bias posts

The dangerous power held by the interviewer November 5th, 2013

knockonanydoor

A recent episode of This American Life tells a fascinating and horrifying story of a murder confession gone wrong. The story is a reflection from the retired detective who seems to have sincerely believed the woman in question to be guilty. He realizes in his reflection that he was open to hearing what fit his theory and dismissed information or cues that didn’t support his theory (this is known as confirmation bias). This is a real concern for people doing user research who have preconceived notions about people, their behavior, their desired solutions, etc. One tactic is to develop greater self-awareness and learn to hear your own biases and assumptions.

Even more disturbing in this story is how the suspect began to provide details of the crime that supposedly only the person who committed the crime would know. In fact, this woman who would want to clear her name, responded to the questioning by shifting to please her interrogator, looking to provide the “right” answers. While the police didn’t realize it, she was picking up clues from the documents they were showing her and presenting them back as if it was her own knowledge. She wasn’t trying to confess, she was trying to succeed in answering the questions, even though it was significantly against her own interests. This is also a crucial concern for user researchers, where participants will want to please them and will work hard to figure out what “pleasing” looks like. The way you ask questions (e.g,. “Do you like doing it this way or would you rather have it happen automatically when you enter the store?”) has a tremendous influence in how they are answered.

The New York Times offers this summary

He tells about a woman who confessed to killing a man. She knew insider things like that the victim was wearing his wedding ring when he died, and that his credit card had been used at a People’s drugstore and a Chinese takeout place. Case closed.

A few weeks go by, and it turns out the woman has a strong alibi. Charges are dropped.

Years later, with the case still officially open, Detective Trainum went back to the file because he still suspected that the woman had gotten away with murder. He discovered that he and the other detectives accidentally videotaped the whole interrogation — not just the confession. That’s when he found out how an innocent person could know unreleased details of the killing.

At one point during the interrogation, they were trying to get her to admit to using the dead guy’s credit cards, and said, isn’t that your signature on these slips? And they showed them to her. So she read the name of the drugstore and the restaurant.

At another moment, they showed her the crime scene photos. In one, the left hand of the corpse was prominent. You could see the wedding ring.

So they had accidentally fed her all the incriminating details that she returned to them in the confession.

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ChittahChattah Quickies June 26th, 2012

Chick Beer | America’s Beer for Women – Products that claim to be designed especially for women cloak themselves in empowerment and equality. Yet they easily ring false. Beyond issues of feminism, I see this as any type of design failure: not offering a specific understandable benefit that makes your promised experience tangible. In other words, why is this beer for “chicks?” Even if it was made by chicks, that’d be more than what they’re telling us here.

We brew Chick at America’s second-oldest brewery, located in beautiful southern Wisconsin. With over 160 years of experience, we know how to brew great beer. For centuries, beer has been created, produced and marketed by and to men. At Chick, we think that it’s time for a new choice. Chick Beer celebrates women: independent, smart, fun-loving and self-assured women who love life and embrace all of the possibilities that it has to offer. Above all, we think that beer is supposed to be fun! So enjoy! Grab a cool Chick and Witness the Chickness!”

The crayola-fication of the world: How we gave colors names, and it messed with our brains [Empirical Zeal] – Words are a culturally unique approach to categorizations. But some science folks have looked into identifying a universal, cross-culture map of colors.

There are plenty of other languages that blur the lines between what we call blue and green. Many languages don’t distinguish between the two colors at all. In the Thai language, khiaw means green except if it refers to the sky or the sea, in which case it’s blue. The Korean word purueda could refer to either blue or green, and the same goes for the Chinese word qƒ´ng. It’s not just East Asian languages either, this is something you see across language families. I find this fascinating, because it highlights a powerful idea about how we might see the world. After all, what really is a color? Just like the crayons, we’re taking something that has no natural boundaries – the frequencies of visible light – and dividing into convenient packages that we give a name.

Joel Hodgson on ‘Mystery Science Theater’ and Riffs – [NYT] – I love the insight into the process they used. As well, I am sick with jealousy over the folks that got to participate in a class, called RiffCamp2012, led by Hodgson. What could be more fun than that?

