Monday, January 19, 2009

the yogi Lord Shiva knew his human factors

A saw a quote attributed to the great yogi Lord Shiva by Deepak Chopra: “I use memories, but I do not allow memories to use me.”

This is a great example of good human factors. We know that there are many decision making biases that are caused by our memories "using us." Two of these are salience bias and recency bias. When something is easily called to mind we greatly overestimate its prevalence. Things are easily called to mind when they are sensorily salient (strong sensory experience), semantically salient (had a large impact on us) or when they are recent. But our brains incorrectly assume that if it is easily brought to mind, it must be a frequent occurrence. There are many examples of these effects steering us wrong.

Another memory-related bias is the representativeness bias. When something looks like a good example of something, we assume it must be a likely case. I am reading the book "How we know what isn't so" that proves hot and cold shooting streaks in basketball are really just a figment of our imagination. The author cites a significant body of research in his proof. But when we see a player hit 3 or 4 in a row, we just "know" he is hot because this "looks" like a streak.

Deepak Chopra's solution is pretty good too. Its kind of long, but in essence he says "
Be a witness to your thoughts, your moods, your reactions, your behaviors. They represent your
memories of the past, and by witnessing them in the present, you liberate yourself of the past. By observing your addictive behaviors, you observe your conditioning. And when you observe your conditioning, you are free of it, because you are not your conditioning; you are the observer of your conditioning."

From a human factors perspective the idea is to consider the memories that are telling you something is true or false, and evaluate whether they are really frequent or proof or if they are just salient and easily recalled. If we do this consciously, we can avoid many common errors.

But I am still disappointed that basketball streaks aren't real. Maybe I will choose to keep believing that one anyway. Who does it hurt?

In Honor of MLK

In honor of MLK Day, I want to comment on his Letter from Birmingham jail. In reading his intentions, I realized that he could have used some lessons in human factors that may have improved his chances of influencing the incoming Birmingham administration.

We have learned a lot about human cognition since the 1960s that would have served MLK better in his approach. When people make decisions, big or small, their first impression becomes anchored and is tough to overturn even in the face of strong evidence. And if that impression is stated publicly the effect is even stronger. If the decision maker acts on the decision, it is stronger still.

So MLK should have thought of a way to get the incoming Birmingham administration to do something publicly, no matter how small, in support of his movement. It didn't even have to be directly relevant to equal rights. That could have come later. Instead, he forced their first act to be directly opposed and guaranteed that they would continue to oppose him.

Perhaps he was more interested in gaining national attention and preferred a public conflict. That is often what civil disobedience is designed for. But not for influencing the local pols, he did the exact opposite of what might have worked. Of course, MLK did not have the benefit of the past 40 years of cognition research.