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Tuesday 28 January 2014

"I Knew It!" - The Retrospective Confirmation Bias

I should never have come to this movie set.

When standout events happen (we win the lottery, our camera is stolen, a flight is cancelled, we are diagnosed with a serious illness), many people report a sense that they somehow knew the event was about to occur.

“I sensed there was something wrong with that plane.”
“I should have listened to my gut when I bought that lemon of a house.”
“I knew I had the winning ticket before they called it out.”

Here’s the sequence:

  1. Something happens that turns out to be much better or worse than the odds would suggest. 
  2. We think back to our thoughts about the event/marriage/trip/purchase before we knew how it would turn out.
  3. We find memories suggesting that we had advance knowledge of the outcome. These are often described as “gut feelings.”
  4. We conclude from this that we had advance knowledge – either from some psychic ability or from unconsciously processing subtle cues at the time (“I must have sensed something wrong before the tire blew”).

Skeptical family and friends are generally unsupportive at these times. “Look, if people could tell winning numbers by predicting the future, there’d be more winners and the lottery corporation would go bankrupt.” 

Usually these skeptics refuse to believe that we really did have such premonitions prior to the event. But we did. We remember them.

So what’s going on here?

One possibility is that we really do have psychic abilities, and our only problem is that all too frequently we ignore our own predictions. Personally, I think this is unlikely (lotteries wouldn’t work, and so on).

More likely, we really do have such premonitions. But we have them across the board. When events work out as our premonitions suggest, we look back and remember the foreboding we experienced. When events don’t fit our predictions, we don’t look back. In other words, we remember our “hits” and forget our “misses.”

Personally, I can’t get on an aircraft (or see someone off at the airport) without at least a faint twinge of “what if.” Not surprising, given that aircraft are seldom on my mind except a) when I or someone I know are traveling, or b) one has just gone down in flames.

Should disaster strike, I would be able to cast my mind back, remember that twinge, and conclude “I knew this would happen.” To do so, I would have to neglect the hundreds of times when I also got that twinge and nothing happened.

In fact, in an alarmist society, the only way any of us survive is to disregard the dozens of little twinges we get each day. A tiny part of our consciousness, responsible for warning us away from danger, constantly alerts us to potential threats: earthquakes, car accidents, job firings, stock market plunges, lost cell phones, lethal ailments, asteroid strikes, you name it.

If we paid attention to all of these warnings we’d never leave the house – but then we’d have to disregard a different set: home invasions, stove fires, carbon monoxide leaks, falling space junk, termites – and, still, earthquakes, typhoons, and planes crashing on rooftops.

This, in short, is the Retrospective Confirmation Bias. The tendency to recollect predictions that are in accord with eventual reality, and to forget or neglect those that are not. The result is an erroneous sense that “I knew it!”

Is this phenomenon a tiny curiosity – an irrelevant peccadillo of the human mind with little consequence?

Probably not. For one thing, it contributes to the sense that the world is controllable and predictable, and results in us having greater faith in our beliefs and predictions than is probably merited.

It may also be one of the primary reasons that the gambling industry is so successful. When playing Blackjack, betting on horses, or choosing lottery numbers, we are constantly weighing our options. We find ourselves simultaneously attracted to and repelled by the various options.  “I could hold on 17 or ask for a card.” “Landslide has a good name for a racehorse, but has never won on this track…” “John’s birthday is the 23rd, but something about 43 is calling to me too…”

When we win, we see that our intuitions have borne fruit. When we lose, we can look for hints that our intuitions, properly sifted, would have moved us in the right direction. “Damn, I was tempted to go for Landslide. Why didn’t I?” Properly chastened, we can resolve to do better next time. And the only way to do that is to return to the betting window.

The Retrospective Confirmation Bias can also torture us with inappropriate guilt. “I had misgivings about the snow on the roads – why didn’t I warn my brother before he drove off?” “I wondered about that mole on Darlene’s arm for two years – how could I not have ordered her to get it checked?”

Clinical practices are filled with people mourning that "I should have known. And in fact, I did know - I just didn't do anything about it."

Much guilt, much self-reproach, much gambling addiction, and much of our misplaced faith in our abilities to tell the future - much of all of these things could be dispelled if we reminded ourselves of the legion of intuitions we had that were mistaken. If we conduct a full inventory, we will almost certainly find that our few "hits" were almost certainly random.

And once again we'll be flung into that unsatisfying state against which the human mind rebels. It's an unpredictable world. "I didn't know this would happen."

Thursday 16 January 2014

The Tevye Lesson: Appreciation is Invisible

A sentiment less obvious than it seems.

