Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Confirmation Bias and Permanence of Beliefs

Vaughan Bell at Mind Hacks is quite cynical on the potential strategical value for the american administration to start with a media-friendly story on the assault of Osama Bin Laden's compound and then tweak the story a little bit, because they are aware that the first story is the one that remains in people's mind
Research shows that even when news reports have been retracted, and we are aware of the retraction, our beliefs are largely based on the initial erroneous version of the story. This is particularly true when we are motivated to approve of the initial account.
I don't have any strong opinion on whether the Obama administration used this strategy willingly for the current story, but I think those psychological findings have interesting implications.

I mentioned here some research showing the permanence of political beliefs and talked about the media's role in a vicious circle: an exogenous event(9/11) changes partisanship, the politicians need to be more partisan, this leads imperfectly informed voters(i.e. everybody) to be more partisan, etc... Now, a second story is simply that we suffer from confirmation bias where it is less costly for us to hear stuff with which we agree. This seems to be what is important in Bell's theory. I think there is a thin line here, the effect is not all that positive. The administration's retractions, say on the identity of the woman killed in the assault on the Abbottabad compound, also create suspicions in a country where a birth certificate creates conspiracy theories(people in this celebrated awesome photo recounted the events differently, even if they probably were watching the same TV). So here is the question: when is it better to use the strategy Vaughan mentions and when is it risky?

Also, this story reminded me of this paper by Dal Bo, Foster and Putterman(2009) where the authors looked at the impact of "democracy" on the compliance with decisions. In their experiment, a binary decision has to be made. In a first stage, participants vote, Yes or No. Then a computer decides whether the votes are actually taken into account. If they are taken into account, the Yes or No wins according to the number of votes, and the computer breaks the ties. If the computer decides that the votes don't matter, it decides whether the Yes or No wins. After the decision is implemented, the voters are told whether their votes have been taken into account, and they then play a prisoners' dilemma game which payoffs depend on the outcome of the voting stage. Interestingly, the individual level of cooperation is significantly higher when  voters know that their votes has been taken into account. The simple conclusion is that you are more likely to comply with a decision when you've taken a part in making the decision. The conclusion for the story at the beginning is that the permanence of your actions might also come from the fact that you made a decision previously and it will take some convincing to go away from it. The difference with the permanence of political beliefs, or the story of Vaughan Bell, is that in the initial stage, you're the active person(you make the decision), while you can consider the administration's media strategy or 9/11 as exogenous event from the point of view of the individual.

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