Monthly Archives: April 2017

Your Brain Is Primed To Reach False Conclusions

Paul Offit likes to tell a story about how his wife, pediatrician Bonnie Offit, was about to give a child a vaccination when the kid was struck by a seizure. Had she given the injection a minute so…

Source: Your Brain Is Primed To Reach False Conclusions

Paul Offit likes to tell a story about how his wife, pediatrician Bonnie Offit, was about to give a child a vaccination when the kid was struck by a seizure. Had she given the injection a minute sooner, Paul Offit says, it would surely have appeared as though the vaccine had caused the seizure and probably no study in the world would have convinced the parent otherwise. (The Offits have such studies at the ready — Paul is the director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and author of “Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All.”) Indeed, famous anti-vaxxer Jenny McCarthy has said her son’s autism and seizures are linked to “so many shots” because vaccinations preceded his symptoms.

But, as Offit’s story suggests, the fact that a child became sick after a vaccine is not strong evidence that the immunization was to blame. Psychologists have a name for the cognitive bias that makes us prone to assigning a causal relationship to two events simply because they happened one after the other: the “illusion of causality.” A study recently published in the British Journal of Psychology investigates how this illusion influences the way we process new information. Its finding: Causal illusions don’t just cement erroneous ideas in the mind; they can also prevent new information from correcting them.

Helena Matute, a psychologist at Deusto University in Bilbao, Spain, and her colleagues enlisted 147 college students to take part in a computer-based task in which they each played a doctor who specializes in a fictitious rare disease and assessed whether new medications could cure it.

In phase one of the study, the student volunteers were divided into two groups — a “high illusion” one that was presented with mostly patients who had taken Drug A and a “low illusion” one that saw mostly patients who hadn’t taken the drug. Each student volunteer saw 100 patients, and in each instance, the students were told whether the patient had recovered. The student volunteers weren’t told that the drug didn’t work — the recovery rate was 70 percent whether or not patients took the drug. Yet, as expected, people in the high illusion group were more susceptible to erroneously concluding that it had an effect.

Presumably, because the student volunteers in the low illusion group had more opportunities to see the syndrome resolve without the drug, they were less prone to assuming that recovery was linked to it. Previous studies have shown that simply seeing a high volume of people achieve the desired outcome after doing something ineffective primes the observer to correlate the two.

Phase two of the study is when things got interesting. The experiment was repeated, except this time some patients simultaneously received two drugs — the ineffective one from phase one and a second drug that actually worked. This time, volunteers from both the high and low illusion groups were presented with 50 patients who’d received the two drugs and 50 who received no drugs. Patients in the drug group recovered 90 percent of the time, while the group that didn’t get meds continued to have a 70 percent recovery rate. Volunteers in the “high illusion” group were less likely than participants in the “low illusion” group to recognize the new drug’s effectiveness and instead attributed the benefits to the drug they’d already deemed effective. The prior belief in the first drug’s potency essentially blocked acquisition of the new information.

“You have to be sure before you’ll destroy what you already know and substitute it with something new,” Matute told me.

This finding might seem like nothing more than an interesting psychological quirk if it didn’t make us so vulnerable to quackery. Many so-called “alternative” remedies exploit the illusion of causality, Matute said, by targeting conditions that naturally have high rates of spontaneous recovery, such as headaches, back pain and colds. Quack cures remain popular in part because they bestow a sense of empowerment on people who are feeling miserable, by giving them something to do while they wait for their problem to run its course.

But not every dicey claim is made by a charlatan. Some credentialed clinics advertise platelet-rich plasma (PRP) as a “revolutionary” treatment for sports injuries even though the data on these therapies remains mixed. While writing about PRP last year, I was surprised to learn that none of the doctors I interviewed were tracking their outcomes. Because many people who get PRP seek it after they’ve tried everything else, doctors who provide the treatment are likely to see a lot of patients who are already on their way to recovery, as their condition finishes its natural course.

And that means it’s probable that these doctors are essentially replicating the first part of Matute’s study — priming themselves to find a correlation between PRP and recovery that isn’t there. We won’t know until they start tracking their results and comparing them to similar patients who didn’t get the treatment. (An easy way to protect against the causality illusion is to pay attention and count.) Physicians don’t have a great track record for self-assessment. A 2006 study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that doctors are poor judges of their own performance.

