This is an important post but not one I’d recommend to those unwilling to venture into the darker reaches of human psychology. What triggered this line of thought was, as usual, a combination of two things: something in the news and something I had been reading.
The news item first: “being overweight cuts the risk of dementia, according to the largest and most precise investigation into the relationship”.
The team at Oxon Epidemiology and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine analysed medical records from 1,958,191 people aged 55, on average, for up to two decades.
Their most conservative analysis showed underweight people had a 39% greater risk of dementia compared with being a healthy weight.
But those who were overweight had an 18% reduction in dementia – and the figure was 24% for the obese.
This is an unexpected and unwelcome discovery. It contradicts years of assertions to the contrary. It is out of line with Conservative proposals to cut benefits to the obese… and is unsurprisingly, therefore, receiving minimum attention in the run up to the UK’s General Election.
I am suspicious of all health research, having been given so much contradictory advice over the years. Butter, for example, once thought bad for you is now considered good for you. I therefore want to know who funded the study because nearly always the outcome confirms the bias of its sponsors.
The size of the sample plus the lack of confirmation of prevailing views makes me think that for once the conclusion may be true. It also aligns with some statistically insignificant data points in my own experience: notably a fitness fanatic in the family who at 55 certainly shows signs of, how shall I put it, being “a sandwich short of a picnic”, having “the lights on, but nobody’s home”, or, as Aussie friends say, suffering “a kangaroo loose in the top paddock”. But that’s just my predisposition.
The second trigger to some deep and dark thoughts is the book I am reading. It’s Get the Truth (it finally pitched up from Amazon). This has prompted all sorts of reflections on my father’s history as a counter-terrorist (I’ll post on that later). The main text describes the techniques developed by three CIA interrogation experts to get people to tell them the truth. This is supplemented by valuable Appendices. In the first of these, Peter Romary (described as “an attorney, arbitrator, mediator, and internationally recognized expert and trainer in the areas of negotiation, risk management, threat assessment and management, conflict resolution, and litigation risk management”) discusses the application of the CIA’s methodology to everyday life. There’s lots to talk about here but one thing Romary sees fit to elaborate on – and that strikes home with force – is the matter of confirmation bias.
It’s tempting to dismiss confirmation bias as little more than the thought expressed in Simon and Garfunkel’s song The Boxer:
I am just a poor boy.
Though my story’s seldom told,
I have squandered my resistance
For a pocketful of mumbles,
Such are promises
All lies and jest
Still, a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest.
But Romary notes:
What feeds confirmation bias, like many cognitive biases, is that we truly believe we’re objective and open-minded, when in many cases we’re really not. That’s difficult for a lot of people to swallow, but there is an easy way to show how it happens.
When I teach negotiation classes, I use a very simple experiment developed by the psychologist Bertram R. Forer to illustrate confirmation bias – it demonstrates what’s called the “Forer effect,” sometimes better known as “Barnum statements.” What I’m about to say here will probably get me into hot water with those who are fans of TV mediums and psychics, but here we go. When you look at how this works, you’ll see why so many purported psychics – and salespeople, for that matter – are believed, when what they’re doing is making statements that could apply to almost anyone.
Forer’s test is very simple to administer. All you have to do is come up with some fake personality test, and tell people in the group that the resulting analysis will be unique to each of them. In truth, their answers are irrelevant, because the result you give them is this single analysis that Forer himself came up with:
You have a great need for other people to like and admire you. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. Your sexual adjustment has presented problems for you. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. Security is one of your major goals in life.
As you can see, there are several statements in the results narrative that could, and do, apply to almost anyone, yet they are then qualified or even contradicted by others. If you ask the people in the group to provide their assessment of the accuracy of the analysis, you’ll find that across the board they’ll rate the results as highly accurate and applicable to them. The reason is that their tendency is to seek out the positive attributes. That confirms the positive things they think about themselves, which in turn causes them to interpret the entire analysis as an accurate reflection of their personalities. I, like many negotiation trainers, have used this test in my classes for years, and my students are invariably taken in by it.
The takeaway from this is just how important it is not to allow confirmation bias to creep in when somebody is attempting to influence you by saying something positive about you.
You might be thinking “well, there’s nothing too disturbing in all that”, and you’d be right… except that a page or so earlier Romary observes:
Through years of representing victims of domestic violence, I’ve come to recognize that the damage that’s done to the human psyche by physical and emotional abuse from someone the victim believes to be a loved one is unfathomable. It’s a difficult situation to discuss, let alone observe. But it can serve as a poignant example of the power of confirmation bias, as so many of my clients truly believed that their abusers loved them. To me, it was a reflection of the purity of the hearts of many of my clients, and what I can only describe as the evil, twisted nature of their abusers.
And this is where it all gets horribly personal. Because for 27 years I was married to someone who made my life hell. Her abuse was only ever emotional. That was enough. Time after time we went through the cycle of abuse and contrition. You might describe her as very bad tempered. Eventually I realised that she was mentally ill. I told myself it’s easy to cope when another’s disability is physical and visible; mental disability merits an extra special kind of love and understanding. I suppose nowadays you’d call her affliction Borderline Personality Disorder, borderline because it hovers on the edge of tolerable. When it came to an end she told me she had been having counselling for seventeen years.
Branded on my heart are certain thoughts:
- abuse takes two – an abusee as well as an abuser,
- communication is not what we say but everything we do,
- love, capacity for caring, is not measured in pretty words but practical help.
Eventually I realised the whole system was her + me, and the best way to help her was to leave.
But oh those times I clutched at straws to confirm my bias that she must still love me!