Friday, April 10, 2015

Having Opinions Considered Harmful

A rational person would like to have the most accurate worldview possible. And, by that, I mean having the most objective, informed stance on issues. I think it's safe to say we all want that.

But we are not as rational as we may like to think.

The problem is: we have egos. We don't like to be wrong.

Another problem is: we have all sorts of cognitive biases. Our own brain is often working against us.

When you combine these two problems, you get a society in which people generally do not have the most accurate worldview possible.

For example, a currently controversial issue is genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Proponents of GMOs say they will dramatically increase crop yields and reduce world hunger. Opponents say that they are unnatural and make the food chain more fragile.

Other such issues could be abortion, vaccinations, or global warming.

So, what's your opinion?

Did you feel that? Did you feel that emotional response to simply the mention of the topic?

That is what is working against us.

If we have an opinion on an issue, protecting it becomes more important than having the most accurate stance. We would hate to admit that we were wrong about something. So we use confirmation bias to trick ourselves into thinking that the best available information supports our opinion.

It gets even worse when we have stated our opinion publicly, such as in a research paper or newspaper article. Now we are much more vested in protecting our public image.

It gets even worse when our livelihood is based on our opinion. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” -Upton Sinclair

Of course, it's unrealistic to expect that people will just stop having opinions. I still have them, despite knowing all of this.

But I really enjoy when I can say "I don't know" or "I don't have an opinion on that." It's a very freeing experience. I can feel that I am more open to new information when I'm in that mode of thinking.

(And yes, I appreciate the irony that this blog post is my opinion.)

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Endowment Effect (Or: Why Nobody Cares About Your Baby Pictures)

Experiment participants were shown a mug. They were asked how much they would be willing to pay for that mug. Let's say they said $5.

Then they were given the mug (for free).

Then they were offered the chance to sell it.

How much do you think they asked for when they had the chance to sell their mug?


Another experiment showed a similar result: participants won basketball tickets. They were only willing to sell them for 14 times more than the price they were willing to pay for the same tickets.

Another experiment showed that employees worked harder to maintain a bonus they already had than they did to acquire a new bonus.

Interestingly, this same behavior is observed in children, apes, and monkeys.

This is the endowment effect. It is "the hypothesis that people ascribe more value to things merely because they own them."

This is why people share baby pictures on Facebook. They think those pictures are the greatest things in the world. They ascribe more value to them because it's their own child.

Of course, the rest of the world doesn't see them the same way.