Thursday, September 01, 2011

Irrational social taboos.

As I have been blogging about recently, human behavior is often based on false logic that is unconscious so we don’t even know we are doing it.   For example, when a behavior is physically or perceptually similar to one that is unacceptable, even if this one is perfectly fine, we develop social taboos against it.  For example, imagine that a bakery throws any leftover cookies into the trash at the end of the day.  One evening, they take out the trash and realize they forgot to toss the cookies.  So they throw the cookies into the new, clean trash bag they just put in.  Is there anything wrong with the cookies?   No.  But how would you feel about taking the cookies out and eating them?  Even if you would take them, you would probably look around to make sure no one was looking.  That’s probably what I would do.  If I couldn’t do it in secret, it wouldn’t be worth the social risk to be caught eating something out of the trash.  Even though they were perfectly clean, only a few hours old, and probably better than anything you could get in a grocery store.

Remember the Seinfeld when George takes half a Twinkie out of the trash that had just been tossed in, breaks off the part closest to the eaten part to get rid of the previous owner’s cooties, and then eats it.  They got a whole episode just debating that one act. 

Allocating blame and punishment

Even more fascinating than the top-down, rationalizing decision making process I talked about in my previous post, I have recently been studying moral and ethical decisions and allocation of blame and punishment.  There are a lot of findings I would love to share with you.  For today, let’s start with this one.

There is an order effect on moral judgments.  In other words, if you say one person is guilty, you are more likely to say the next person is guilty, even if they are totally different crimes.  It is because we get a “priming” effect where we have our verdict already activated and it biases our future decisions.
It is also because we have an unconscious desire for internal consistency.  Calling the first person guilty gives us a certain opinion of ourselves (a weak version of thinking that we are a “hanging judge”).  Calling the first person innocent, we get a different opinion of ourselves (“Joe the Merciful”).  In order to be consistent, we are biased towards finding the same way on the next one, regardless of evidence,  It is not a guarantee, but a subtle unconscious influence.

If you ask people afterwards if the first decision affected the second decision in any way, they will honestly deny it because they don’t realize that this is happening.  But when asked why we make moral decisions the way we do, we conduct a post-hoc rationalization that explains the decision based on whatever ethical or legal principles we know of, even if the decision was really a “gut” decision based on not a single real principle or law.

It gets worse.  The more expertise you have in making these decisions (philosophers, ethicists, lawyers), the more likely you are to exhibit this order effect.  The researchers suspect it is because they are even better at coming up with a post-hoc rationalization because they have more of them to choose from.  This is similar to the top-down rationalizing that I talked about in the previous post.  The more information you have, the more ammunition you have to support your biased preferences.

Ironic, huh?

We decide based on what we want, not the other way around.

Today we got a fantastic illustration of how our preferences affect our perceptions (i.e. top-down processing) rather than the other way around.  In other words, there are two ways to make decisions:

1.  We can look at the evidence and then make a decision aligned with the majority of the evidence (which is the logical thing we THINK we do).
2.  We can decide what decision we want to make, and then look for evidence to support it and discount the other evidence (which is what we unconsciously REALLY do).

So what happened today?  President Obama wants to address the nation on Wednesday night.  At first, Speaker Boehner agreed, but then changed his mind and asked him to move it to Thursday.  Let’s look at process two.

Obama supporters:  He really prefers Wednesday because Thursday is the opening night of the NFL.  Fewer people will tune in, and some people will tune in and be forced to miss the opening game. He is such a nice guy - doesn't want to inconvenience anyone.  And what he says is important so the most people should be able to watch.

Obama detractors:  The House is on vacation and doesn’t start their session until 6:30pm that night.  So there is not enough time to do a security sweep of the room.  Plus, that time conflicts with the GOP candidate debate in California. 

Not only do people decide what evidence to focus on based on which one they want to come true, they also are good at discounting the other side’s evidence:

Obama supporters:  The House could easily vote before 6:30pm.  Why does their workday start so late anyway?  And it is easy for the GOP to move the time of their debate forward or back an hour.  Furthermore, Boehner first agreed and then changed his mind, clearly suggesting some ulterior insidious motive.

Obama detractors:  Forcing interested citizens to miss a football game is not nearly as important as security and the GOP debate. He picked Wednesday night specifically to interfere with the GOP debate.  It was all political calculations.

Then this morning Obama agreed to move his speech to Thursday

Obama supporters:  He is such a nice guy, always compromising.  It makes him a weak President, but what a nice guy!!  Unfortunately, he is at risk in 2012 because of this.
Obama detractors:  Obama is such as wuss.  He knew he was wrong, waffled on his decision, gave in to GOP demands as usual, and is ripe for the pickin in 2012.

The purpose of this post is to show how top-down decision making works.  I am not going to evaluate which side actually has a better argument.  And anyway, my political leanings may influence how I decide.  A more objective way would be to find people who are ambivalent about Obama and poll what they think.  Or we could look at how many Obama supporters agree with the Boehner argument and how many detractors agree with the Obama argument.  Both numbers would be small, but the one that is larger would suggest that argument is more convincing.