subtly to push us in the direction of a desired or preexisting conclusion or bias. Worse – it gives us a false sense of confidence in that conclusion. We think we are following the evidence, when in fact we are leading the evidence.

Part of the illusion of evidence created by confirmation bias is the fact that there is so much information out there in the world. We encounter numerous events, people, and bits of data every day. Our brains are great at sifting this data for meaningful patterns, and when we see the pattern we think, “What are the odds? That cannot be a coincidence, and so it confirms my belief.” Rather, the odds that you would have encountered something that could confirm your belief was almost certain, given the number of opportunities.

Another factor that plays into confirmation bias is using open-ended criteria, or ad-hoc or post-hoc analysis. This means that we decide after we encounter a bit of information that this information confirms our belief. We retrofit the new data into our belief as confirmation.

Confirmation bias is further supported by a network of cognitive flaws – logical fallacies, heuristics, and other cognitive biases – that conspire together to reinforce our existing beliefs. In the end you have people who, based on the same underlying reality, arrive at confidently and firmly held conclusions that are directly opposing and mutually exclusive.

I encounter examples of confirmation bias every day. (My now favorite quote about this is from Jon Ronson, who said, “After I learned about confirmation bias I started seeing it everywhere.”) Of course, at first it is easy to see confirmation bias in others, and only later do we learn to detect it in ourselves, which forever remains challenging.

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