May PsychNotes

Image: Johns Hopkins University.Here’s a little challenge for ya. Take a look at this chart of cognitive biases and see if you can identify two that you’re especially guilty of, and two that you’re reasonably good at avoiding. I suffer inordinately from reactive devaluation and gambler’s fallacy, and I’ve gotten reasonably skilled at avoiding confirmation bias and hyperbolic discounting, when I try. How about you?

1) Duck Eats Rabbit
You’ve probably seen this image before. Is it a duck, or is it a rabbit? Maybe your brain flips back and forth between the two. Researchers at the University of Alberta placed two of the images side-by-side. Subjects had difficulty interpreting the scene until they were given a short verbal cue like “duck eats rabbit.” A few words were enough to help the visual mind sort things out. One researcher explained, “Your brain… zooms out and can see the big picture when the images are put into context with one another.”

2) Confabulation Nation
This is a fascinating take on false memories, which we humans produce in abundance. Felipe De Brigard believes they aren’t necessarily what we want to have happened, but what was likely to have happened. He explained, “I was struck by this model in which memory reconstructs a scene. You have pieces and gaps, and those gaps are filled with something like the most likely way in which they could be filled.”

3) Smiling Makes You Look Cool
Remember Fonzie from Happy Days? He was the king of cool. Whenever I picture him, I think of him smiling rather than with his usual expressionless, “cool” demeanor. This surprisingly comprehensible abstract might explain why: “…in noncompetitive contexts—[such as] an endorser in a clothing advertisement and an athlete interacting with fans—being inexpressive makes people seem cold rather than cool.… In competitive contexts—such as an athlete facing his opponent—being inexpressive makes people seem cool by making them appear dominant.” The takeaway: be approachable if you want to be cool.

4) Know-It-Alls Know Less than They Think, to the Surprise of No One Except Know-It-Alls
This study from the University of Michigan examined two questions: 1) Do know-it-alls actually possess superior knowledge? 2) Are know-it-alls willing to accommodate information that challenges their own beliefs? The unsurprising answers are: no, and no. One of the researchers suggested this is more about emotion than cognition. It feels good to be right.

5) Gee, Isn’t This Interesting?
You’ve probably seen dozens of lowercase Gs today, but could you write one correctly? (The kind with the loop on the bottom rather than the hook.) I cannot. I couldn’t even pick the correct G out of the lineup at the top of this page. According to this study, only 7 out of 25 research subjects could do so. How about you? (Image: Johns Hopkins University.)

I hope you have a happy month of May and a wonderful springtime. Watch out for ducks, and rabbits, and cognitive biases. They’re everywhere.