If “Mystery Science Theater” was part insult comedy aimed at movies, there was also something congenial in the show’s tone. (Perhaps it was the puppet robots, or that it was all being produced in Minneapolis.) Six writers had to deliver a 90-minute episode every week, Mr. Hodgson said, with 600 to 800 riffs per movie, “when all the pistons were firing.” In devising the lines, no reference (Bella Abzug, Roy Lichtenstein) was too outré or rejected initially, Mr. Hodgson said. As he tried to convey to the students at Bucks, it’s best to brainstorm nonjudgmentally first and figure out what’s funny later.

The Science of ‘Gaydar’ [NYT] – Gaydar is provably real, and the framework used by these scientists describes a couple of different ways that we cognitively process what we see as faces.

It’s widely accepted in cognitive science that when viewing faces right side up, we process them in two different ways: we engage in featural face processing (registering individual facial features like an eye or lip) as well as configural face processing (registering spatial relationships among facial features, like the distance between the eyes or the facial width-to-height ratio). When we view faces upside down, however, we engage primarily in featural face processing; configural face processing is strongly disrupted. Thus our finding clarifies how people distinguish between gay and straight faces. Research by Professor Rule and his colleagues has implicated certain areas of the face (like the mouth area) in gaydar judgments. Our discovery – that accuracy was substantially greater for right side up faces than for upside-down faces – indicates that configural face processing contributes to gaydar accuracy. Specific facial features will not tell the whole story. Differences in spatial relationships among facial features matter, too.

A Peek Inside The CIA, As It Tries To Assess Iran [NPR] – A cultural and process overhaul to help intelligence analysts see beyond the obvious conclusions. Applies to the analysis process in design research as well.

The post-Iraq changes at the CIA also involve new analytic techniques, highlighted in a “tradecraft primer” in use at the agency since 2009. The manual is now used at the Sherman Kent School, the agency’s in-house training institute for new analysts. The manual opens with a section on the “mind-set” challenge. “If you’re only looking at [an issue] through one narrow view of the world, you’re not looking at the whole picture,” says John, who teaches at the Kent School. revealed. “Your biases will get you things like a confirmation bias: ‘I’ve seen it before, so it must be happening again.’ Or an anchoring bias: ‘We’ve come up with that conclusion, and I think it’s true, and it’s not going to change.’” One exercise now in use at the CIA is called “Analysis of Competing Hypotheses.” Analysts who may be inclined toward one explanation for some notable development are forced to consider alternative explanations and to tally up all the evidence that is inconsistent with their favored hypothesis. “You’re looking for the hypothesis with the least inconsistencies,” says John, who’s been at the CIA for 34 years. “We call it the Last Man Standing approach.” Such exercises are employed throughout the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence. Each office now includes a “tradecraft cell,” staffed by specialists whose mission it is to make sure their colleagues are using all the latest analytic techniques and challenging their own judgments.

To Profile or Not to Profile? : A Debate between Sam Harris and Bruce Schneier [Sam Harris] – Bruce Schneier’s stuff is pretty amazing. His command of logic and skills in debate make his essays and other appearances mandatory for thinking about design, systems, and of course the post-9-11 security- and attendant cultural-issues.

When implementing any human-based system, the interests of the people operating the system often don’t precisely coincide with the interests of those designing it. This is the principal-agent problem, and it manifests itself in your profiling system as the TSA agent who thinks “If I wave this person through without checking out the anomaly and he turns out to be a terrorist, it’s my ass on the line.” Because the cost to the agent of a false positive is zero but the cost of missing a real attacker is his entire career, screeners will naturally tend towards ignoring the profile and instead fully checking everyone. And the screener’s supervisor is unlikely to tell him, “Hey you need to ignore the next old lady that beeps,” because if he’s wrong then it’s his ass on the line. The phenomenon is more general than security; discretionary systems tend to gravitate towards zero-tolerance systems because “following procedure” is a reasonable defense against being blamed for failure.

