Thinking yourself into a corner

9 09 2012

Yesterday, the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard’s father died. Although he had battled ill health, it was an unexpected death. The majority of her political opponents, the media, and social media pundits offered her their condolences, and newspaper articles eulogised on his role in bringing up and educating Australia’s first female Prime Minister. Whether you agree with his daughter’s politics or not, he did a good job bringing up his daughter to contribute to public life and achieve on her own terms.

But some social media pundits couldn’t help themselves. They made snarky comments about her, her father and various other personal issues. Speculation ranged from how he felt about her politics to whether the tax payer would pay for his funeral. It was almost like they thought she had arranged this personal tragedy for her own political gain.

Now I can’t help wondering – are these people like this in real life? Or, in real life, are they normal compassionate people who, despite differences of opinion, recognise that a personal tragedy is common to us all, a precondition of being human. People you and I would be happy to know.

There has been a lot of conversation in Australian media and social media about trolls – people who (usually anonymously) frequent social media sites for the purpose of vicious personal attacks. An anti-bullying ambassador, Charlotte Dawson, was hospitalised after vicious attacks on twitter (#diecharlotte) became too much for her.

Who are these people? Why do think they have a right to attack others?

At the same time, US news reported on a 16 year old who called for the assassination of her president, Barack Obama, via twitter. Where does this hatred come from? Why do people think this semi-anonymous (although in the case of the above 16 year old, her twitter handle was in her own name) forum is OK for vitriolic hatred, calls for violence and personal attacks, the sort of behaviour that most of us would not engage in, in real life?

There is a psychological concept called cognitive dissonance. Most of us like not to feel hypocritical. We like to feel we are logical, our thoughts, taken individually or en masse, make sense. We don’t want to seem to contradict ourselves.

So maybe these people have thought themselves into a corner, whereby their unrelenting hatred and attacks in a political context cannot be stopped, even for personal tragedy or common decency. They have objectified the focus of their obsession and no longer see them as sharing the common human experience that unites us. They cannot back down or rethink their position, no matter what.

This is not logic. This is irrational. This is hatred.

There is a level of intellectual sophistication involved in being able to deal with, to hold, two cognitively dissonant thoughts at the same time. Say, hatred for someone’s politics and compassion for them as a person not feeling compatible in one psyche. This sort of sophistication and maturity might not be expected from a 16year old (although her parents should cut off her social media accounts until she understands the concepts of treason and inciting violence as criminal offences) but it would seem the majority of trolls are not under-age.

But just like the metaphorical “paint yourself into a corner”, some people think themselves into small confined positions, from whence they are unable to be flexible and respond to changing conditions. But wouldn’t you rather react and change according to changing conditions (evolution having shown us the options are adaptor die) than make ourself into a public fool and be publicly castigated for your rigidly inflexible position? Let alone possibly do actual harm to another, as occurred with Charlotte Dawson.

No batteries required!

7 12 2011

photo credit Saaleha

My children are approaching teenagerhood and increasingly over the last few years, their Christmas and birthday wish lists have been populated by the latest electronic gadgets. On the other hand, there really isn’t anything they want for. They are well fed, well clothed and have the basic sporting and other equipment, so anything they are going to want is very much in the discretionary realm. It actually becomes difficult to find something for them that isn’t either wasting money, or supplementing their already advanced screens-addiction. Unfortunately they are well past the age when they are more interested in playing with the box it came in than the present itself.

However I remember when they were young I read a list of basic developmental toys for children. Playtime is learning time for small children, and the toys and equipment they need for this basic development is generally not very expensive and easily accessed. And no batteries required!

1. Building blocks. Children love to build things, see how things fit together, or just generally learn about gravity. One of the best games for very small children is for the parent or caregiver to build a tower and then the child knocks it over, scattering blocks everywhere. Hysterical fun that can be played over and over again! Great for fine (building) and gross (knocking over) motor skills as well as logic.

2. Dress-up clothes. These do not have to be costumes. Hand-me downs and unwanted clean clothing from parents are fine, but particularly hats, sunglasses, shoes and anything a bit showy. If you really don’t have anything, second-hand stores often have a range of clothing and accessories at reasonable prices. Children like to learn about other people by play-acting them – and some of the stereotypes can be hilarious, particularly if it is you they are acting out!

3. Books. There is evidence that shows that the number of books in a household influences the literacy level of the child. Now that is probably at least in part because a house with a lot of books means parents are literate and value reading, and probably read in front of the child.

4. Musical instrument. Yes, I know, shudder. As if they aren’t loud enough already. Who hasn’t been tormented by the toddler with a toy drum banging and banging for hours on end? But a variety of toy musical instruments can teach a child cause and effect, rhythm, and can help them learn to tune in to different sounds and pitches, and a range of other things. That’s why they like them! This can be simple as a rattle or shaker, a toy recorder, a toy drum or toy piano.

5. Bath toys. Learning confidence in water and learning to work with water (pouring, filling up cups, squirting) can aid with fine motor skills, sensory perceptions and an understanding of the properties of liquids. They are also enormous fun and a great way to distract them while you get them clean.

photo credit Steven Depolo

6. Puzzles. This can range from nesting cups, to fitting shapes blocks into corresponding holes,to jigsaw puzzles (appropriate for age). This teaches fine motor skills, spatial awareness and logic. Many of these things are available from second-hand toy shops.

7. Dolls & stuffed animals. Important for play-acting. Children often work out social relationships and interactions by play-acting them. Access to dolls and stuffed toys to “people” the action is important. Be careful of second-hand stuffed toys, they can be a haven for disease (pre-sucked and pre-chewed!)

