Cognitive Biases, Tribalism and Politics (Part 2 of 3) – Attention, Focus and Exaggeration

Cognitive Biases, Tribalism and Politics (Part 2 of 3) – Attention, Focus and Exaggeration

this video is the second in a set of videos on the topic of cognitive biases tribalism politics the first video introduced the concept of value pluralism the idea that we're all capable of being moved and motivated by different kinds of values in this video we're gonna talk about some important cognitive biases and how they can help us to better understand how our tribal political psychology works I think the following statements are all true we're all value pluralists in our daily encounters with other people and the circumstances of our lives but when we come to identify with a particular political or cultural orientation with a particular political or cultural tribe that affects our perceptions and our thinking about value we suddenly find it much more difficult to recognize that same diversity of values in those who lie outside our tribe we also find it more difficult to recognize that same diversity in ourselves when those values are perceived as belonging to the other tribe and we are prone to exaggerate the significance of the particular values that are prioritized by our tribe I want to elaborate on this last point here about exaggeration because I think it's quite important and underappreciated Daniel Kahneman is one of the founders of the biases and heuristics approach to human reasoning and human behavior in 2011 Kahneman was asked his opinion on what scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit if they were to become more aware of it his answer was the focusing illusion his slogan for this cognitive bias is nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you were thinking about it so what is the focusing illusion imagine some set of causal factors that might contribute to some effect or some outcome not all of these factors contribute equally some are more important than others so there's some distribution in the size of the impact that each of these factors has on the outcome this is represented here by the size of the circles the focusing illusion says that when we focus our attention on one of these contributing factors we're prone to exaggerate to overestimate the size of the impact that it makes to the outcome if we imagine our attention like a spotlight when we shine the spotlight on different causal factors the ones that are illuminated swell in size relative to the others this is a perceptual illusion and a cognitive illusion we have an exaggerated sense of the importance of the things that occupy our thoughts and our attention now like so many of these cognitive biases the focusing illusion has roots in an adaptive heuristic when things are important in our environment like if we're walking into it a genuinely threatening situation then it's adaptive that we pay attention to that that truly salient facts draw our focus if we didn't pay attention to events that are truly important for our survival and well-being that wouldn't obviously be bad but as a side effect this association between what is objectively important and what is focal and our attention will work in both directions just by making something focal in our attention we're induced to think it must be objectively important and that can lead to a distorted perception of reality now of course this is not to say that none of the things that occupy our attention are important it's merely to say that our attention boosts the perceived importance of these things that occupy our attention and diminishes the perceived importance of other things that don't occupy our attention where the objective reality lies here what is and isn't objectively important but the actual contribution of a given factor is to the outcome that's a separate question and one that may not be easy to answer in their writing on the focusing illusion Kahneman and his colleagues were specifically interested in our beliefs about what makes us happy or unhappy and how those beliefs compare with the actual empirical data on human happiness they showed among other things that we strongly exaggerated the impact that income has on our overall happiness we imagine that winning the lottery tomorrow for example would have a dramatic effect on our life satisfaction 10 years from now but we can show that beyond a certain point differences in income actually have very little impact on overall life satisfaction we're just wrong about this why do we get this wrong for whatever reasons our attention is focused much more on our income then say the quality of our relationships so we imagine that a boost in income would have a much bigger positive impact on our happiness than it actually would have now let's think about how the focusing illusion might impact our judgments about politics and other social issues this is going to operate in conjunction with other cognitive biases that are well studied we know for example that recent exposure to certain events or stories in the media increases our ability to vividly imagine examples of those events and that ease of recall the availability of these examples in our consciousness boosts our perception of the likelihood that events of this type will occur often well beyond their actual likelihood this is known as availability bias we also know that 24/7 news media and our tribal bubbles and filters magnify this effect by exposing us to more of the same kinds of stories this pattern of reinforcement also activates what's known as the mere-exposure effect the mere-exposure effect says that repeated exposure to acclaim increases our perception that the claim is true so if I hear over and over that Brando's got what plants crave that repetition makes it easier and easier for my brain to process this message and ease of cognitive processing is correlated with acceptance and credibility the repetition alone makes the claim seem more credible to us hence the name the mere-exposure effect many forms of commercial advertising exploit this effect now getting back to the focusing illusion our cultural and political tribes also have a strong effect on our cultural and political attention what arouses and draws our attention what focuses our attention what stories and ideas and images prompt us to look more closely and investigate further when we investigate when we search for information there are many things that we could pay attention to but we can't pay attention to everything that would be overwhelming our cultural and political tribes help us to focus our attention and what the tribe has judged to be important but then the focusing illusion kicks in the focusing illusion exaggerate the significance the importance of what we pay attention to while we're paying attention to it but if we're operating within a highly polarized political and cultural environment our attention is constantly being drawn toward the same ideas and the same interpretations of events so we are constantly in a state where our partisan brain is exaggerating the significance of what is currently hijacking our attention it becomes a self-reinforcing loop we become conditioned to attend to the world in a certain way because it's so vividly presented to us in our consciousness and consequently we perceive an exaggerated representation of that world which makes it all the more vivid and undeniable to us in one sense we perceive a common world but in another very real sense we don't perceive a common world we perceive the world that we've been conditioned to perceive through experience and socialization within our different cultural tribes so I think the combined effect of all of these cognitive biases that I've mentioned affect bias cultural cognition availability bias the mere-exposure effect and the focusing illusion operating within an increasingly polarized cultural environment does give us some tools for understanding at least part of the story behind the two movies phenomenon where people from different cultural tribes can be exposed to the same but perceive them so differently the partisan brain really does perceive the world differently now in the next video I want to bring the discussion back to value pluralism and look at how these same factors helps us to understand why in highly polarized environments we have a much harder time recognizing plurality of values in ourselves and in other people

