How much of what is going on around us do we understand? Surprisingly little. If not completely blind, our vision is obscured by the cobwebs of our mind, which include false assumptions, beliefs, and expectations. How can we think straight and make intelligent decisions if our mind can easily lead us astray? The answer is awareness. We must be conscious of the problem and alert to the conclusions we make. We need to question them. Are they based on facts or our imagination? Often, rather than seeing what is there, we see what we hope to see, want to see, or expect to see.
Just because we have children it doesn’t necessarily follow that we know how to raise them. So, intelligent parents study parenting, and their new skills bring many rewards. Similarly, just because we can think, it doesn’t mean we know how to think properly. You wouldn’t drive a car without first learning how to drive, would you? So, why are we so comfortable thinking without first studying how to draw proper conclusions and avoid faulty thinking?
Awareness of some of the thinking pitfalls will help us make better decisions and gain a greater understanding of reality. There are many “mind traps” to beware of but here I will focus on one called, The Clustering Illusion. For example, let’s say you and a bunch of friends are flipping coins to see how many heads you can get in a row. A few friends tried with unimpressive results. Now it’s Tom’s turn. He flips and gets four heads in a row. What would you think? Would you be impressed? Surprised? Many people would conclude Tom is ‘lucky’.
In this example we had a group or cluster of four coin tosses that led to an unexpected result. The ‘surprising’ result is called The Clustering Illusion. Tom’s ability to get four heads in a row led some to suspect he was lucky, has eery occult or magical powers, or that he cheated. After all, when we flip coins, we should get random results, some heads, some tails, but not a streak of heads or tails. Isn’t that correct? Yes, it’s true over the long term. For instance, if we flip the coins 10,000 times, we should come up with an average of heads and tails 50% of the time. But that average also includes streaks or runs of heads and tails. In fact, even in a series of 20 flips, there is a 50% chance of getting four heads in a row!
So, Tom’s friends were surprised because they did not have the facts. Without them, the illusion was created that Tom was lucky or had a special gift. His friends mistakenly believed four heads in a row was against the laws of probability. But it wasn’t. Now, let’s take a look at an example of The Clustering Illusion that appeared in the news eight years ago.
The death of Amy Winehouse on July 23, 2011 came as a double shock for the singer-songwriter’s fans. First, this promising talent died so young. Second, she died at age 27, the same age that six other famous musicians died. Here is the group or cluster of rock stars who died at the same age:
- Robert Johnson, blues singer and musician (d. 1938)
- Brian Jones, Rolling Stones founder (d. 1969)
- Jimi Hendrix, Pioneering electric guitarist, singer and songwriter (d. 1970)
- Janis Joplin, Lead vocalist and songwriter (d. 1970)
- Jim Morrison, Lead singer, lyricist (d. 1971)
- Kurt Cobain, Founding member of Nirvana (d. 1994)
Amy Winehouse has been added to the list of what some music aficionados call The 27 Club, The Forever 27 Club, Club 27 or The Curse of 27. Fans find it spooky that seven of the biggest names in rock music have all died at age 27. And if we expand the list to include lesser known musical artists who died at the same age, we can add 41 more names!
Doesn’t it seem mystical that ‘so many’ of the top musicians have died at the same age? But that’s why it’s called The Clustering Illusion. What are the facts? Simply this: if you get a large enough sample you will find examples of any combination you are looking for. It’s just coincidence, nothing mystical. At first glance, the deaths of 48 musicians at age 27 may seem like a large number, but remember, the first member of “The 27 Club”, Robert Johnson, died 73 years ago. When compared to the number of musicians who have died since then, 48 is a small number.
To get a better sense of what is likely or unlikely, let’s look at three more examples. First, imagine walking into a room full of people; what are the chances that at least two people in the room share the same birthday? Of course it depends on how many are in the room, but does it surprise you to learn that all it takes is a group of 23 people to have a better than 50% chance that two members of the group will have the same birthday?
Second, suppose you dream of a friend’s death and later learn that he died on the same day of your dream. How likely is that to happen? If it does happen, is it evidence of ESP, precognition, or some other paranormal ability? Well, British statistician Christopher Scott who considered the population of his country, the death rate, and other factors concluded there would be about one accurate death dream in England every two weeks. From the point of view of an expert on probability, such dreams are insignificant and prove nothing. However, can you see how those who have such dreams would feel otherwise?
