Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Confirmation Bias as Ratio Strain

A Witch Surfing on A Sieve (Turner ,1807)
I wonder how much the notion of confirmation bias can be thought of in terms of what in behaviorism is called "Ratio Strain".

A reduction in the rate of a target behavior and an increase in emotional behavior resulting from an increase in the ratio of behavior to reinforcement.
In order to understand ratio strain, it is important to understand a basic principle of behavior, the Matching Law.

A description of a phenomenon according to which  organisms tend proportionally to match their responses during choice situations to the rates of reinforcement for each choice (i.e., if a behavior is reinforced about 60% of the time in one situation and 40% in another, that behavior tends to occur about 60% of the time in the first situation, and 40% in the second)
Behaviorists talk about how we all live in something you might call a "sea of reinforcement and punishment". That is, our behavior is a product of a countless number of contingencies that have and are currently operating on us, either reinforcing (increasing) or punishing (decreasing) our behavior.

At this moment, for example, I am experiencing various reinforcements, a "schedule" if you will, in my environment. There is a constant ebb and flow, or push and pull between reinforcement and punishment. Every time I sip my coffee, that behavior is reinforced - it will be more likely to occur. However, as my bladder is filled, drinking is being punished.

As I type, when I come up with a good, satisfying sentence, my typing is reinforced - I will continue. But if I struggle, I will encounter less reinforcement.

My chair is comfortable at first, which is reinforcing, but after a while it might become punishing, and I will get up, which removes the stiffness, and is reinforcing (next time I will "know" to get up. I put "know" in quotes because usually I won't even be conscious of it, and thus "unknowing").

The Pink Floyd song playing makes me feel good, and so is reinforcing. I will put it on again! But not too frequently, as like food, I become satiated, and so engage in the behavior of eating and listening according to my biological needs - whether dietary or sonory.

So, back to what is called "confirmation bias".
The seeking or interpreting of evidence in ways that are partial to existing beliefs, expectations or a hypothesis at hand.

It occurred to me this morning that confirmation bias could be explained in terms of ratio strain: the reduction of behavior according to a ratio of decrease in reinforcement. I had been reading a comment thread. Someone posted an argument I disagreed with. Someone else then posted a response which I agreed with. The original poster then rebutted... and I realized that I was skimming - barely reading - the response. I didn't feel like reading it. Reading it seemed a chore.

The behavior of reading verbal behavior we agree with is much "easier", as it involves relations that have already been reinforced. However, verbal behavior that challenges us in some way, is much more aversive. It requires engaging in behaviors (types of thinking - recalling, classifying, comparing, interpreting, etc.) that can be quite effortful. Not do these behaviors require work, but the greater the ratio strain, the more likely are they to evoke "emotional behavior", that is, uncomfortable feelings such as anger, fear, etc. And that is aside from the content! If, as we further understand the content of an argument we disagree with, it may challenge our preconceptions - our expectations of the world, which had been reinforced. The fact that they are suddenly no longer being reinforced - a process referred to in behaviorism as "extinction" - can produce uncomfortable side-effects.

Findings from basic and applied research suggest that treatment with operant extinction may produce adverse side effects; two of these commonly noted are an increase in the frequency of the target response (extinction burst) and an increase in aggression (extinction-induced aggression).

Noticing this, much of our tendency towards "group-think" and ideological rigidity would seem to be explained. It is simply easier and more enjoyable to read what has been previously reinforcing. Encountering contradictory views is more effortful, fundamentally less reinforcing, and possibly uncomfortable and anger-inducing.

Now, the nice thing about behavior is that we can change it by altering the contingencies in our environment. We can learn to tolerate delays our reinforcement, as well as create rules to help us along the way, as sort of mental prompts. We can learn to find enjoyment in difference, and even come to be reinforced by the process of having our beliefs changed and enjoying the benefits of expanded knowledge and, ultimately, closer synchronicity with reality.

How to go about doing this, of course, isn't simple or easy. In this post, I'm merely laying out a behavioral case for noticing the process. Who knows, maybe it will allow me to more easily notice (or "tact" as behaviorists call it), and become aware of a trap I might be falling into, and to this make choices that might be more rewarding in the long run.

Maybe I'll go back to that comment thread and spend more time reading that comment with an open mind....

