Equality Bias

“Equality Bias”

Here’s an interesting article that suggests why people tend to give equal weight to two sides of an argument that have very different levels of quality, different levels of expertise:


–     The science of protecting people’s feelings: why we pretend all opinions are equal

By Chris Mooney March 10

It’s both the coolest — and also in some ways the most depressing —psychology study ever.

Indeed, it’s so cool (and so depressing) that the name of its chief finding — the Dunning-Kruger effect — has at least halfway filtered into public consciousness. In the classic 1999 paper, Cornell researchers David Dunning and Justin Kruger found that the less competent people were in three domains — humor, logic, and grammar — the less likely they were to be able to recognize that. Or as the researchers put it:

We propose that those with limited knowledge in a domain suffer from a dual burden: Not only do they reach mistaken conclusions and make regrettable errors, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.

Dunning and Kruger didn’t directly apply this insight to our debates about science. But I would argue that the effect named after them certainly helps to explain phenomena like vaccine denial, in which medical authorities have voiced a very strong opinion, but some parents just keep on thinking that, somehow, they’re in a position to challenge or ignore this view.

So why do I bring this classic study up now?

The reason is that an important successor to the Dunning-Kruger paper has just been come out — and it, too, is pretty depressing (at least for those of us who believe that domain expertise is a thing to be respected and, indeed, treasured)This time around, psychologists have not uncovered an endless spiral of incompetence and the inability to perceive it. Rather, they’ve shown that people have an “equality bias” when it comes to competence or expertise, such that even when it’s very clear that one person in a group is more skilled, expert, or competent (and the other less), they are nonetheless inclined to seek out a middle ground in determining how correct different viewpoints are.

Yes, that’s right — we’re all right, nobody’s wrong, and nobody gets hurt feelings.

The new study, just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is by Ali Mahmoodi of the University of Tehran and a long list of colleagues from universities in the UK, Germany, China, Denmark, and the United States. And no wonder: The research was transnational, and the same experiment — with the same basic results — was carried out across cultures in China, Denmark, and Iran.

In the experiment (described in further detail in this previous paper), two separate people view two successive images, which are almost exactly the same, but not quite. In one of the images, there is an “oddball target” that looks slightly different. The images flash by very fast, and the two individuals have to decide which one, the first or the second, contained the target.

Sounds simple enough — but the two individuals didn’t merely have to identify the target. They also had to agree. Each member of the pair — the scientists wonkily call it a “dyad” — separately indicated which of the images contained the target, and how confident they were about that. Then, if there was a disagreement, one individual was chosen at random to decide what the right answer was – and thus, who was right and who was wrong. And then, both individuals learned the truth about whether their group decision had been the correct one or not.

This went on for 256 intervals, so the two individuals got to know each other quite well — and to know one another’s accuracy and skill quite well. Thus, if one member of the group was better than the other, both would pretty clearly notice. And a rational decision, you might think, would be for the less accurate group member to begin to favor the views of the more accurate one — and for the accurate one to favor his or her own assessments.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, report the study authors, “the worse members of each dyad underweighted their partner’s opinion (i.e., assigned less weight to their partner’s opinion than recommended by the optimal model), whereas the better members of each dyad overweighted their partner’s opinion.” Or to put it more bluntly, individuals tended to act “as if they were as good or as bad as their partner” — even when they quite obviously weren’t.

The researchers tried several variations on the experiment, and this “equality bias” didn’t go away. In one case, a “running score” reminded both members of the pair who was faring better (and who worse) at identifying the target — just in case it wasn’t obvious enough already. In another case, the task became much more difficult for one group member than the other, leading to a bigger gap in scores — accentuating differences in performance. And finally, in a third variant, actual money was offered for getting it right.

None of this did away with the “equality bias.”

So why do we do this? The authors, not surprisingly, point to the incredible power of human groups, and our dependence upon being good standing members of them:

By confirming themselves more often than they should have, the inferior member of each dyad may have tried to stay relevant and socially included. Conversely, the better performing member may have been trying to avoid ignoring their partner.

Great instincts in general — except, of course, when facts and reality are at stake.

Nobody’s saying we ought to be mean to people, or put them down when they’re wrong — or even that experts always get it right. They don’t.

Still, I think it’s pretty obvious that human groups (especially in the United States) err much more in the direction of giving everybody a say than in the direction of deferring too much to experts. And that’s quite obviously harmful on any number of issues, especially in science, where what experts know really matters and lives or the world depend on it — like vaccinations or climate change.

The new research underscores this conclusion — that we need to recognize experts more, respect them, and listen to them. But it also shows how our evolution in social groups binds us powerfully together and enforces collective norms, but can go haywire when it comes to recognizing and accepting inconvenient truths.

Chris Mooney reports on science and the environment.