8. Cars and balls. Teach children about motion and prediction. (The famous experiment of rolling a toy car behind a piece of cardboard and watching as the baby moves its eyes to the other side of the cardboard waiting for the car to re-emerge). Also great for gross and fine motor skills.

9. Ride-ons. Ranging from little plastic ride-ons to bikes, dependent on age and skill level. Good for gross motor skills, strength, fitness, balance and coordination. Also great fun, but make sure they are wearing helmets as soon as they graduate to a bike.

10. Arts and crafts. Can be as simple as paints or coloured pencils, and paper. The stationary department of your local store is always a great place to find things to keep children occupied and entertained, while they practice their fine motor skills, planning and creating, and maybe come up with a masterpiece for you!

Bonus! Well I wanted a list of ten, but I have suddenly remembered another favourite from childhood – bubbles! Who can forget the excited shrieks of the child who sees bubbles for the first time? A simple bubble loop and washing up liquid can create enormous fun, so long as you (or the child) have the puff to keep them going! try to do it outdoors though – that bubble mix goes somewhere when the bubbles pop, and when you have a sticky dirty mess on the floor you will know where that somewhere is!

(I’ll add my usual disclaimer – I am not a child development expert, the information presented here should be considered as pointers only, and I encourage you to do your own research if you want to know more about child development.)

Unconscious bias

1 10 2011

We all like to think that we are unbiased. We are logical thinkers, clearly evaluating all of the information and forming sound judgements based purely on the facts.

Unlike others, who form opinions based on little information, informed by prior opinions, unshaken by subsequent logical argument or overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Despite the deep unfairness of it all, logic and psychology do recognise a number of different types of cognitive bias. While we cannot change others, perhaps we can be a little more aware of how these biases might (just might) affect our own judgement.

Confirmation bias: the tendency to believe (remember, give additional importance to) information that confirms our own opinions. The flip side of this is choice-supportive bias, where you remember the choices you made as being compelling and the choices you rejected are trivialised or discounted.

Primacy Bias : Tendency to bleieve (and remember) the first thing you hear. This might be because of its novelty, or because of the amount of effort that is required for processing the first event or information.

Recency bias : Tendency to believe (and remember) the last thing you hear. May be particularly strong in those with poor memory. Primacy and recency are worth considering when you are thinking of job interviews, or marking papers. The first time you hear or read something it might seem clever. By the time a number of people have said it, it becomes discounted.

Egocentric bias : Of course none of US have this one….the tendency to remember memories in ways that are self-serving…

And similarly, Hindsight Bias : the tendency to remember past events as predictable…I knew it was going to happen that way all along.

Correlation effect : the tendency to believe that two events that coincide have a causal link. Sometimes it is just a coincidence, and the probability of coincidences is that they will occur more than once. (Also called illusory correlation)

Framing effect : where the bias is caused by either a too-narrow, incorrect scoping of relevant “surrounding” information, or making different decisions based on the same infromation in the context of other differing information.

Belief bias : where the assessment of the strength of the argument is framed by whether the end result is acceptable.

Fundamental Attribution bias : the tendency to attribute blame or credit to personality-based reasons rather than situational-based reasons.

There are probably hundreds of other biases that we are subject to – and yes, depsite my sarcastic and somewhat flippant introduction, we are all prone to making these errors in our judgement.

A wise person realises that there is more than one side to the story and tries to understand the others’ viewpoint as well as their own. Only then can we (maybe) illuminate the biases in our own, and in others’ thinking.

Seeing and believing

7 08 2011

We’ve all heard the old saying “seeing is believing”, referring to wanting to see the evidence in order to believe in something. Its corollary “you have to believe it to see it” is popular in positive thinking circles and the basis of visualisation as a technique, the idea being if you can trick your brain into believing in a possibility, the brain will make it come true.

But there is a third version of this. Sometimes, you only see the things you believe in. This is confirmation bias.

A simple example of these three: The first would be a parent saying that they don’t believe their child has good marks until the report card comes home. The second would be the child needing to believe it is possible to get good marks in order to actually achieve it. The third would be the teacher marking students according to what they expect they will get – Mary always gets high marks so her essay is read more thoroughly and favourably.

Wikipedia lists a number of biases, many of which have a similar basis to confirmation bias – we only believe, hear, see, test, understand, remember, the information that confirms our own opinion or hypotheses, rather than starting with a level playing field and examining the evidence impartially and wholly.

In general, we have a high regard for our own opinions and tend to believe that our opinion has been formed using all the available evidence and logical thought. If only we were such rational beings! My mother, being a Libra, says that her opinions are balanced, she has considered all sides of the argument. If you disagree with her then you are not thinking about the problem correctly. We agree to differ on this point.

The danger is of course that these biases are generally invisible to us as we make decisions that affect ourselves, our work and others. To quote Francis Bacon (Novum Organum, 1620):

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects; in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.. . . And such is the way of all superstitions, whether in astrology, dreams, omens, divine judgments, or the like; wherein men, having a delight in such vanities, mark the events where they are fulfilled, but where they fail, although this happened much oftener, neglect and pass them by.

So, amusingly, we use this to confirm our beliefs in astrology (my mother is a Libra, therefore she behaves in this way….ignoring examples where she behaves otherwise.) More dangerously, we also confirm our own beliefs when the stakes are higher. Do we want scientists testing medicines that they already believe will work? Of course not, we want them to look at all the evidence and identify the positives and negatives. Do we want our teachers, bosses,co-workers seeking to confirm their established opinions? No, we want to be judged on unbased evidence – and all of the evidence.