A Simple Tool You Need to Manage Innovation [HBR] – You may have seen Ansoff’s Product Market Matrix (perhaps like me, without knowing its name); this is a nice evolution of that model.

In the lower left of the matrix are core innovation initiatives – efforts to make incremental changes to existing products and incremental inroads into new markets. Whether in the form of new packaging, or slight reformulations, such innovations draw on assets the company already has in place. At the opposite corner are transformational initiatives, designed to create new offers – if not whole new businesses – to serve new markets and customer needs. These sorts of innovations, also called breakthrough, disruptive, or game changing, generally require that the company call on unfamiliar assets and to develop markets that aren’t yet mature. In the middle are adjacent innovations. An adjacent innovation involves leveraging something the company does well into a new space. Adjacent innovations allow a company to draw on existing capabilities but necessitate putting those capabilities to new uses. They require fresh, proprietary insight into customer needs, demand trends, market structure, competitive dynamics, technology trends, and other market variables.

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ChittahChattah Quickies August 8th, 2011

Rate This Article: What’s Wrong with the Culture of Critique [Wired.com] – Are mounting (and recursive) reviews and opinions on every-little-thing blinding us with tidal waves of bias and robbing us of fundamentally human experiences such as the joys of discovery and failure?

Our ever more sophisticated arsenal of stars and thumbs will eventually serve to curtail serendipity, adventure, and idiotic floundering. But more immediate is the simple problem of contamination. When the voices of hundreds of strangers, or even just three shrill ones, enter our heads, a tiny but vital part of ourselves is diminished. Suddenly we’re breached, denied the pleasure of articulating our own judgment on this professor, or that meal, or this city… There’s an essential freedom in being alone with one’s thoughts, oblivious to and unpolluted by anyone else’s. Diminish that aloneness and we start to doubt our own perspective. Do I really think Blue Bottle coffee is that great? Or Blazing Saddles that funny? Do I really not like that pizza place because it isn’t authentic New York-style? Sure, it’s entirely possible to arrive at one’s own opinion amidst a cacophony of others. But it’s also possible to bend, unknowingly and imperceptibly, toward a position not naturally our own.

Radical Sharing Works: This Guy Lets the World Use His Starbucks Card for Free [Good.com] – Accidental, experimental business model proves effective, adds unexpected value.

On July 7th, Stark loaded $30 onto his card and posted the image for his friends to use. Within hours, the money turned into caffeine and prefab sandwiches. So Stark added another $50 and invited a few more friends to see if they liked paying for things with their phones, creating an informal user experience focus group. But this time, the money didn’t vanish. People started adding money as well as spending it. And since then, it’s become an experiment in anonymous collective sharing. Buying a cup of coffee on the card becomes a special act of participation, and giving back so a stranger can do the same just feels good, and certainly better than the average frappuccino. In that way, the technology Stark created is adding value to the coffee people purchase. “Overall it’s working,” he says. Stark created a little program that would check the value on the card and post it to Twitter, so experimenters could see if there is enough for a cup o’ joe before heading out to Starbucks. More and more people joined. As of about 11 a.m. PST today, Stark said that about $3,664.24 had passed through the card.