The upshot, it appears, is that social concerns can often trump real world concerns, that if our social group has one belief and some few academics, experts, or professionals have another, that we have evolved in such a way that the social group has been more important – meaning, I imagine, that for much of our history and pre-history, being on the outs with our social group has had the more immediate and dire consequences. Opting to be ‘sheeple’ has been a matter of survival.

This – what would you call it, principle? Function, tendency? – this useful-for-a-social-animal adaptation would appear to have the negative effect that, when the whole group is wrong about something, then wrong the group shall be, and for a long time. It takes something big to effect a change in a group mindset, like perhaps when some smallish, tribal group is absorbed into a larger group like a modern nation and now the smaller group’s erroneous belief is rendered an outlying one in the new, larger group – of course, this only if they really do join the new nation, if the culture is absorbed, either by choice or by force. This doesn’t change their minds if they remain obstinate and insular, which, then the conversation goes to motivation. Many and varied are the reasons for a group to close ranks and remain as a distinct group, perhaps the maintenance of such beliefs being a big one. Or, maybe the group’s erroneous belief gets proved false in a catastrophic way, a way that is undeniable and the group must face the reality to survive. Perhaps the volcano erupts and burns our whole island down despite all the virgins we sacrificed to it, something like that.

Some might think that this is what is required to change the mind of the groups mentioned in the article, the global warming deniers and the anti-vaccination people. Let’s hope not, of course. Sometimes we’d rather have been wrong.

Something the article only grazes with its mention of global warming, would be a slightly larger issue, that of the economy VS the environment. I would think that one definition of the expression, ‘the economy’ could be simply and expansively, ‘the human system of living.’ Perhaps this adaptation of group thinking applies here, and that may explain why protecting the environment and the Earth’s resources is somehow so often viewed as beside the point, like it’s only a concern after the primary concern that we all have jobs, and that the economy continues to roll on. David Suzuki is fond of pointing out that indigenous peoples find our separation of these two things to be impossible for them to understand. ‘What is the economy if the world cannot support the people in it,’ is their question. How can the living Earth somehow not be relevant?

I think what is missing from the aboriginal person’s understanding of the modern, industrialized person’s POV is this: that urbanism, industry and agriculture have allowed people to become the dominant environment. The physical world and nature are a few steps away. For modern, industrialized people, people are the environment, the only things we have to interact with to survive, and the only things that we will not survive if we choose to disdain them. Tigers and lightning are not the modern person’s biggest threats – Republicans are.

(That’s a joke, sort of.)

That from the geo-political side of things, to be sure, but for those few who’ve read anything from me before, you know I see the world as a fractal sort of thing, the macro matching the microcosm, with the family as the model for society and the world. So, a sharp turn here. For all of us, when we are young, at our most vulnerable and impressionable, the environment that we need to survive most immediately is the family. This is where this useful-for-a-social-animal adaptation happens. It is in the home, in our nuclear families where we must make this adaptation first, and so we do. This is where we learn all the things that become the larger conversations later in life: we must work, everyone needs a job, thou shalt and thou shalt not, we are here to do God’s Will, which is this and this . . . while the real world consequences of so many of these sorts of concepts are still far beyond our grasp, we learn that what our parents and caregivers tell us we had better learn, or else. The real world consequences of these things may be far away, but the immediate social consequences of not learning what our parents teach are right there in front of us (or behind us, as the case may be, on our backsides).

To bring this very interesting article in the link above home, and to put it in a less academic, more brutal context, let’s view it this way. We don’t listen to the experts, not because we’ve weighed their theses and found them lacking – but because the experts aren’t likely to hurt us if we don’t. Which gives their views a whole lot less weight than our internalized parents who are the real leaders of our social groups.