A related paper:
A Behavioral Analytical Account of Cognitive BIas in Clinical Populations

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Whose Property?

Samir Chopra, professor of philosophy at the Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, reminds us that property is a social and legal construct.

Property is not discovered; it is made, not by the act of mixing labor with supposedly ‘fallow land,’ as Locke would have had it, but by the scaffolding provided by the surrounding legal system.

So an agreement, designed according to what makes sense.  Of course, this "sense" gets rather complicated.

The simple story is that property should be fair, distributed according to one's desert.  However, how to establish desert?  If I inherit a million dollars, I certainly did nothing to deserve it, in that I played no part in its creation.  But maybe it is fair to respect the wishes of the deceased.  But what if they inherited it, and so on?

Let me toss another piece of wood into the fire: as a behaviorist, I can make a rather solid case that all of our actions in life are in a sense "inherited", in that they are entirely a function of our genes and our environment.  As such, any action we take to create wealth is inherited.

This may seem a fanciful stretch, even if you accept the premise that our actions are not our own.  Surely we must act as if they are.  As a practical matter, maybe this is true.  However, we certainly don't act this way at a societal level.  In criminal justice, people are judged to be responsible for their actions, and thus deserving of a range of punitive measures.  In our economic system, people are assumed to have "earned" their fortunes - or lack thereof.  As such, property is hardly given a second thought as the direct result of personal action.

If our actions are inherited, then all forms of property inequality (not to mention other forms of capital) are injust.  As a practical matter, remedying this injustice in a complex society is obviously no easy task.  History is riddled with horrific results of experimentations in equality.  However, it is also filled with examples of successes (public schools, libraries, parks, social security, medicaid, etc.).

Many of our political arguments are over the practical effects of social responses to equality - whether or not they would work, whether we can afford them, whether they have secondary negative effects and so on.  Yet, first we must establish whether or not there is a moral imperative, a problem to address.  And at this point, a good-as majority of the country simply disagrees with the premise that we inherit our actions, much less that social interventions might be effective.

(A strange irony is that many of these very same people view social interventions as having negative effects on motivation, which is a completely behavioral analysis, and would as such seem to agree with the premise they deny in the first place!)

Friday, May 5, 2017

A Couple of Bold Ideas for Education Reform

Unite States Housing Authority poster, 1940
Keith Humphreys has an important piece in the WaPo today highlighting the nuance of poor black communities with regard to violence and incarceration.
In his new book, Locking Up Our Own, Yale University Law School Professor James Forman Jr. points out that in national surveys conducted over the past 40 years, African Americans have consistently described the criminal justice system as too lenient. Even in the 2000s, after a large and sustained drop in the crime rate and hundreds of thousands of African Americans being imprisoned, almost two-thirds of African Americans maintained that courts were “not harsh enough” with criminals.....Through a compelling mixture of personal stories and wonky data analysis, Fortner and Forman document how African Americans have grappled with an anguished choice. On the one hand they want to protect themselves from crime, on the other hand they know that the more active and powerful the criminal justice system grows, the more African Americans will be caught up in it, some of whom will be subjected to grossly racist treatment.
As for Forman's policy recommendations - "expanded employment opportunities, improved housing options and better schools" - I'm not sure how far they will get into the problem.  Even if you had all of these things, the black community would still have a lot of difficult contingencies to reckon with.

Education always seems most meaningful to me, as you're getting kids while they're young.  But without a solid home, you're going to be spending a ton of money chasing maladaptive behaviors.  A lot of the so-called innovation we see in creating "good schools" is really about selectivity, as the parents who go the extra mile for their kids are exactly *not* the problem.  Instead, we want to target the overworked, stressed, dead-beat, angry, confused, overwhelmed, etc. parents.  These parents are not in a position to make good choices, they are barely able to keep it together as it is.  They won't be signing up for special charters, enforcing homework, looking out for their children.  And these kids are the ones who are the dirty little secret behind "bad" schools.

Traditional schools continue to fail them, with neither the funding nor comprehensive strategy to deal with them.  Charters just plain avoid them.

But they are the result of a larger economic system which segregates by property value.  Middle class neighborhoods populate schools with children of middle class parents and all the stability that represents.  Poor neighborhoods populate schools with children of poor parents and all the lack of stability that represents.

