Day 067 - Cognitive illusions

Submitted by Sam on 26 July, 2011 - 23:57

Optical illusions are a visual proof of a built-in irrationality in the way we reason. In some illusions we can be shown two lines of equal lengths and yet perceive one to be longer than the other. Even when we see visual proof that the lines are in fact of equal length, it's impossible to overcome the sense that the lines are different – it's as if we cannot learn to override our intuitions. In the case of optical illusions, our intuition is fooled in a repeatable, predictable fashion, and there is not much we can do about it without modifying the illusion itself, either by measuring it or by obscuring some part of it.

Dan Ariely, a behavioural psychologist currently teaching at Duke University, reminds us that optical illusions are a big deal. Vision is one of the best things that we do – we are evolutionarily designed to be good at it, and a large part of our brain is dedicated to being good at it, larger than is dedicated to anything else. The fact that we make such consistent mistakes, and are repeatedly fooled by optical illusions should be troubling. If we make mistakes in vision, what kind of mistakes will we make in those things that we have no evolutionary reason to be any good at? In new and elaborate environments like financial markets, we don't have a specialized part of the brain to help us, and we don't have a convenient visual illustration with which to easily demonstrate the mistakes we make. Is our sense of our decision making abilities ever consistently compromised?

Ariely suggests that we are victims of decision making illusions in much the same way we are victims of optical illusions. When answering a survey, for instance, we feel like we are making our own decisions, but many of those decisions in fact lie with the person who designed the form. This is strikingly shown by the disparity in the percentage of people in different European countries who indicated that they would be interested in donating their organs after death, as illustrated by a 2004 paper by Eric Johnson and Daniel Goldstein. Consent rates in France, Belgium, Hungary, Poland, Portugal, France and Austria were over 99%, whilst the UK, Germany and Denmark all had rates of below 20%. This huge difference didn't arise due to strong cultural differences, but through a simple difference in the way the question on the form was presented. In countries with a low consent rate, the question was as an opt-in choice, as in 'Check the box if you wish to participate in the organ donor programme'. People didn't check the box, leaving the form in its 'default' state. Those presented with the inverse question, an explicit opt-out rather than explicit opt-in, also left the box unchecked. Both groups tended to accept whatever the form tacitly suggested the default position was. The two types of forms created strongly separated groups of consenting donors and non-consenting donors across the countries, separated by nearly 60% as a direct result of how the question was phrased.

This is just one example of how we can reliably be led into making a choice that isn't a choice at all, suggesting that our awareness of our own cognitive abilities isn't quite as complete as perhaps we would like. Recognizing this in-built limitation like Laurie Santos, Ariely stresses that the more we understand these cognitive limitations, the better we will be able to design and ameliorate our world.

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