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ChittahChattah Quickies July 28th, 2010
  • [from steve_portigal] newWitch Magazine – Cutting Edge Paganism – [Seen in a "magic" shop today during a post-fieldwork ramble] newWitch is a magazine dedicated to, featuring, and partially written by young or beginning Witches, Wiccans, Neo-Pagans, and other earth-based, ethnic, pre-Christian, shamanic, and magical practitioners. Everyone from Traditional Wiccans to potion-makers to Asatruar to eco-Pagans can find something in these pages. The one thing we all have in common is a willingness to look at the world, our magical and spiritual paths, and ourselves in new ways. We hope to reach not only those already involved in what we cover, but the curious and completely new as well.
  • [from steve_portigal] Can the Kindle and Its Ilk Ease Textbook Inflation? [Village Voice] – [Thanks @dastillman] Pace offered the Kindle to students with course materials already preloaded on the device. Students had the option to buy the Kindle (at a discounted price) at the end of the course. Student complaints ranged from difficulties in taking notes to clumsy navigation controls. The electronic annotation feature was especially “slow and cumbersome,” requiring students to manipulate a tiny button to underline passages and type notes on the Kindle’s ergonomically unfriendly keyboard. The photos, pictures, and diagrams in the e-textbook were all black and white and image quality was not quite as sharp as in print….Soares found time eaten away by technical issues. Kindle books have no page numbers, so it was a challenge to get all the students on the same page. “It’s one thing to read a mystery or novel on the Kindle, but the way you read a textbook is different. You are flipping back and forth while reading, and navigation was cumbersome, even with bookmarks.”
  • [from steve_portigal] Doomsday shelters making a comeback [USATODAY.com] – The Vivos network, which offers partial ownerships similar to a timeshare in underground shelter communities, is one of several ventures touting escape from a surface-level calamity. Vicino, who launched the Vivos project last December, says he seeks buyers willing to pay $50,000 for adults and $25,000 for children. The company is starting with a 13,000-square-foot refurbished underground shelter formerly operated by the U.S. government at an undisclosed location near Barstow, Calif., that will have room for 134 people. Vicino puts the average cost for a shelter at $10 million. Vivos plans for facilities as large as 100,000 square feet, says real estate broker Dan Hotes, who over the past four years has collaborated with Vicino on partial ownership of luxury homes and is now involved with Vivos. Catastrophe shelters today may appeal to those who seek to bring order to a world full of risk and uncertainty, says Alexander Riley, an associate professor of sociology at Bucknell University.
  • [from steve_portigal] Market researchers get new tool in iPad [USATODAY.com] – [No doubt getting people to participate in surveys is an exercise in persuasion or seduction, but if there's a cool factor, something seems wrong to me] The gadget is luring curious consumers who've never seen one to participate in research projects conducted at shopping malls, primarily because they just want to see how it works. At many of the centers response was so good that survey takers collected the required information in about three weeks instead of the four they'd anticipated. The iPad presented its own set of research challenges. Some overheated in direct sunlight and shut down. In one case, a consumer at a mall in Rhode Island was so enamored with the iPad, he grabbed it from the interviewer and ran off.
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ChittahChattah Quickies January 9th, 2010
  • Steven Levy on How Gadgets Lose Their Magic [Wired] – "Any sufficiently advanced technology," Arthur C. Clarke wrote in 1962, "is indistinguishable from magic."…This applies to all the similar fruits of Moore's law. In the past 40 or 50 years, such mind-stretching advancements have become the norm…We all, I think, have become inured to Moore's law. The astonishing advances that once would have brought us to our knees are now reduced to a thumbs-up on Gizmodo. They're removed from the realm of magic­ – they're just cool gear…As technological magic becomes routine, I wonder whether a visit to a preindustrial society might teach me more than it teaches them. The only thing more fascinating than our technology is the idea of getting along without it. Maybe the way to recapture the magic is to turn all that stuff off.
  • How Tony Gilroy surprises jaded moviegoers [The New Yorker] – Gilroy believes that the writer and the moviegoing public are engaged in a cognitive arms race. As the audience grows savvier, the screenwriter has to invent new reversals. Perhaps the most famous reversal in film was written by William Goldman in "Marathon Man,.” Laurence Olivier, a sadistic Nazi dentist, is drilling into Dustin Hoffman’s mouth, trying to force him to disclose the location of a stash of diamonds. “Is it safe?” he keeps asking. Suddenly, William Devane sweeps in to rescue Hoffman. In the subsequent car ride, Devane wants to know where the diamonds are. After a few minutes, Hoffman’s eyes grow wide: Devane and Olivier are in league! “Thirty years ago, when Bill Goldman wrote it, the reversal in ‘Marathon Man’ was fresh,” Gilroy says. “But it must have been used now 4000 times.” This is the problem that new movies must solve. “How do you write a reversal that uses the audience’s expectations in a new way? You have to write to their accumulated knowledge.”
  • Secret of Googlenomics: Data-Fueled Recipe Brews Profitability [Wired] – [Echoing some of what I wrote about in a recent piece for interactions "We Are Living In A Sci-Fi World"]
    It's a satisfying development for Varian, a guy whose career as an economist was inspired by a sci-fi novel he read in junior high. "In Isaac Asimov's first Foundation Trilogy, there was a character who basically constructed mathematical models of society, and I thought this was a really exciting idea. When I went to college, I looked around for that subject. It turned out to be economics."
  • What is the Status Quo Bias? [Wisegeek] – A cognitive bias that leads people to prefer that things remain the same, or change as little as possible. People will make the choice which is least likely to cause a change. This can also play a role in daily routines; many people eat the same thing for breakfast day after day, or walk to work in exactly the same pattern, without variation. The inability to be flexible can cause people to become stressed when a situation forces a choice.