In this respect, doctors are only human, and so it’s not so surprising that the medical profession is filled with practices that have been disproved. Even when the evidence for or against a treatment or intervention is clear, medical providers and patients may not accept it. In some cases, the causality illusion is to blame, but usually the reasons are more complex. Other cognitive biases — such as motivated reasoning (all of us want to believe that the things we do make a difference), base rate neglect (failing to pay attention to what happens in the absence of the intervention), and confirmation bias (the tendency to look for evidence that supports what you already know and to ignore the rest) — also influence how we process information. In medicine, perverse incentives can push people in the wrong direction. There’s no easy fix here.

One thing seems clear, though. Simply exposing people to more information doesn’t help. Last year, political scientist Brendan Nyhan at Dartmouth and his collaborators published a randomized trial of four different approaches to influencing attitudes about vaccines among parents. The study’s 1,759 participants were split into groups, and each subset was presented with information about why vaccines are important — everything from why the diseases that a measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine could prevent are worth avoiding to images of children stricken with those diseases and a heart-felt story about an infant who nearly died of a case of measles. None of these efforts made parents more likely to vaccinate their kids.

Matute and her colleagues recently tested a different approach. Instead of trying to counteract false associations through information, they experimented with ways to improve the way people think. In a study published in science journal PLoS ONE, they invited a group of teenagers to test a wristband with a metal bar. Using language deliberately filled with jargon and pseudoscientific concepts, the researchers explained that the metal strip could improve physical and intellectual abilities, and the students were invited to test out the product while performing written tasks like solving a maze or number exercise. All the while, the researchers primed the volunteers to find a benefit from the band by raving about how previous users had noticed its alleged properties. By the end of the demonstration, many participants said they’d be willing to buy the magical ferrite strip.

Next came the twist — the researchers stepped out of their huckster roles and guided the teens through an analysis of what they’d just seen. They pointed out the holes in the evidence for the band’s powers, introduced the students to the causality illusion, and emphasized that to assess whether the product had improved their performance, they needed to have a baseline score for comparison. The objective of this second part of the intervention was to teach the teens to think critically about causality.

Afterward, the researchers ran the students through a computer test similar to the one used in the study on the causality illusion. They were shown a series of fictitious patients and given the opportunity to administer a fake (and, unbeknownst to them, ineffective) drug with the goal of figuring out whether the medication worked. Participants who’d learned about the challenges of establishing causality ran more trials without the medication (a necessary step to measuring the drug’s effectiveness) and made more accurate assessments of the drug’s efficacy.

It’s a promising result, but whether such an intervention could, say, prevent NFL players from buying up deer-antler spray or Olympians from taking risky supplements remains to be seen. Nyhan cautions against assuming that this educational approach can eliminate the causality illusion. Many psychological studies have shown promising improvements in belief accuracy when it involves matters that participants don’t care about, Nyhan told me. “But the lesson of controversial political, health and science issues is that people don’t apply their critical-thinking skills in the same way when they have a preference for who’s right.” Studies by law professor Dan Kahan at Yale show that even highly numerate people are prone to cognitive traps when the data contradicts the conclusion most congenial to their political values.

So where does this leave us? With a lot of evidence that erroneous beliefs aren’t easily overturned, and when they’re tinged with emotion, forget about it. Explaining the science and helping people understand it are only the first steps. If you want someone to accept information that contradicts what they already know, you have to find a story they can buy into. That requires bridging the narrative they’ve already constructed to a new one that is both true and allows them to remain the kind of person they believe themselves to be.

Christie Aschwanden is FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for science.


The world as 100 people, glimpsed over 200 years of history


Max Roser demonstrates that mankind is in a better position than ever.

Source: The world as 100 people, glimpsed over 200 years of history

Max Roser, the Oxford economist behind Our World In Data, has devoted his career to spreading a statistically informed view of global development. Chart how things have actually changed over history, he says, and you’ll see that we’ve come a long way.

Roser recently released a commentary on the last two centuries. It sums up world progress with the following six charts:


 The World as 100 People

Image: Our World In Data

Extreme poverty has collapsed. Basic education and literacy have exploded. Democracy—measured by the Polity IV status —has rapidly spread around the globe. Vaccination against some of the worst killers of human history has become almost universal. Child mortality has collapsed.

It’s hard to think of anything that pessimists could hold up to counter those trends.

While there’s no guarantee that progress will continue, mankind is also in a better position than ever to deal with problems, Roser says.

“Solving problems—big problems—is always a collaborative undertaking,” he writes, “and the group of people that is able to work together today is a much, much stronger group than there ever was on this planet.”

Why does it matter that the world is better than ever? Because most people think it isn’t.