I have two ideas for intervention.  The first is to simply implement economic integration.  Each school must have a certain percentage from different socio-economic levels.  If you really wanted to get creative, you could create an SES scale that goes beyond mere income, and takes into account things like education, health, family support, issues, etc. (all of the the contingencies that go into supporting the development of a child).  Families would be assigned a score based on filling out a new card each year.  This would require a certain level of busing, which has its downsides.  But it would "spread the hardship" across our neighborhood schools.  There would likely be some downwards pressure from these struggling kids on the rest of the student body.  But there would likewise be upwards pressure from the rest of the students.  However, with this method, you're still not directly addressing the particular need of the student.  With a 30:1 ratio, and few other interventions, stressed out kids in stressed families who don't do their homework or get read to at night will still be highly at-risk.  The other way of going at this would be to incentivize economic desegregation by offering tax rewards to poor families who move out of poor communities and wealthier families who move in.  This brings up a gentrification worries for many, as ethnicity is so tied to income.  Personally, I wonder if actual economic desegregation wouldn't make the notion of gentrification irrelevant though.

A second option would be to forget busing, and focus on interventions at the local level instead.  Poor schools would get 10x the funds, the ability to cut class sizes by a half or even two-thirds.  Instruction and support would be much more differentiated to the needs of the individual student.  Similar to the IEP model for students with physical disabilities, every child would get an academic, "wrap-around" team to monitor performance both at school - and as would be central in this case - home.  On the television show The Wire, a so-called "Hamsterdam" experiment was invented, in which the police created a decriminalization block where drug users could freely use and pushers to sell their wares.  The idea was to end the violence of the trade, and allow the users to come out of the shadows where they would be able to be targeted by social service workers.  While poor, struggling families aren't quite drug addicts, I'm struck by the similarities, as well as our social response to their plight - which is a muddled mix of disdain, pity and victim-blaming.  Rather, these are fellow humans who need all of our help.  The bonus being, of course, eradication of a major source of social ill.

Both of these ideas are radical, but in my view more directly align with our values, and support fundamental notions of fairness in public education.  If we must have economic segregation in our capitalist economic system, then we must also reckon with the fact that we are going to be creating segregated economic ghettos, defined by their lack of resources and societal capital.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Revisiting Societal Capital

An article in the Root today on White Privilege put me in mind to revisit my thoughts on what in the past I have termed "societal capital".
I like to think of privilege as a form of capital, and capital as: that which can be leveraged to gain advantage in society. There are many forms of capital - financial (cash), emotional (regulation), cognitive (learning, vocabulary), neighborhood (safety, networking), educational (classmates, teachers), community (stores, libraries, services, parks), parental (this one is huge, maybe most important as it affects all others: family dynamics, stress, relational development, cognitive enrichment, vocabulary spoken), racial/ethnic (treatment and assumptions in society).

These are all interwoven and dynamically linked, interacting in non-linear ways. In combination they open up new avenues of privilege. However, when subtracted and de-linked, they do the opposite. They cut off avenues of opportunity and actively place in the individual at risk for further devaluation of capital. For instance, having a car opens up new job opportunities. But living in a poor neighborhood and having a car stolen can make traveling to work more difficult, which increases stress, increases costs if car payments are still due, limits family engagement, lowers status, etc.

Friday, April 14, 2017

How Conservatism Breeds Racist Thought

Years ago on this blog I made the argument that conservative ideology actually promotes racism.  Because of its assumption of free will, it sees disproportionate dysfunctional behavior among certain minorities as a function of inner, intrinsic qualities, as opposed to external, structural forces.

New results from the General Social Survey (GSS) from the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago seem to confirm my argument.  As reported in the Washington Post:
"The biggest yawning gap between Democrats and Republicans is on the issue of motivation and will power. The GSS asks whether African Americans are worse off economically “because most just don't have the motivation or will power to pull themselves up out of poverty?”
A majority — 55 percent — of white Republicans agreed with this statement, compared to 26 percent of white Democrats. That's the biggest gap since the question was first asked in 1977 — though the gap was similar (60-32) in 2010."
An interesting question, not asked in the survey, might be whether conservative Republicans would also say that economically disadvantaged whites lack motivation and willpower.  A charitable view would hold they would, assuming no racial animus and instead following the logic of their dualistic view of human nature.