    It explains why many people make very conservative financial choices, such as keeping their deposits at one bank even when they are offered a better rate of interest by a bank which is essentially identical in all other respects.

    While this provides self-protection by encouraging people to make safer choices, it can also become crippling, by preventing someone from making more adventurous choices. Like other cognitive biases, this bias can be so subtle that people aren't aware of it, making it hard to break out of set patterns.

  • Sports, sex, and the runner Caster Semenya [The New Yorker] – There is much more at stake in organizing sports by gender than just making things fair. If we were to admit that at some level we don’t know the difference between men and women, we might start to wonder about the way we’ve organized our entire world. Who gets to use what bathroom? Who is allowed to get married?…We depend on gender to make sense of sexuality, society, and ourselves. We do not wish to see it dissolve.
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Increase Your Effectiveness In Meetings by 10% April 17th, 2009

(This post originally appeared on Core77)

magic8ball

There’s a strong fascination cum infatuation with semi-secret rules that explain why we do what we do. Even In Treatment uses Gladwell (the form’s biggest popularizer) to forward a common misconception about therapy while creating dramatic tension.

In a recent counter-intuitive example, a study indicates that people ordering from a menu that includes healthy and less-healthy options will feel more free to choose the less-healthy option. The theory isn’t totally clear (perhaps a vicarious “I’ve been good” hit comes from the presence of those other items) and its extensibility to other choice behaviors isn’t at all clear.

And in the “no duh” category, another study that looked at radiologists found that “when a digital photograph was attached to a patient’s file, radiologists provided longer, more meticulous reports. And they said they felt more connected to the patients, whom they seldom meet face to face.” Although I wonder if the folks at the passport office, with their surplus of mortifying headshots, would support this study, it really just makes sense and could be applied to all sorts of intermediated interactions, both asynchronous (i.e., mortgage applications) and synchronous (ie., tech support chat). For further study, does an avatar or a stock photo work as well as photograph? Do other biographical details work as well? And how long does this effect last?

If you’re into anecdotes and theories that can help you explain, predict, and otherwise impress those around you, check out Lone Gunman, Overcoming Bias and Freakonomics .

Meanwhile, we’re ready to casually cite the classic marketing/business/social science examples, such as the Add An Egg phenomenon, the Kitty Genovese effect, how a waiter’s tip can decline precipitously based solely on the waiting-time for the bill (citation anyone?) and the Hawthorne Effect.

