Saturday, July 06, 2013

heuristics and biases. watch and learn with Katie Hopkins.

If you have even the most cursory of interest in behavioural stuff, human psychology and decision making then this clip from UK daytime TV, which has gone YouTube gangbusters in just a couple of days and features posh mouth and former reality TV 'star' Katie Hopkins, is for you.

Hopkins incurs the wrath of the presenters, guests and viewers for declaring that she uses certain mental shortcuts in order to decide which children she allows her own to play with.

She does this simply by answering the initial 'difficult' question about which she has little information to base her decision...

'Should I allow my child to go over to unknown child x's house to play?'

By instead substituting with a different, easier question...

'What does the name of child x and the location of child x's house tell me about the 'kind' of family that the child comes from, and therefore what are the most salient ideas I have about the socio-econimic circumstances and behaviours of these type of people'.

These shortcuts - and there are a few - that she predominantly relies upon are pretty much universal heuristics and cognitive biases.

The most immediately evident are:

Firstly, the affect heuristic.

In all of us this heuristic is typically useful while quickly judging the risks and benefits of anything.
The end decision depends on the previously stored positive or negative feelings and associations that the person associate with the given situation.

Your 'gut feeling' in other words.

At the same time, she's mapping in another couple of biases - representativeness and availability.

'...Potential playmate Child X -'Tyler'- lives in the 'bad' estate round the corner...'

Hopkins then very quickly fills in the gaps to create a plausible story about Tyler based on his name and where he lives using stereotypical attributes easily associated (ie available, meaning that they come most easily to mind) with working class, council estate kids with 'common' names.
Names who's origins can be traced to pop signers or celebrities from a particular recent time frame.

Therefore Tyler from the bad estate equates to; lazy kid who does not do his homework, has irresponsible parents who are probably unemployed, or work in manual or service industries - drink, smoke and swear, generally let their kids get away with murder - and before you know it her child will be round the back of the shops sniffing glue.

For the bourgeoise Hopkins, these are extremely salient images.

Hopkins gets panned by the other guests and presenters on the show but it's worth noting that these type of processes are in fact the way that most of our decisions are made.

Very fast and done with remarkably little information.

One or two pieces of data are enough for us to make up a story and move on.

Most of the time it's a pretty useful way to operate.

(Making decisions in the Supermarket, for instance, benefit greatly from this kind of thinking.
If we didn't use shortcuts, and rationally deliberated over the ingredients, packaging and cost-benefit analysis of Tomato vs Cream of Mushroom we would never make it out of the soup aisle and likely starve to death.)

From an actual cognitive processes point of view what we can ascertain is what Hopkins real decision was to deliberately give voice to instinctive, emotional System One (the unconscious automatic process) responses - that, for the most part, people suppress when they occur for fear of upsetting social norms - and allowing these suggestions to be fully endorsed by System Two (the rational, analytical process) and therefore Katie says what was actually on her mind without System Two putting the block on it.

But that's her schtick. A kind of posh touerretes.

In a sense our own representativeness bias makes it somehow socially unacceptable for an upper middle-class, minor celebrity, woman to be controversial in this sense, however if the same story had been delivered by a Frankie Boyle 'type' it might be regarded as satire.

Having said that, Hopkins is pretty hard to like, and in a moment of pure comedic cognitive dissonance, venomously berates parents who name children after geographical locations (Brooklyn etc) despite the fact that one of here own children is named India.

Must-see tv for planners.

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