Yet how then, with this individualistic worldview, do you make sense of the fact that certain minorities are economically worse-off?  If they are "making the choice" to be worse off, and there is no appeal structural disadvantage, a racialized view begins to make more sense.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Captain Trump

The Black Spot. Illustration
N. C. Wyeth for Treasure Island1911
I stopped listening to conservative radio years ago - just couldn't take it any more. But with Trump they've finally gotten "their guy". So after hearing how Limbaugh praised the press conference performance, I went to his site and read the transcripts of his commentary.
The perspective is that in which only he can see what is really going on, that he (and the audience) have some special insight into a level of reality that "they" don't understand. It belies a level of partisan paranoia and lack of good faith in the political dialogue that I had forgotten was so robust. There's a real sense of brotherhood (shared victimhood) within the group. Trump was obviously speaking directly to them.
I'm reminded of Carpenter's They Live, in which donning special sunglasses allows one to see the lizard people. Trump, Limbaugh and the fandom are all wearing the glasses and no one else "gets" them.

Bizarrely to outsiders, is how unreasonable they are. You can't listen to conservative radio if you know the first thing about logical fallacies and cognitive bias. It is unlistenable for all the flawed thinking immediately on display. And yet, of course, they believe it is everyone *else* who doesn't understand.
There are perfectly reasonable arguments for all of the conservative ideas they believe in. But they are not making them. Instead, it's a crazy, anarchic pirate ship, unmoored from patience, nuance, evidence and expertise, sailing wildly into the partisan night, engaged in relentless orgy of intellectual debauchery and group masturbation. Captain Trump has now led them ashore, and drunk with power they giggle goggley-eyed at the locals - with their stuffy adherence to reason, honesty and institutional restraint.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Unconscious Bias and Humility

Daniel Kaufman is a professor of philosophy at Missouri State.  He is a frequent video-blogger on Bloggingheads, and I enjoy his conversations.  After a wonderful recent conversation he had with David Ottlinger on the philosophical roots of classical liberalism, he provided me with this link to a piece he wrote on liberalism and the Harvard Implicit Bias Test, which he argues is vague and only helpful as cannon-fodder for the PC police (I'm paraphrasing).

I agree with him that the test itself is of limited utility in that it can't possibly give you much detail into what, why, how or where specifically your biases lie, beyond a general score that you might have some. But it is scientific in that it measure responses to  certain stimuli.  It is logical that you would be able to measure unconscious bias. In behaviorism, we would look at it in terms of stimulus control, where certain stimuli have been paired with behaviors (either thoughts or actions) which have then been reinforced. In my practice I do a lot of desensitization with children who have very heightened emotional responses to various environmental stimuli.
I do agree that the test could be misused, its results overblown with some kind of moralistic, shaming agenda. But personally, I found it fascinating. I readily expect myself to have all kinds of biases against gays, blacks, women, fat people - you name it. I found it a simple confirmation of what I already know to be the case.
My stance has always been that we need to remove the shame and stigma from bias - to accept that it is simply part of living in our society , and in many ways a natural human process coming out of how we learn. It is in many ways a helpful heuristic, but it has its downsides, and we can take steps to correct for it. For instance, the more I know about stereotypes, I can then notice them coming into my mind and I can recognize them.
My favorite example of this is the tendency of some people to become upset about "black english". I've seen facebooks memes arguing that you should say "ask", not "axe". However, this is is highly selective and racially biased. I've never once seen such memes directed towards colloquial english spoken by ethnic whites, who constantly speak in "poor english". We say "ummana" "instead of I'm going to", or "whataya" instead of "what are you".
If you are a hyper-grammar partisan, OK, maybe. But I think this is a case of ethnic stereotyping and shaming. I think the vast majority of bigotry is simply an extra sensitivity to the foibles of out-groups; you have a lower tolerance of it because it is easier to spot and an easy target of ire when your grumpy, afraid, stirred-up, etc. But it's totally human, and helpfully remedied with reflection.
I wish more PC-minded liberals would be more forgiving and lighten up. I wish more anti-PC people would be more forgiving and a little self-reflective. This combative stance is unhelpful I think in light of the fact that we are all subject to unconscious bias, and we can just try to be better people. Lord knows we all are constantly trying to be kinder, nicer, more forgiving, etc. in other areas of life.