4 thoughts on “Cognitive Biases, Tribalism and Politics (Part 2 of 3) – Attention, Focus and Exaggeration

  1. Excellent. This helped solidify what I notice in colleges and universities currently with the "issues" that seem to be exaggerations or outliers of reality.

  2. I'll echo my comments from the last video. It's a decent video, and I like the format and visuals, but you're still confusing/conflating heuristics and biases. They are related yet still distinct. It is not "availability bias," it is the "availability heuristic," and Kahneman and Tversky were very careful to label it one (heuristic) and not the other (bias) because those words have specific definitions in the research literature. Also, a disruption in attention is not a "perceptual illusion" (nor is it a cognitive illusion). Examples of perceptual illusions would be the Ponzo Illusion or the Ebbinghaus Illusion. "Cognitive illusions" (as defined by von Winterfeldt & Edwards, 1986) is simply another word for "biases" (and, imo, a bad word for them as it's a bit misleading).

    You also confuse the "mere exposure effect" for the "Illusion of Truth Effect" (IoTE, or Illusory Truth Effect). They are similar, but not the same. The "mere exposure effect" refers only to our affective response to a stimuli; it says nothing about our willingness to accept the truth of a claim. The Illusory Truth Effect, however, does speak to truth claims (i.e., the more we are exposed to a claim, the more likely we are to accept it as true, regardless of whether it is true or not). There is a ton of research on the IoTE, the most recent of which deals directly with exposure to fake news (see Pennycook, Cannon, & Rand, 2018).

    Again, your videos overall are pretty good but as a cognitive scientist, I find your misuse and confusion of terms to be a disservice to an otherwise informative video. Mixing up or otherwise conflating these words and definitions in what is purported to be an educational video is tantamount to spreading misinformation. Please do better research for future vids, as I feel there is a lot of value in what you're doing.

  3. You just unloaded a treasure trove of information and concepts that I knew about but couldn’t put into words! I always found it fascinating how people will hyper simplify the argument to prove their point but that act in of itself misdirects the populace from the actual point(s) being made. Love the content keep it up!!!

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