Tevye: “Do you love me?”

Golde: “Do I love you? For twenty-five years I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked the cow … If that’s not love, what is?”

One of the core principles of cognitive therapy is that we react not to the world as it is, but to the world as we interpret it. 

This would not be so important if the world was clear to us. But the world is often ambiguous. Into ambiguity a vast tapestry of meaning can be woven.

My reflexive example when describing this idea is a boss who frowns as she passes us in the hallway. What does the frown mean? She’s about to fire us? She ate too much pizza at lunch? She’s worried about her sick goldfish? Our emotional reaction depends on the interpretation that we make.

Unfortunately, we often make these interpretations automatically, without conscious logical thought. We aren’t even aware of making an interpretation, and think we’re reacting to the facts. “Why are you anxious?” “She frowned as I passed!”

The greater the ambiguity, the more room for error on our part.

In cognitive therapy we often focus so much on our own interpretations that we can forget that the same principle applies to other people. We ourselves are ambiguous stimuli for the rest of the world to interpret.

In close relationships we are intimately aware of our own feelings regarding the other person. Those feelings are so obvious to us that it seems inconceivable that others can’t see them. If challenged, we’d say that our feelings seep imperceptibly into our behaviour, and this behaviour must make the feelings visible.

We’re probably right on both counts. Yes, our feelings influence our behaviour. And yes, the influence is imperceptible to others.

In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye asks his wife Golde about her feelings toward him. She’s exasperated by the question, thinking the answer is obvious for all to see. “Look at all I do for you – can’t you figure it out?”

But Tevye rightly recognizes the ambiguity of the situation. Perhaps Golde is simply dutiful, long-suffering, and without alternatives. In fact, it’s clear that all three are true. Is there, in addition to these factors - which amply explain her behaviour - any element of affection? Tevye has to ask, and after several evasions she answers.

The truth is, no one ever really knows us. We think they see through to our core, when in reality all they ever see is skin and behaviour. From this they have to divine what lies beneath, a process invariably tainted by their own unique set of past experiences. With time, perhaps, they can get slightly closer to the truth, having observed a more extensive sample of our actions. But they never fully see us.

In therapy I sometimes ask people how their spouse or children would know about their affection for them. “Well I don’t often show it,” is the surprisingly frequent reply. “They just know. They’d have to.” I try to find a gentle way of asking how they would manage this feat of telepathy.

The behaviour of parents and spouses is governed by a complex set of motivations, including (as with Golde) duty, guilt, and social expectation. Ambiguous behaviour like “I give her a ride to work every day” or “I paid for his college, didn’t I?” can be interpreted without any reference to affection.

People fear that they are not loved or appreciated. What we fear we look for. If we can find an explanation for our partner’s or parents’ or children’s or friends’ behaviour that does not involve affection, that explanation will grow in our minds. The alternative hypothesis – he/she loves me – will always be followed by a question mark.

There is only one way to erase it, and even that can only be done partially. We have to put affection and appreciation into words. We have to express what we believe should be obvious to those around us. We need to develop comfort with, in effect, pointing to the sky and calling it blue. Then their attention will be drawn to the explanation that is (hopefully) true – but only if it fits the behaviour that we also exhibit.

Maybe that’s another resolution for the new year.

If you feel it, show them. And tell them. And tell them. And tell them.

Wednesday 8 January 2014

Okay, So THAT Didn't Work: New Years Resolutions, Mark II

Let's try that again.

It’s a week into 2014, and time to realize that once again the ambitious New Year’s Resolutions most people set haven’t actually worked. One option is to throw one’s hands up and wait til next year.
Another option is to learn from experience and start the new year again.

The key principle for effective annual goal-setting is to draw the distinction between Resolutions and Revolutions – and Kill The Revolution.

Sudden, wrenching change seldom works. Virtually every time in your life you have uttered the words “From now on,…” it turned out you were lying. Few people do anything “From now on.”

Instead we make small, unambitious steps that (sometimes) eventually add up to major change. So here are a few basic principles:

  1. Aim low. It’s better to set a goal that you can achieve than one you can’t, and no one ever said you can’t do more than you planned.
  2. No “Every day” goals. You probably don’t do anything every day, and you never will. Miss one day and the plan is ruined for the year. Exchange these for “at least once”, “more than last year,” or “more often than not.”
  3. Start now. Identify something you can achieve this week so that you can check it off as having been achieved before January is out. You’ll get a sense of momentum that will enhance your work on the other goals.

And what goals should you set? Well, that’s up to you. You know your life situation better than I do. But here are some possibilities that have been making the rounds here at Changeways Clinic.