All Punishments are Physical

All Punishments are Physical

Punishments are not voluntary. Punishments are unpleasantnesses that are forced upon a person by an authorized person, in order to convince him to change his behaviour; if an action is not all of these things, it’s not a punishment.
– If it’s not unpleasant for the recipient, it’s not a punishment. It’s either neutral, or it’s a reward.
– If the punisher isn’t a proper, legal authority, it’s somewhere between unauthorized punishment and abuse.
– If it’s not intended to change the recipient’s behaviour, it doesn’t count as punishment, only as retribution.
– That leaves me with force:
People tell me, a lot, that they don’t have to force punishments on their kids, that the kid seems willing enough to take their timeouts, their groundings, the restrictions on their favourite activities – all in everyone’s list of non-physical punishments – in stride. That seems, uh, counterintuitive to me. I mean, I can see that there are many instances of a person taking his punishment with no apparent force. There are certainly cases of prisoners walking to the electric chair under their own power – but to assume that this display means the condemned man has a choice in the matter is assuming too much. He’s going to the chair, and he has plenty of able-bodied men there to help him if his natural instinct to run gets the better of him. The stoic Dead Man’s Walk is only about decorum, appearances. He gets to look like a tough guy, willing to pay the price, and we get to watch a scene somewhat less horrifying than if we had to carry him in there kicking and screaming. I believe that any instance of a person willingly taking his penalty is a similar thing: the person knows there is no choice, and they know that if they fight the designated penalty, it only gets worse for them.
The punished person knows it, the condemned know it, our children know it . . . it would seem to be only the parents that don’t. Modern, deluded parents.
In some ways, the old-fashioned ways of parenting and punishing are preferable, I mean, at least an unapologetic parent who deals out spankings and slaps is honest about it, at least he knows he’s being physical, and more importantly, his kids know it. In a certain sense, his kids have a better chance at understanding what happened to them, they can have some clarity. But the kids whose parents “don’t believe in physical punishing methods,” the kids who suffered their timeouts, their groundings, having their favourite things confiscated and their ‘screen times’ curtailed, the kids who were subject to these sorts of deprivations but have to go through life trying to support the idea that their parents didn’t abuse them, didn’t physically punish them . . . there isn’t likely to be any clarity for these kids. They can’t know that their rights were infringed upon, because their parents don’t realize it either. There will be no resolution for many of these kids.
But I ask you: are these penalties optional? If the kid doesn’t feel like taking the timeout, or living without his new toy, what then? Are we not holding him in the timeout chair, or holding the door closed, which are physical things? Is playing ‘keepaway’ with his new toy not physical? Do we suggest that the toddler take a timeout, and then wait for him to agree and do it himself? Do we ask him to put his new toy down and stay away from it for a specified period and wait for him to do it? Or, as I say at the start of this, and per the dictionary definition, is punishment forced, which means physically – unless someone can do these things with the power of only their mind?
Now I’m not saying that there is some way to have things all our way as parents without punishing, there definitely isn’t. I’m just saying that if you, as a parent, made it to all your appointments on time, if you are never late for work, if you can have expensive things around your house and keep them intact, you have probably been punishing, and that’s not something you can do without getting physical about it. Everybody does it, there’s no shame in admitting it. It’s the system, and there is almost no other way, again, no shame in it.
It’s just that I think there may be more glory in finding another way, if at all possible. And prerequisite to that would be, we need a baseline, an honest one that says, whether we call it ‘corporal punishment’ or not, punishment is a forced thing. If we say we’re not forcing the timeouts, the groundings, etc., that only protects ourselves from the perception of it, it doesn’t change the reality, the reality being the damages associated with corporal punishment, because all punishments require physical means. Remember, if you like it, if you volunteer for it, it’s not a punishment. Punishments are unpleasant. They’re supposed to be, right? So of course we have to force them, that is obvious, that is, it is when we’re talking about them like they’re a good thing. Somehow, though, when we’re in a discussion of what is bad about punishing, that obvious truth becomes, uh, invisible. What I seem to hear is something that boils down to “of course, you have to – but I don’t do that!”
Yes, you do that. No shame in it, it’s the system, the only one, pretty much, so you do that, just admit it. You have to, and you do. Simple. Was that so difficult? Maybe it was, and would you like to know why?
It’s because of all these parenting books, the parenting gurus, all the parenting literature that has been published since Dr. Spock, maybe since B.F. Skinner, it’s all lies, that’s why. None of it says “let the kids win,” it all presupposes that the parents must win every time, and most of it is selling you a system that lets you win every time, with the added bonus that you can do it without getting physical. These are lies, horrible lies. How many of us thought that if we did what some parenting guru says, we wouldn’t have to spank, and been let down when our kid doesn’t feel like it? How many of us learned the hard way that there really is only one way to win an argument with a one, two, or three year-old? And then how many of us stopped listening to these liars? So now we do what we have to do and we just shut up about it, maybe we even think we’re alone, like we’re the only ones who failed at raising our kids by non-physical means, so we can’t even be open about it.
Be open about it. You are not alone.
Most parenting books are crap. They give you positive-sounding ideas, like ‘don’t hit them right away. Try this first, try that, distraction, rewards,’ but they go silent about what to do when it all fails. At the most cynical level, maybe some of these teachers know what we’ll end up doing, but they can’t say it any more. When nothing “works,” when nothing convinces your toddler, you’re on your own – but remember, you’re the parent, you decide what gets done. Kids need ‘structure.’ You know what to do.
And we do, and so we do the hard thing, we bring the unpleasantness, because, as we all know, it’s the only game in town. Just admit it, at least to yourself, your kids, and to me. I’m looking behind the curtain. I’m not going to believe you when you tell me you didn’t or you don’t, not 99% of you anyways. Because really, how could you not?