Heuristics & Biases [Part 2]:
How The Media Takes Advantage of
Your Mind’s Self-Sabotage
So it goes.
As we learned in Part 1: a heuristic is a mental shortcut and a cognitive bias is an unreasoned prejudice for or against something. We’ve also learned that our brains look for paths of least resistance by utilizing tools of its own creation – like hitching a mental ride instead of walking, and sometimes these rides aren’t as reliable as we’d like to believe. Much like actual cars, they break down, run out of gas, and even crash and burn. We are exploring how the media utilizes these biases and heuristics against our better judgement – or lack thereof.
Previously, we talked about the availability heuristic, anchoring bias, affect heuristic, and negativity bias. Today, we will explore a new handful, but this time, we will focus on self-sabotage and how to deal with the biases that affect it. These aren’t clean-cut, black-and-white definitions that apply to each media trick, but by exploring our mind’s labyrinthian nature, we can begin to understand ourselves in the face of adversity.
Starting with some self-reflection (and self-flagellation) - this bias is a pesky one. Previously, we talked about anti-vaping groups using dirty media tricks to push agendas, but this one is, in fact, a mistake committed by the hobbyist.
This bias isn’t truly an attack on us, but it’s important to be aware of it within ourselves – for our sanity’s sake.
Do you know the feeling of being all-in on something and discovering that it’s no longer rational to do so? Barry M. Staw titled his paper, “Knee-Deep in the Big Muddy: A Study of Escalating Commitment to a Chosen Course of Action” - published by the Academic Press in 1976. Staw studied the proclivity of people staying the course in something that is causing them harm.
In the abstract of his study, he states the following, “it is commonly expected that individuals will reverse decisions or change behaviors which result in negative consequences. Yet, within investment decision contexts, negative consequences may actually cause decision makers to increase the commitment of resources and undergo the risk of further negative consequences.”
What this means is, instead of the individual switching from a harmful course of action into a harmless one, he or she will justify the damage as a means to an end. They will expect the harm to eventually lead to a positive outcome. It’s a form of self-justification.
This is also called: sunk cost fallacy.
A man or woman can be guilty of this fallacy by continuing a behavior based on previously committed resources; such as time, money, and effort.
If you’ve ever kept a pair of pants (or any piece of clothing) you didn’t enjoy wearing simply because they cost you a lot of money, you’re familiar with this fallacy.
An example from BehavioralEconomics.com states, “individuals sometimes order too much food and then over-eat just to “get their money’s worth”. Similarly, a person may have a $20 ticket to a concert and then drive for hours through a blizzard, just because she feels that she has to attend due to having made the initial investment.”
This fallacy is related to loss aversion, and we don’t want to quickly let go of something we’ve invested so much time and effort in. In the hobbyist vaper example, we spend so much time learning about our hobby and we have gone all-in. We don’t want to hear someone say vaping is as bad as cigarettes. We get mad because we’ve spent the time and we’ve done the research.
Commitment is great, but flexibility is also important. One works like a sharp sword and the other as a shield against the media’s trickery.
This is weaponized in Marketing as well. The Decision Lab proclaims, “Companies often use the commitment bias to their advantage by trying to get customers to make small commitments early on such as signing up for a trail membership. Once a commitment has been made, it is less likely people will alter their behavior.”
This isn’t the most common problem in this landscape, and the worst that could happen is we talk out of turn and convey the wrong image. For example, there have been recent reports of clandestine THC liquids causing severe lung damage on young vapers and as you’ve probably expected: the media is linking it all directly to vaping.
Nobody is questioning where the THC oil is coming from, or at least the investigation is still underway, but the propaganda against vaping already has legs and is sprinting fast. While that’s a separate problem from a commitment bias, we’ve all heard vaping hobbyist share their thoughts.
It can get ugly, sometimes.
This commitment bias is one that makes us sink our heels deeper when they’re trying to push us out of something we’re heavily invested in. It’s okay to step outside for a second, to let go of the attachment and know that you are not your vaping device (remember Fight Club?).
We can’t let them startle us with only assumptions and anecdotal evidence. Luckily, this is about as harmful as that, but this lonely almost-harmless bias is part of the big machine they oil up and throw into the racetrack of debate designed to highlight only what’s convenient for them.
Here’s something to chew on: What is the media biased towards? What have they invested so heavily in that they’re the ones committing a sunk cost fallacy? Think about it.
In the example of the romantic relationship, the longer you’ve been with the other person, the harder it is to break up and let go. The longer the media holds on to memetic concepts, such as popcorn lung, the more they’ll spew it without compunction.
If they’ve already invested so much money and time on that drivel, why should they believe otherwise? To them, vaping is bad, period.
If we could only cut the cord with scissors.
