The power of false remembering

April 30, 2009

Deep mysteries of human nature will be exposed by self-tracking, aspects of our behavior so disconcerting and bizarre that they will lead us to question whether we understand ourselves at all. I know this is true because such disconcerting results are already being produced at a rapid pace by experimental psychologists, and self-tracking brings the methods of experimental psychology into our daily lives; if, that is, we think we can stand to learn the lessons they teach.

Watch this video published from a story in New Scientist by Lars Hall and Petter Johansson.

Here is the explanation from Hall and Johansson:

[I]n an early study we showed our volunteers pairs of
pictures of faces and asked them to choose the most attractive. In some
trials, immediately after they made their choice, we asked people to
explain the reasons behind their choices.

Unknown
to them, we sometimes used a double-card magic trick to covertly
exchange one face for the other so they ended up with the face they did
not choose. Common sense dictates that all of us would notice such a
big change in the outcome of a choice. But the result showed that in 75
per cent of the trials our participants were blind to the mismatch,
even offering “reasons” for their “choice”.

This is troubling enough, but there’s more. When people are fooled into thinking they made a different choice than the one they actually made, and then articulate their “reasons” for this supposed choice, they then may actually change their future preferences to conform to their confabulated preference.

Importantly, the effects of choice blindness go beyond snap judgments.
Depending on what our volunteers say in response to the mismatched
outcomes of choices (whether they give short or long explanations, give
numerical rating or labeling, and so on) we found this interaction
could change their future preferences to the extent that they come to
prefer the previously rejected alternative. This gives us a rare
glimpse into the complicated dynamics of self-feedback (“I chose this,
I publicly said so, therefore I must like it”), which we suspect lies
behind the formation of many everyday preferences.

Lars Hall and Petter Johansson lead the Choice Blindness Laboratory at Lund University, Sweden. At the end of their New Scientist piece, they suggest that learning about this experiment should make people better at understanding their own choices.

In everyday decision-making we do see ourselves as connoisseurs of our
selves, but like the wine buff or art critic, we often overstate what
we know. The good news is that this form of decision snobbery should
not be too difficult to treat. Indeed, after reading this article you
might already be cured.

Unfortunately, this is not convincing. It is common for biases persist even when we are warned about them. I suspect we are in no position to stand guard over our judgments without the help of machines to keep us steady. Assuming, that is, that deliberative consistency is a value we care to protect.

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