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ChittahChattah Quickies January 16th, 2009
  • PETA (hopefully tongue-in-cheek) attempts to rebrand fish as "Sea Kittens" – Sorta reductio ad absurdum re: my latest interactions column, Poets, Priests, and Politicians
  • Rug company Nanimarquina brings global warming to your living room – "If there is an iconic image that represents the natural devastation of global warming, it is the lone polar bear stuck on a melting ice flow. Now eco rug company Nanimarquina has teamed up with NEL artists to create a beautiful ‘Global Warming Rug’ – complete with stranded polar bear floating in the middle of the sea – to represent the most pressing issue of our time. Rugs have been traditionally used throughout the ages to tell stories and communicate messages, and we think this is a lovely, poignant new take on a time-honored tradition." What effect does it have when an issue like global warming gets iconified and aestheticized like this? Does it drive home the seriousness of the situation, or make it more palatable?
  • Asch conformity experiments – (via Eliezer Yudkowsky) Asch asked people about similarity of height between several lines. Confederates answered incorrectly and this influenced the subject themselves to support this incorrect answer.
  • Confirmation bias: the tendency to seek out information that supports what we already believe – (via Eliezer Yudkowsky) The 2-4-6 problem presented subjects with 3 numbers. Subjects were told that the triple conforms to a particular rule. They were asked to discover the rule by generating their own triples, where the experimenter would indicate whether or not the triple conformed to the rule. While the actual rule was simply “any ascending sequence”, the subjects often proposed rules that were far more complex. Subjects seemed to test only “positive” examples—triples the subjects believed would conform to their rule and confirm their hypothesis. What they did not do was attempt to challenge or falsify their hypotheses by testing triples that they believed would not conform to their rule.
  • Overcoming Bias – Blog by Eliezer Yudkowsky and others about (overcoming) biases in perception, decisions, etc.
  • Hindsight bias: when people who know the answer vastly overestimate its predictability or obviousness, – (via Eliezer Yudkowsky)
    Sometimes called the I-knew-it-all-along effect.
    "…A third experimental group was told the outcome and also explicitly instructed to avoid hindsight bias, which made no difference."
  • Planning fallacy – the tendency to underestimate task-completion times – (via Eliezer Yudkowsky) Asking people what they did last time turns out to be more accurate than what they either hope for or expect to happen this time
  • Cognitive Biases in the Assessment of Risk – (via Eliezer Yudkowsky) Another example of extensional neglect is scope insensitivity, which you will find in the Global Catastrophic Risks book. Another version of the same thing is where people would only pay slightly more to save all the wetlands in Oregon than to save one protected wetland in Oregon, or people would pay the same amount to save two thousand, twenty thousand, or two hundred thousand oil-stroked birds from perishing in ponds. What is going on there is when you say, “How much would you donate to save 20,000 birds from perishing in oil ponds,” they will visualize one bird trapped, struggling to get free. That creates some level of emotional arousal, then the actual quantity gets thrown right out the window.

    [I am not sure that's the reason why; I think there could be other explanations for the flawed mental model that leads to those responses]

  • Conjunction fallacy – (via Eliezer Yudkowsky) A logical fallacy that occurs when it is assumed that specific conditions are more probable than a single general one. Example: Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.

    Which is more probable?

    1. Linda is a bank teller.
    2. Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

    85% of those asked chose option 2 [2]. However, mathematically, the probability of two events occurring together (in "conjunction") will always be less than or equal to the probability of either one occurring alone.

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Obnoxious Ameri-centric review of Cdn book April 24th, 2005

SF Chron review of Mount Appetite, a new book by Bill Gaston

What’s with the Canadians these days? It seems to have started a few years ago when Michael Moore turned a spotlight on our northern neighbors in ‘Bowling for Columbine,’ proving that they love their guns but don’t shoot people (nor do they lock their doors). Then during the past year or two amazing Canadian bands, the likes of Broken Social Scene and the Arcade Fire, have been showing up in music stores. And now, all of this great Canadian literature keeps landing here, from Derek McCormack to Michael Turner, and most recently, Bill Gaston’s latest collection of short stories, ‘Mount Appetite.’

Yes, just when some of us Americans had settled into the idea that Canadian cultural exports are only good for a laugh (Second City, ‘Kids in the Hall,’ Celine Dion, Bryan Adams), we are forced to think again.

I find this annoying, yes, but also somewhat offensive. Where has the article’s author been? Never heard of Margaret Atwood, to pick one very obvious example?

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Do the evolution, baby April 22nd, 2005

Via Stay Free! Daily comes EVOLUTION BY MARGARITA a new bra that is “designed to create a natural cosmetically enhanced look.”

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USAirways lame-o nonsub April 21st, 2005

eud54 htm 4 21 2005 6 45 27 PM.jpg(click to view bigger)

This is an email from USAirways with my monthly mileage balance. Nice. The link they tell me click in order to stop receiving this email (which I never opted-in to receive) isn’t really a link, it’s just static text. Lame!

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