This bias is used to preserve and protect our self-esteem. If there is a negative event, we claim it was because of situational factors, someone else’s fault, or anything outside of our control. Conversely, for positive events, we quickly attribute it to our own choices.
Healthline contributor Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CRNP, defines it as “A self-serving bias is the common habit of a person taking credit for positive events or outcomes, but blaming outside factors for negative events.”
Dr. Legg further explains by using examples of this bias, one including a student who gets good grades and gives herself credit that she worked hard and is innately good at the material. But on the other hand, when she gets a bad grade, she attributes her failure to outside forces, such as the teacher not liking her, or that the test was unfairly difficult.
But it’s not always that black and white, several layers separate these distinctions sometimes. Something I see within myself and others in this industry, is the attribution of all benefits of smoking cessation to vaping and any negative discussion is met with blaming outside forces (like the FDA or the media, for example).
Another example would be:
- An avid cigarette smoker successfully quits over time by utilizing an e-cigarette as a Nicotine Replacement Therapy. This leads the former smoker to attribute his or her choice of NRT to quitting. On the other hand, if the smoker fails at quitting via the e-cigarette method of cessation – he or she can attribute vaping as faulty and ineffective.
In this war of agendas, we see this in both camps. We have those who simply enjoy smoking knowing the negative effects of nicotine and accept it. Then, there are those who use it as a healthier alternative to cigarettes – and everything else in between.
We are motivated to keep up our self-worth and appear a certain way to others. It’s a very human notion to defend against opposing antagonistic forces. With all the written stories, especially the ones regurgitating in the form of social media shares, offer difficult subplots to navigate. When you’re the one looking at the end of the gun, it’s normal to feel like you’re walking on eggshells, with the media awaiting the moment the shell cracks at the slightest misstep.
Psychology Today recommends combating this bias by reducing defensiveness. Going too deeply into the chasm of self-serving, you could end up ruminating and spiraling into a depression. Now, that’s a steep jump from talking about vaping to depression, but it’s worth noting the tricks our mind plays on ourselves when we give too much of a shit about something. Vaping just happens to be the focal point here.
In the end, we use it to give ourselves confidence when we succeed, but we deliberately deny the problem’s responsibility when we fail. For depressed people it’s the opposite, positive events are because of luck or outside help, but failure is deeply personal.
In a nutshell, the self-serving bias is a defense mechanism. It is built-in to defend our self-esteem, and it will become the greatest fiction writer as long as your “self” is protected. It will hunt and peck novels worth of self-sabotage materials for you to binge on.
Verywellmind.com uses the following example of self-serving bias that quickly illustrates a similar argument when debating someone against vaping: “Following a car accident, both parties involved blame the other driver for causing the crash.”
The framing effect is when something is deliberately highlighted in a way that showcases a desired perception. For example, a common marketing practice is to show only the positive aspects of a product. In the news circuit, it’s common practice to only display elements of the story that allows their agenda to shine. The news also highlights and dramatizes the negatives of their competition and enemies, so they look even worse.
You’ll encounter situations in which you have the exact same decision presented in two different ways. Let’s use the example of a salesman trying to sell you a product. You hear two different pitches for the same product. One is attractive, persuasive, makes you want to buy; the other makes you abhor it, decline the offer, etc.
The framing of the offer makes all the difference, but let’s not get into salesmanship, as it is not my expertise. Margaret Rouse, contributor for WhatIs.com, describes how marketers utilize three types of framing when persuading prospects.
- Attribute Framing: When the spotlight [frame] is placed on one key characteristic or feature. When the frame lands on a positive key feature, the customer is more likely to buy.
- Risky Choice Framing: When it’s a gamble of sorts. For example, in video games, they offer “loot boxes” with an almost casino-esque aesthetic in which they highlight what you could possibly win and not the likelihood of losing.
- Goal Framing: Motivating the consumer to act by highlighting what is going to happen if they DON’T take action.
We know this from Tversky and Kahneman’s “prospect theory.”
Rouse further explains, “an advertiser can use the framing effect to change the way that a consumer views a product simply by manipulating a few words in an advertisement.” This is key when observing news outlets behavior. It’s also prevalent in political communication.
We do this in everyday conversation, to an extent, but pushing an agenda with malicious intent and deliberate misrepresentation of information is universally considered a dick move. Nobody likes it. When you know you’re at the receiving end of propaganda and PR-driven drivel, you tend to cringe and look the other way.
Think of the severe lung illness cases sprouting all over the country. How many headlines convey the true root cause of the problem? The phrase “linked to vaping” gets tossed around easily when the news hit the virtual stands. As we discussed earlier, the data isn’t available yet, but the conclusions are dictated in headline form. This is a pernicious practice because most people read only the headline of an article. It is known.
