Thursday, July 02, 2009

its easy to fool ourselves, even when our life depends on it.

Great example of confirmation bias yesterday on NPR. A small town in Texas has been receiving tons of money in royalties from a natural gas company that is drilling the Barnett shale. They are getting up to tens of thousands of dollars per person per MONTH!!

In June, they experienced the first earthquake EVER in the recorded history of this region. Then another. Then another. Six so far in just one month. If it weren’t for the royalty checks, I am sure that the townspeople would have jumped to the conclusion that the drilling is causing them. But because the drilling is their golden egg, they have jumped to the conclusion that it can’t be the drilling. Or that the earthquakes are too small to matter.

Either way, the townspeople are making decisions based on no real information. The interesting thing is how easy an unrelated fact (the payments) is impacted their cognitive processes. I don’t think that they are consciously deluding themselves. I think this is a natural manifestation of what cognitive science has known about for years. Cognition is not a logical process. We often start out with the answer we want and then collect and interpret information to fit that answer. And this is unconscious, so it’s insidiously hard to overcome.

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