Third, a highly unlikely golf story made the British press… Richard and Mark Evans (unrelated) both got a hole in one in successive shots. The likelihood of this occurring? According to William Hartston, International Chess Master and expert on odds, the odds are 1.85 billion to one. Doesn’t that make this feat impossible? Surely synchronicity or some unearthly force must be at work here, right?
Wrong says Hartston, “There are about two million golfers in the country (England) who play an average of two rounds of golf a week each. That’s more than 200 million rounds of golf a year, amounting to a total of 3.6 billion holes. That 1.85 billion to one shot doesn’t look so unlikely any more, does it?”
As a senior citizen, I have many elderly friends. One of the worries I often hear is that they may be getting Alzheimer’s disease. “I often forget things. I’m afraid I may be getting Alzheimer’s.” they say. “You often forgot things when you were young,” I explain, “and if forgetting things while you are young is not a sign of Alzheimer’s, why do you think it is a sign now?”
This, too, is an example of The Clustering Illusion. You see, our brain does not like randomness. It always tries to connect, link, and relate random data in order to find meaning. But like it or not, the world is filled with randomness or chaos, and the sooner we come to terms with it, the better. My elderly friends were connecting isolated, random moments of forgetfulness and imagining that they may be on the verge of getting Alzheimer’s disease. The result? Unnecessary anxiety and fear.
The consequences of not considering The Clustering Illusion can have much more dire results. It can, for example, lead to innocent people going to prison, or worse. Take the case of Sally Clark, for instance. In 1999 this British woman was sentenced to life imprisonment for the ‘murder’ of her two baby sons. At first, the death of her first son was considered to be a crib (cot) death or sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Fortunately, SIDS is a fairly rare occurrence, and two incidents of SIDS in the same family are even rarer. The prosecution’s expert witness, who was a pediatrician and not a statistician, was swayed by The Clustering Illusion (“If there’s one crib death in a family, it’s suspicious; if there are two, it must be murder.”) The ‘expert’ witness incorrectly calculated the odds of two consecutive crib deaths occurring in the same family as 73 million to one. This ‘evidence’, which was wildly off the mark, was enough to convince the jury of Sally’s guilt. Happily, Sally was freed and exonerated after serving three years in prison. However, her suffering took its toll and she died during her sleep at age 42.
Today, we are subject to The Clustering Illusion more than ever before. Because of the Internet, Facebook, and Twitter, for example, we are exposed to such a large volume of information that we can easily find coincidences to support our favorite theories. The vast amount of web sites devoted to conspiracy theories, UFOs, psychics, synchronicity, and other paranormal phenomena attest to the widespread influence of The Clustering Illusion. By the way, finding meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data is called apophenia.
The Actor-Observer Bias
Now that we considered one form of faulty thinking (The Clustering Illusion), we are ready to move on to another: The Actor-Observer Bias.
We often wonder why people do the things they do. In our attempt to understand, we frequently arrive at false conclusions. Our failures to understand others can lead to lost opportunities or needless trouble. Some of our misunderstandings become habitual, forming a part of the way we view life. Although we don’t like to admit it, we all have biases. You see, our brain loves biases because it likes to arrive at conclusions as quickly as possible. Figuring out why people act as they do can be very tedious. After all, there can be countless explanations. So, it’s far easier, and quicker, to stereotype people.
When driving, were you ever cut off by a jerk? When shopping, did you ever have to deal with a rude sales person? At work, were you ever told what to do by an incompetent supervisor? If so, chances are you are suffering from a bias! Words like jerk, rude, and incompetent are labels or shortcuts that allow us to ‘understand’ others without taking the time to investigate the cause of their actions. Did you ever stop to think how strange it is that when you cut off someone on the highway, you always have a good reason for doing so, but when someone cuts you off, he or she is a jerk! This is an example of the Actor-Observer Bias.
In a word, when we do something undesirable, we blame our environment for causing us to act that way, but when someone else does something we don’t approve of, we blame them, their character, their personality, or their nature. For example, Tom angrily snaps at Larry in the office. And when confronted by Larry and asked to explain, Tom answers, “Sorry about that. I’m having a bad day. I’m under a lot of stress today.”
In other words, Tom sees himself as a nice guy who occasionally acts rudely, not because he is rude, but because he is under a great deal of stress. But when someone upsets him, Tom never thinks, “Oh, he must be having a bad day.” Rather, Tom thinks, “What an idiot! What a jerk! He has some nerve! Who does he think he is?” So, we are soft on ourselves when we are the Actor and harsh on others when we are the Observer (watching others).