Rosling cites one survey that asked people if they thought the world was getting better, worse, or neither. Only 6% of Americans said the world was getting better (it was 4% of Germans and 10% of Swedes).

Another survey, part of Gapminder’s Ignorance Project, found that 66% of Americans think global poverty has almost doubled in the last 20 years; in reality, global poverty has almost halved.

Certainly, few of the people chanting “Make America Great Again” think the world is getting better.

You could blame the media for focusing on the negative or simply the tendency of people to complain; whatever it is, a fundamental misunderstanding of global affairs is widespread.

Roser says this disconnect is limiting our ability to deal with future challenges (e.g., eliminating poverty, increasing liberty, and protecting the environment).

“The story that we tell ourselves about our history and our time matters,” Roser writes. “Knowing that we have come a long way in improving living conditions and the notion that our work is worthwhile is to us all what self-respect is to individuals. It is a necessary condition for self-improvement.

Roser says that pessimism also is an obstacle to freedom.

“Freedom is impossible without faith in free people,” he writes. “And if we are not aware of our history and falsely believe the opposite of what is true we risk losing faith in each other.”

Learn more about world history at Our World In Data and Gapminder.

Written by

Gus Lubin, Senior Correspondent, Business Insider

This article is published in collaboration with Business Insider.

A Wall Street performance coach who’s consulted on Showtime’s ‘Billions’ outlines 5 truths of human behavior all her clients must face

Denise Shull gets Wall Street traders and investors back on their feet with a proven coaching strategy.

Source: A Wall Street performance coach who’s consulted on Showtime’s ‘Billions’ outlines 5 truths of human behavior all her clients must face

Richard Feloni, Business Insider


Wall Street is full of investors and traders with big egos, and Denise Shull sees them at their most vulnerable.

She’s the founder of the ReThink Group, a performance coaching group that specializes in clients on Wall Street. She’s also one of the inspirations for Wendy Rhoades, the in-house psychiatrist at the fictional hedge fund at the center of Showtime’s hit show “Billions.”

Shull isn’t a psychiatrist, but established her coaching method on the neuropsychology of unconscious thought, tailored to the needs of investors and traders. It’s a combination drawn from her own life: She studied neuropsychology at the University of Chicago and spent 15 years as an equities trader.

She started ReThink in 2003 to put her own spin on the niche market of Wall Street performance coaching, a path paved by the late psychiatrist Ari Kiev, who was employed by Steve Cohen’s hedge fund SAC Capital.

Over the past 13 years, Shull says she has worked with hundreds of clients who include traders, portfolio managers, risk managers, and private equity investors.

She explained to Business Insider how her approach is based on what she considers to be the widely misunderstood dynamic between thoughts and emotions, and the role that her clients’ past plays into their current problems.

Below are five truths about human behavior Shull uses to stop her Wall Street clients from being their own worst enemies, when they could be losing tremendous amounts of other people’s money and risk losing their jobs.

1. Pure resolve won’t get results.

Shull thinks many people have assumptions based on an outdated theory of the “triune brain,” which basically says emotions, thoughts, and basic functions are handled separately within the brain; the reality, she says, is that all three of these roles are related in brain mechanics. Too many people, she said, think that “if we have a plan and that we’re disciplined then we’ll be able to do the things that we want. … It doesn’t work like that.”

It’s why Shull has clients in the first place, she explained. The clients know that they are underperforming and they see their mistakes. But no pep talk from a manager or colleague and no Stoic denial of feelings can get them back to their peak.

2. You’re going to make the same mistake over and over.

“Everyone has a fingerprint of what they do right and what they do wrong in the market and it’s kind of like personality,” Shull said. It’s why she considers the market to be a sort of Rorshach test, on which investors and traders can project all of their beliefs and insecurities.

She’s found that everyone has mistakes they regularly repeat, and for her clients, these mistakes have become overwhelming. These could be tendencies such as:

  • “I get too big when things aren’t going well.”
  • “I don’t get big enough when things are going right.”
  • “I over-trade when I’m bored.”
  • “I take too long to analyze and then miss opportunities.”

“I first help them realize all of their feelings around that weak point,” Shull said. It’s important to attach a label to these feelings, rather than leaving them an ambiguous jumble. She won’t accept explanations for what they’re feeling — each feeling has to be identified as concern, worry, anxiety, or whatever it is.

“The more they can put the right label on it, for whatever level of intensity the feeling is, the less chance they act it out,” Shull said.

