I’ll quote Michael Serres’ reply to a journalist who was asking him – I can’t remember why – about the decision to build the Aswan Dam. The committee was made up of hydraulic engineers, specialists on different materials, developers and maybe even some ecologists, but no philosophers, and no Egyptologists. Michel Serres was shocked. And the journalist was shocked that he was shocked, and asked, ‘What would be the point of having a philosopher on a committee like that?’ Serres replied, ‘He would have noticed there wasn’t an Egyptologist.’

July 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

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Sensing phantom phone vibrations is a strangely common experience. Around 80% of us have imagined a phone vibrating in our pockets when it’s actually completely still. Almost 30% of us have also heard non-existent ringing. Are these hallucinations ominous signs of impending madness caused by digital culture?

Not at all. In fact, phantom vibrations and ringing illustrate a fundamental principle in psychology.

You are an example of a perceptual system, just like a fire alarm, an automatic door, or a daffodil bulb that must decide when spring has truly started. Your brain has to make a perceptual judgment about whether the phone in your pocket is really vibrating. And, analogous to a daffodil bulb on a warm February morning, it has to decide whether the incoming signals from the skin near your pocket indicate a true change in the world.

Psychologists use a concept called Signal Detection Theory to guide their thinking about the problem of perceptual judgments. Working though the example of phone vibrations, we can see how this theory explains why they are a common and unavoidable part of healthy mental function.

When your phone is in your pocket, the world is in one of two possible states: the phone is either ringing or not. You also have two possible states of mind: the judgment that the phone is ringing, or the judgment that it isn’t. Obviously you’d like to match these states in the correct way.  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Hajdu Tamas

And now a bubble burst, and now a world

June 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

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Research investigating overprecision typically involves asking people to come up with a 90% confidence interval around a numerical estimate — such as the length of the Nile River — but this doesn’t always faithfully reflect the judgments we have to make in everyday life. We know, for example, that arriving 15 minutes late for a business meeting is not the same as arriving 15 minutes early, and that we ought to err on the side of arriving early.

Mannes and Moore designed three studies to account for the asymmetric nature of many everyday judgments. Participants estimated the local high temperature on randomly selected days and their accuracy was rewarded in the form of lottery tickets toward a prize. For some trials, they earned tickets if their estimates were correct or close to the actual temperature (above or below); in other trials, they earned tickets for correct guesses or overestimates; and in some trials they earned tickets for correct guesses or underestimates.

The results showed that participants adjusted their estimates in the direction of the anticipated payoff after receiving feedback about their accuracy, just as Mannes and Moore expected.

But they didn’t adjust their estimates as much as they should have given their actual knowledge of local temperatures, suggesting that they were overly confident in their own powers of estimation.

Only when the researchers provided exaggerated feedback — in which errors were inflated by 2.5 times — were the researchers able to counteract participants’ tendency towards overprecision.  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Ephlin Cheng

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