Why It’s Important to understand The Actor-Observer Bias
1. We cannot solve problems unless we know their cause, and if we’re not careful, The Actor-Observer Bias can obscure the cause. Suppose, for example, the government wants to improve the educational system and asks teachers and students why the students are getting poor grades. The teachers are apt to blame the students (“They don’t study or do their homework. They can’t concentrate. They are restless. They don’t take their curriculum seriously.”). And the students are apt to blame teachers and the educational system (“We have poor teachers. The material is boring. Subjects aren’t explained clearly enough. We have poor text books.”). The Actor-Observer Bias reminds us to avoid falling into the trap of studying just one side of the issue. We need to step back and objectively study all sides of the problem.
2. If we are unaware of the AOB (Actor-Observer Bias) and how we unfairly judge others, we are apt to have fewer friends, less success, and little happiness.
3. When we allow ourselves to fall prey to the AOB, we drift away from human compassion and find it easy to demonize others. What is a man who steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving family? Is he a thief or a loving father and husband?
One of the most powerful countries in the world is one of the weakest. Despite its incredible potential, the U.S. government can’t get anything done because of partisan bickering. The AOB is rampant in the halls of congress.
4. Life itself can be at stake. On September 21, 2011, Troy Davis was executed in Georgia for killing a police officer 20 years earlier. The execution took place despite new evidence that created reasonable doubt and the appeals for clemency from Pope Benedict XVI, former President Jimmy Carter, former FBI Director William Sessions, former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher, Rev. Al Sharpton, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and former U.S. presidential candidate Bob Barr.
Why Are We Susceptible to The Actor-Observer Bias?
1. We are especially susceptible to the AOB, and other biases, when we are in a state of stress because we lack the energy to make exhaustive examinations and want to make quick decisions.
2. When we observe someone else perform an action, we focus on the actor, but when we perform an action, we focus on the situation. This is because we are aware of our thoughts and the situation we are in, but unaware of the thoughts and circumstances of others. Also, when people catch our attention, we focus on them, but the situation merely fades into the background.
This is particularly true with our interactions with strangers. Since we know a great deal more about our friends and family members, we are less likely to succumb to the AOB with them.
3. Since we strive to maintain a positive image of ourselves, we are apt to credit ourselves when we succeed and blame circumstances when we fail.
4. We tend to see ourselves as more complex and multi-faceted than others. So, we believe there are many factors influencing our behavior. But since strangers are ‘less complicated’ than us, their behavior is simple to explain. (They’re stupid!)
5. We are inclined to believe that people get what they deserve and deserve what they get. (This is called the Just-World Phenomenon). So when others fail, it is because they are lazy, stupid, or incompetent. But when we fail, it is because life is unfair!
The Just-World Phenomenon can have horrible repercussions, such as when rape victims are blamed instead of helped and perpetrators are set free instead of brought to justice.
6. The AOB is prevalent in cultures that promote individualism, such as in the United States and Western Europe. But in interdependent cultures, such as those in Asia and Latin America, the importance of the group and getting along with others is stressed. So, when members misbehave, more weight is given to the circumstances that influenced their errant behavior than to the individual’s character or personality.
How Can We Eliminate The Actor-Observer Bias?
1. Become aware of the extenuating circumstances. The cure for the AOB is empathy, but how can we walk in the shoes of another if we do not have their shoes (understanding of their circumstances)?
2. Compassion. It is not always possible to learn the circumstances that others are in, but if we always remember that we all make mistakes and everyone is doing the best they can under the circumstances, it becomes easy to be tolerant and live in fellowship instead of friction.
The Reframing Bias
Now that we have two examples of faulty thinking out of the way, we are ready to move on to a third example: The Reframing Bias.
Why would someone whose main interest is positive thinking write about erroneous thinking? Well, positive thinkers are thinkers, aren’t they? And if their thinking is muddled, unclear, or confused, they may be manipulated or led astray by others. Learning to think straight sets us straight, preparing us for success.
So, after that brief introduction, let’s jump right to a definition of The Reframing Bias. It is the tendency to draw conclusions based on how information is presented. Now for a quick example: meat sales are higher when advertised as “85% lean beef” and lower when advertised as “beef with 15% fat.” Although “85% lean” and “15% fat” have exactly the same meaning, we can influence sales by how we present the information. For in one case we emphasize the absence of fat (lean), and in the other case we call attention to its presence (15% fat). A common term for reframing is spinning, which is one of the favorite pastimes of politicians. For example, an American politician may call his trip to Europe a fact finding mission while his opponents call it a junket.