3. Your personal and professional life aren’t as separate as you think.

Shull asks her clients about their personal lives in their first session. She’s found that every recurring mistake tied to an insecurity has roots in a person’s biography outside of their professional lives. “Someone’s actual background matters more than anything,” she said.

This is due to what she calls fractal emotions, where patterns develop throughout someone’s life in different manifestations, the same way a fractal is a whole composed of pieces that have the same characteristics as the whole.

Examples: She had a client who had a crisis of confidence in his abilities that mirrored the one he had when he realized he had to give up his sporting career at some point in college; a client who was over-trading would seek out experiences that gave him a feeling of power, the same reason he played rugby; another client who had developed a fight or flight reaction to unexpected movements in the market displayed this in other aspects of his life, built on a childhood where his missionary parents uprooted the family repeatedly.

4. And ignoring your emotions won’t get you anywhere.

Once these feelings are identified, Shull has her clients dive as deeply as possible into them, since she’s found that ignoring or trying to negate these feelings are what cause her clients to continue repeating mistakes.

“These emotions always exist in an iceberg, so you have the stuff you know you feel on the top, about the here and now,” she said. “If you’ve just had a disaster, we’re just going to have the feelings about the disaster. We’re going to be upset and I’m going to help you be upset, which means you’re going to be mad at yourself, you’re going to be mad at the markets, you’re going to be mad with your risk manager, you’re going to feel stupid. I’m going to help you feel all those sh—y things, frankly, that you don’t want to feel. Why? Because you basically have to go through a grieving process.”

The idea is to get her clients feeling these debilitating emotions in the room with her so that they confront them when they’re at their office. When clients can stop hiding from the emotions tied to their weaknesses, they can embrace them and pull the power from them.

5. In fact, choosing the emotions you want will make all the difference.

Then it’s time to replace bad behavior.

“Everyone else tries to fight behavior with thoughts,” Shull said, referring to traditional ways of working through a down period. “What works better is to create behavior through expected feelings.”

She has her clients decide how they want to feel in a given week. She said that actions follow, and stick when the negative emotions clients worked through have been stripped of their control.

“If you consciously exchange future feelings for each other, your chances of doing what you want to do, and having discipline, go wildly up,” she said.

“If you work on the level of feelings, the thoughts take care of themselves.”


A prediction: The world’s most powerful economies in 2030

PricewaterhouseCoopers has released its prediction for the most powerful economies in the world by 2030.

Source: A prediction: The world’s most powerful economies in 2030

This article is published in collaboration with Business Insider.

PricewaterhouseCoopers, one of the world’s largest professional-services firms, just released its predictions for the most powerful economies in the world by 2030.

The report, titled “The long view: how will the global economic order change by 2050?” ranked 32 countries by their projected global gross domestic product by purchasing power parity.

PPP is used by macroeconomists to determine the economic productivity and standards of living among countries across a certain time period.

While PwC’s findings show some of the same countries right near the top of the list in 13 years, they also have numerous economies slipping or rising massively by 2030.

Check out which countries made the list. All numbers cited in the slides are in US dollars and at constant values (for reference, the US’s current PPP is $18.562 trillion):

32. Netherlands — $1.08 trillion

31. Colombia — $1.111 trillion

30. South Africa — $1.148 trillion

29. Vietnam — $1.303 trillion

28. Bangladesh — $1.324 trillion

27. Argentina — $1.342 trillion

26. Poland — $1.505 trillion

25. Malaysia — $1.506 trillion

24. Philippines — $1.615 trillion

23. Australia — $1.663 trillion

22. Thailand — $1.732 trillion

21. Nigeria — $1.794 trillion

20. Pakistan — $1.868 trillion

19. Egypt — $2.049 trillion

18. Canada — $2.141 trillion

17. Spain — $2.159 trillion

16. Iran — $2.354 trillion

15. Italy — $2.541 trillion

14. South Korea — $2.651 trillion

13. Saudi Arabia — $2.755 trillion

12. Turkey — $2.996 trillion

11. France — $3.377 trillion

10. United Kingdom — $3.638 trillion

9. Mexico — $3.661 trillion

8. Brazil — $4.439 trillion

7. Germany — $4.707 trillion

6. Russia — $4.736 trillion

5. Indonesia — $5.424 trillion

4. Japan — $5.606 trillion

3. India — $19.511 trillion

2. United States — $23.475 trillion

1. China — $38.008 trillion

Written by

Lianna Brinded, Markets Editor, Business Insider

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