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

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