Give up one social medium. Social media can take an enormous amount of time – time that we often find not by diverting idle television-watching but by sacrificing genuine social contact. Good life management involves not just planting new trees of interest, but also pruning dead wood. Is there one social medium or account that you can eliminate? (Personally, I have been on Twitter for ages and still don’t quite see a use for it – but I’m willing to give it a bit longer to prove itself.)

Less screen time. For one typical day, set your smartphone alarm to ring every half hour. Then forget about it. When it rings, record whether or not you happened to be looking at a screen of some sort (phone, computer, iPad, television). At the end of the day calculate your reality ratio: Number of times you were NOT looking at a screen, divided by the total number of times the alarm went. Then push yourself on at least one other day to increase this ratio so that more of your life is spent in the real world.

More face to face. Take the initiative, THIS WEEK, to make at least one social engagement with friends that you normally wouldn’t. A lunch, coffee, dinner, movie, weekend – something. Then follow through.

Buy one lose one. Rather than accumulating ever more stuff, resolve to end the year with no more possessions than you started with. If you buy something new, something old has to go to recycling or the thrift store. If you are a clothes collector, limit the number of hangars in your closet so that you have to get rid of the old to make room for the new. This may put a brake on some of the purchasing – or at minimum may make you look less like a hoarder.

Change one food. Rather than embarking upon the crash diet or the eating revolution, identify one problem food that you consume (such as French fries) and work on it. Either give it up altogether (while still allowing for the occasional lapse), or cut the quantity or frequency. Giving up ice cream may seem impossible, but shifting it from daily to weekly will eliminate 6/7 of the calories and cholesterol without making you feel quite so deprived.

Give more. One of the surest ways to feel wealthy is to give money away. Rather than trying to become Bill or Melinda Gates, just resolve to give at least a dollar more this year than last. Then give at least part of that total in January. If you can, reach your goal this month. Next year, calculate your actual high-water mark and adopt the same resolution again.

Pay cash. If you overuse credit, make it less convenient. Keep your cards but leave them at home. If it’s a real emergency you can always get at them. Shop by actually handing over cash rather than a piece of plastic that the clerk hands back to you intact. The conceptual reality behind debit and credit cards is not as powerful as the physical reality of an emptying wallet.

Find the worst parking space. Rather than wasting time and raising your blood pressure hunting for the closest parking space to your destination, remind yourself that you could probably do with more exercise. Drive immediately to the furthest corner of the lot, where you are more likely to sail into a spot and then get some fresh air while walking to your destination.

Escalators don’t exist. A gym in Vancouver offers patrons an escalator up to the floor containing the StairMaster equipment. What if, rather than making exercise an arbitrary add-on, we incorporated it into our everyday lives. Just imagine that every escalator has a disability symbol on it – it’s for those who have difficulty walking, not (in all likelihood) you. Similarly, assume that a recent planetary alignment has made elevators incapable of journeys of two floors or less. For these, stairs are the only way.

And if that doesn't work - aim even lower, until it does.

Wednesday 1 January 2014

This Year: Understand Your Home

One of the things that can give us a better sense of our roots – and the context of our lives – is to know the history of our surroundings.

In North America, we are often ignorant of how our community was founded and developed over time.
  • Why are the streets laid out the way they are? 
  • Where did the street names come from? 
  • Which is the oldest part of town? 
  • Who built that great old house on the corner?

In Vancouver a friend of mine, James Johnstone, bought an old home and researched its history – then other homes on the block, then more and more, and eventually became Vancouver’s “House Historian.”

He provides History Walks through Vancouver neighbourhoods that can prove fascinating even for long-time residents. I’ve been. In addition to the questions above, he answered questions about Vancouver that no one would think to ask. Like:
  • Where is the Jimi Hendrix shrine?
  • Why are many homes in Strathcona accessed by little bridges?
  • How were the streets in Chinatown originally paved? (A:  With wooden upended cobbles, still visible when potholes form in the pavement.)

Recently a film maker, Janelle Huopalainen, in the 24 Hour Film Competition featured James and his work. Here is the result:

Time Traveler from Janelle Huopalainen on Vimeo.

And here’s James’ website for the history walks:

Wherever you live, you might consider adding some knowledge about your community as one of your resolutions for 2014.  And if you're coming to Vancouver in 2014 (for example, to the annual meeting of the Canadian Psychological Association June 4-7), include a little history in your visit. (We only have a little - the whole place burned down in 1886 - so it's easy to get a fair chunk of the story.)

Happy New Year, everyone.