According to experts, there are two types of Reframing Bias: external and internal. External is when others manipulate us by framing information in a way that leads us to act to their advantage, such as by voting for them. When we ourselves distort, twist, and spin facts, it is an illustration of Internal Reframing. Here’s an example: a psychology student stops a stranger and says, “Excuse me, Sir; I will pay you $10 if you answer three simple questions…” But the man he spoke to pushes him aside and shouts, “Get out of my way! I hate scam artists!”
Why did the stranger believe the innocent student was a scam artist? It’s because we do not see things as they are, but as we are. You see, the stranger is mistrusting; he believed the student had a hidden agenda. But why is the stranger mistrusting? Well, as a child he was taught to beware of strangers and told we live in a dangerous world. So, the stranger sees the world as a hostile place.
When we look at the big picture, we will realize that there really is just one type of Reframing Bias: external. After all, how did the stranger in my example get his beliefs? Wasn’t it from his parents (external)? Also, our mind doesn’t like to get involved in deep thought. Rather, it likes to take shortcuts, arriving at conclusions as quickly as possible. So, it welcomes our biases, which allow it to act quickly, without wasting time on analyzing all the facts.
But let’s move away from theory and get more practical. Let’s learn to recognize The Reframing Bias so we won’t be duped so often. I’ll start off by introducing short examples and move on to longer ones.
“This service costs $1,095 dollars a year.”
“Now you can enjoy this service for just 3 dollars a day.”
(Which plan are you more likely to respond to?)
“Pay $10,959 for this furniture.”
“Save $2,000 today. Sale ends at midnight.”
After a $2,000 discount, the furniture costs $10,959. Which would you rather do: pay $10,959 or save $2,000? The salespeople have skillfully shifted your focus from the cost to the savings. Moreover, the sale ending at midnight creates more pressure to act because we hate losses, and if we don’t act quickly we will lose $2,000. (Doesn’t that mean spend $10,959?)
“Buy this house.” versus “Buy this villa.”
(It’s the same property, but by using a more elegant term, we increase its perceived value.)
If you were a millionaire, would you consider yourself successful? That depends on how you look at it (how you frame it). Author Richard Denny gives a good example:
“Nicholas Darvas, had been a partner in a dancing pair who had been incredibly successful throughout the world. He had amassed a personal fortune in excess of £1 million. He then invested astutely on the American stock exchange and made a further million pounds. He then wrote a book, How to Make a Million on the Stock Exchange, and added a few more millions to his ever-increasing wealth.
“When I met him, he was single, living between the Dorchester Hotel in London, the George V in Paris and the Waldorf Hotel in New York. Through a series of discussions we had together, I found him to be a very bitter, sad and tragically lonely man. I pointed out to him his enormous financial wealth and what in those days I called success. He pointed out to me that in comparison to Bill Gates, the Barclay brothers, the Sultan of Brunei and the Duke of Westminster, he was not a success. He was worth but a pittance compared to the billions of dollars that they were worth. This may appear to be a rather negative example, but I use it as it has been of tremendous help and guidance to me in understanding how different people perceive success.”
Can you see how we frame things makes all the difference in the world? After all, those who focus on what they lack are unhappy while those who focus on what they have are happy.
I frequently use quotations in my articles. Why is that? Well, they help to frame the points I wish to make by adding authority, persuasion, and strength to my argument. Moreover, some elegantly written quotations add impact and make the point more memorable. As you can see, we can apply reframing to everything we do.
Some interesting results were obtained by researchers who had an audience watch a video of an auto accident and asked them to guess how fast the cars were going. They all saw the same thing; yet, their answers were based not on what they saw, but how the question was framed. Here are the questions and average answers:
“About how fast were the cars going when they contacted each other?” 31 mph
“About how fast were the cars going when they hit each other?” 34 mph
“About how fast were the cars going when they bumped each other?” 38 mph
“About how fast were the cars going when they collided with each other?” 39 mph
“About how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?” 41 mph
What’s more, a week later they were asked if they saw any broken glass at the accident scene. (There wasn’t any.) But 32% of the participants who were asked how fast the cars were going when they smashed into each other said they saw broken glass. So, how we frame questions can even affect how people remember the incident.