The nefarious thing about framing is that when facing a decision, the outcome will be the same regardless of how it is framed. In other words, it’s a trick of persuasion. Outcomes are neither tacit nor implied, they’re alluded by language with the efforts to steer this choice into that which benefits the culprit.
Popular YouTube channel The Great Courses Plus, talks about seeing framing in literal terms. When people go to the museum and look at an expensive painting, they might say they don’t care about the frame – but unconsciously, they do. Different frames highlight different aspects of a painting; therefore, the host recommends choosing a frame that delivers the experience you desire for the museum dwellers. He continues, “you can’t change a painting, but you can change its frame.”
What happens when you ask same question differently?
Let’s look at a social experiment conducted by Mortgage Choice (of all things). In the footage, the host asks a group of people, “could you retire on 70% of your current income?” and almost all of them say yes. He then asks the same group, “could you retire on a 30% reduction of your current income?” and most of them say no. It’s the same question.
In an article titled “How to lie using statistics”, I discussed the art of persuading with the use of numbers. Sometimes data is used to push a certain angle (frame), with graphs, infographics, dashboards, etc. You can make anything sound compelling with the right visual aids. That is framing.
We know how the vaping industry is framed all over the world. Go to google, type “vaping” and click under “News” and bask in glorious fearmongering. It’s always the same narrative: “vaping made my lungs explode”, “JUUL sued for marketing to minors”, “a trillion babies hospitalized for vaping.”
I’m being facetious here because digging into the framing effect put me in a foul mood.
Fundamental Attribution Error
This error in thinking takes place when an individual assumes someone’s “identity” by the way they behave in a particular situation. For example, when we easily assume the “kind” of person someone is by the way they’re acting, not taking into account the situational, social, or environmental factors that should be taken into consideration.
Author Benjamin Ross sets up a scenario in which your friend “Bob” invites you to a party. At this party, Bob introduces you to his friend Eric, but Eric comes off as rude, curt, and all-around unlikeable. It’s easy to assume Eric is just an unfriendly person and that is his identity. Ross continues by asking questions, such as, “what if Eric is just having a really tough day? What if a family member passed away?”
In the light of the answers to these questions, you can now assume Eric is perhaps not that bad. The bias took over on our first impression and we let it take root.
We use the word attribution to explain another people’s behavior. If we notice a particular oddity, what do we attribute that behavior to? It’s a simple concept, but it clarifies the mechanics of the fundamental attribution error.
Attributions can be broken down into two:
- Dispositional Attribution: This is an internal attribution. For example, when we look at someone’s actions, we attribute it to how that person is – or something about that person, their internal dialogue, personality, etc.
- Situational Attribution: This is an external attribution. For example, when you attribute someone’s behavior with situational factors outside of their control – environment, circumstances, etc.
In Benjamin Ross’ thought exercise, we utilize a dispositional attribution to judge “Eric.” We assumed who he “is” by the way he treated us. For example, a similar thing could happen. Let’s say, we go to a store and ask one of the employees for advice. Instead of helping, he starts rolling his eyes and speak curtly. We’ll probably begin to think this is a douchebag. Some people may even call the manager on him. Who knows! This is an example of an attribution of someone’s (internal) disposition.
Furthermore, in Ross’ exercise, we probed the possibility of external factors affecting Eric’s mood – the death of a loved one, or any unfortunate event that may affect his mood. After considering the possibilities, we begin to think Eric is not all that bad. Now, going back to the other example with the rude employee, this could also be an external attribution.
Maybe an external factor dampened his mood and is taking it out on customers. Is it professional? Of course not, but we can get a glimpse of the whole picture, and the possibilities within. Sometimes there is an outside factor that ignited the negative response that we will never now about.
I am sure you can think of several instances when you were in a terrible mood and accidentally said something hurtful to an innocent bystander. It has happened to me, many times. Many, many times. Strange things happen when I don’t have coffee in my system before 10 a.m.
This is useful when assessing criticism. Are they judging who you “are” because you vape? Are you one of these clandestine, lung-exploder, crazy vapers out there who are killing people and selling JUULs to minors? Maybe you are, truly, but maybe you just want to vape cookies and cream e-liquid because it relaxes you.
Let’s think about how this happens in our world. We know how the media judge vapers in their articles. If anybody takes their words as gospel, we would be complete assholes without concern for the well-being of ourselves and others.
Anyway, there are mechanisms turning in our minds that we barely understand. But the ones we fairly do are, sometimes, being used against us to make us believe things, vote for things, or buy things.
The better we’re equipped against opportunist monetization of these glitches in thinking, the better we can discuss, promote, and embark in healthy debate for the things we actually believe in.