Can you see how important it is to understand the Reframing Bias? Before continuing, let me ask you some questions. Is your job difficult or easy? Is it pleasant or laborious? Are your coworkers fun to be around or a real pain? Is your life wonderful or tedious? Be very careful how you frame your life, job, and relationships, for every statement you make to yourself or others is the same as self-programming. In other words, how you frame your statements is how you frame your subconscious. Which do you imagine would be more helpful, to put a positive ‘spin’ on your statements and beliefs or a negative one?
An understanding of reframing can also make you an effective persuader and help you develop strong relationships. Here’s an excellent example contributed by a reader, Stu, to ParentHacks:
“When I have a problem that concerns one of my kids (meaning: When I want them to do something that they refuse to do), I see that I have a choice. I could visualize my child standing on the other side of a line, next to The Problem, with me yelling across the line, ‘Hey, you better solve The Problem.’
Instead, I get myself to stand next to my child, with The Problem alone on the other side of the line, with me putting an arm around my child, saying ‘Hey, you and me, we’re gonna defeat The Problem together.’ I find that this attitude seems to make my kids feel better about themselves. It minimizes and eliminates shame.”
Relative and Absolute Risks
I’ll start with an explanation of relative and absolute risks and follow that with an example of why it is important how we frame them.
Let’s say that a pharmaceutical company is trying to develop a drug to reduce the likelihood of getting diabetes. They give a newly developed pill to 100 subjects and a placebo (dummy pill) to another 100 (the control group). Four years later they find four of the volunteers who took the placebo got diabetes and only two of the subjects who took the drug got it. Based on these facts, which is correct to say?
“Latest Wonder Drug Cuts Diabetes Risk by 50%!”
“Latest Wonder Drug Causes 2% Decline in Diabetes Risk!”
You guessed it; they are both correct. The first statement describes the relative risk reduction. The two subjects who took the drug and got diabetes equal half the number (50%) of the four volunteers who took the placebo and got diabetes.
The second statement describes the absolute risk reduction. That is, 2% of the subjects (2 out of 100) who took the drug got diabetes and 4% of the volunteers (4 out of 100) who took the placebo got diabetes, which is an absolute difference of 2% (4% minus 2%).
Why is this important? Because when you are faced with an important medical decision, doctors may give you a relative risk assessment, which can be misleading and influence you to make a decision that you later regret.
For instance, according to the research of three oncologists in Australia and the US, chemotherapy contributes just over two percent to improved survival in cancer patients. Yet, oncologists often describe the benefits of chemotherapy in terms of relative risk, creating the illusion of a much higher benefit of treatment. If you knew chemotherapy would merely increase your survival chances by two percent, would you want to undergo the pain and huge expense (if you are uninsured)?
By the way, the pharmaceutical industry sometimes describes the benefits of the drug they are advertising in terms of relative risk and describes the side effects in absolute terms. In a word, their ads can be doubly misleading.
●The Fallacy Detective: Thirty-Eight Lessons on How to Recognize Bad Reasoning By Nathaniel Bluedorn and Hans Bluedorn
●The Thinking Toolbox: Thirty-Five Lessons That Will Build Your Reasoning Skills By Nathaniel Bluedorn and Hans Bluedorn
●76 Fallacies by Dr. Michael Cooper LaBossiere
●Critical Thinking: The Effective Beginner’s Guide to Master Logical Fallacies Using a Scientific Approach and Improve Your Rational Thinking Skills With Problem-Solving Tools to Make Better Decisions by Travis Holiday and Kevin Hollins
Chuck Gallozzi lived, studied, and worked in Japan for 15 years, immersing himself in the wisdom of the Far East and graduating with B.A. and M.A. degrees in Asian Studies. He is a Certified NLP Practitioner, speaker, seminar leader, and coach. Corporations, church groups, teachers, counselors, and caregivers use his more than 400 articles as a resource to help others. Among his diverse accomplishments, he is also the Grand Prix Winner of a Ricoh International Photo Competition, the Canadian National Champion of a Toastmasters International Humorous Speech Contest, and the Founder and Head of the Positive Thinkers Group that has been meeting at St. Michael’s Hospital, Toronto since 1999. His articles are published in books, newsletters, magazines, and newspapers. He was interviewed on CBC’s “Steven and Chris Show,” appearing nationally on Canadian TV. Chuck can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. View his photography at https://500px.com/chuckgallozzi. This article cannot be re-published without permission.