Tuesday, October 26, 2004


Kevin drum writes about how the Armed Liberal has decided to vote for Bush. Armed Liberal's reasoning is as follows:

Much of my decision making and thinking comes from what are - to me, at least - illuminating parallels between the decision before me and things I know and have seen in my own life. This is no exception.

Last month I had lunch with a dear friend from grad school; he's a monstrously successful real estate developer and a staunch and senior Kerry supporter here in California. We argued about the election, and the war. He understands the war, but isn't convinced that Bush is smart enough to pull it off.

"I don't think that matters as much as you do," I told him. "I'm probably smarter than you are - in terms of IQ tests and grades in school. You're a multimillionaire, and I'm not - even though I've been in businesses parallel to you for as long as you. Why do you think that is?"

"Because I'm more determined than you are," he replied.

"Exactly," I responded.

Success in any enterprise is only partly determined by skill and intelligence. Luck plays a large part. But the largest role, I believe, is played by commitment and determination to reach a goal. My friend wanted to be successful more than I did. He was.

There are a large number of holes in Armed Liberal's thinking. Putting aside the poli-sci snark, he's making what is called Fundamental Attribution Error (Wikipedia):
In attribution theory, the fundamental attribution error (sometimes referred to as the actor-observer bias) is the tendency for people to over-emphasize dispositional, or personality-based, explanations for behaviors observed in others while under-emphasizing the role and power of situational influences on the same behavior. In other words, people tend to have a default assumption that what a person does is based more on what "kind" of person he is, rather than the social and environmental forces at work on that person. This default assumption leads to people sometimes making erroneous explanations for behavior. This general bias to over-emphasizing dispositional explanations for behavior at the expense of situational explanations is far less likely to occur when people evaluate their own behavior.

For instance, Armed Liberal's friend's success probably is due in part to his hard work and determination. It is also true that he is operating in a super-heated California real estate and development market with a historically low accomodating interest rate environment created by the central bank. This is not to diminish Armed Liberal's friends success - there are many people in California who aren't multi-millionnaires - but it is to say that attributing his success to "determination" wholly neglects the contribution that his environment provided.

It would have been probably been more difficult to become a real estate multi-millionnaire if for instance he had been living in the early eighties in the same location. Not impossible but certainly more difficult.

Our success in life comes in part from talent, in part from hard work, and in part from an nurturing environment that provides opportunities and support. There are very few truly "self-made" men who triumph over both personal inadequacy and overwhelming hardship to succeed.

It is in this manner that Armed Liberal's analogy falls apart. Iraq is not a "nurturing" environment. It is an extremely hostile and unstable environment. Mere "determination" is insufficient.

The second cognitive error that Armed Liberal engages in the Vividness error (from the CIA Psychology of Intelligence Analysis manual).
The impact of information on the human mind is only imperfectly related to its true value as evidence.91 Specifically, information that is vivid, concrete, and personal has a greater impact on our thinking than pallid, abstract information that may actually have substantially greater value as evidence. For example:
  • Information that people perceive directly, that they hear with their own ears or see with their own eyes, is likely to have greater impact than information received secondhand that may have greater evidential value.

  • Case histories and anecdotes will have greater impact than more informative but abstract aggregate or statistical data.

  • Events that people experience personally are more memorable than those they only read about. Concrete words are easier to remember than abstract words,92 and words of all types are easier to recall than numbers. In short, information having the qualities cited in the preceding paragraph is more likely to attract and hold our attention. It is more likely to be stored and remembered than abstract reasoning or statistical summaries, and therefore can be expected to have a greater immediate effect as well as a continuing impact on our thinking in the future.

    Intelligence analysts generally work with secondhand information. The information that analysts receive is mediated by the written words of others rather than perceived directly with their own eyes and ears. Partly because of limitations imposed by their open CIA employment, many intelligence analysts have spent less time in the country they are analyzing and had fewer contacts with nationals of that country than their academic and other government colleagues. Occasions when an analyst does visit the country whose affairs he or she is analyzing, or speaks directly with a national from that country, are memorable experiences. Such experiences are often a source of new insights, but they can also be deceptive.

    That concrete, sensory data do and should enjoy a certain priority when weighing evidence is well established. When an abstract theory or secondhand report is contradicted by personal observation, the latter properly prevails under most circumstances. There are a number of popular adages that advise mistrust of secondhand data: "Don't believe everything you read," "You can prove anything with statistics," "Seeing is believing," "I'm from Missouri..."

    It is curious that there are no comparable maxims to warn against being misled by our own observations. Seeing should not always be believing.

    Personal observations by intelligence analysts and agents can be as deceptive as secondhand accounts. Most individuals visiting foreign countries become familiar with only a small sample of people representing a narrow segment of the total society. Incomplete and distorted perceptions are a common result.

    A familiar form of this error is the single, vivid case that outweighs a much larger body of statistical evidence or conclusions reached by abstract reasoning.

    When Armed Liberal states that "Much of my decision making and thinking comes from what are - to me, at least - illuminating parallels between the decision before me and things I know and have seen in my own life. This is no exception." then he is openly engaging, embracing even, this error.

    Therefore I could argue all day until I am blue in the face about how GWB is not truly committed to winning the war. I could point out the failure to commit enough troops and its overwhelming corroborative evidence. I could point out the statistically increasing number and severity of attacks on Americans in Iraq. I could point out how increasing military costs in damaged vehicles and the increase in ammo usage clearly are evidence (the troops aren't using up all that extra ammo target practicing) of a active and widespread military operation rather than a steadily improving security.

    Those are numbers and they don't lie. The number of attacks. The amount of ammo used. The increases in repair requests. It isn't about good press or bad press or clever arguments by pundintry or anecdotes from Iraq. It's a simple question of logistical calculation. The logistics are speaking in evidentiary terms of a steadily worsening and not improving situation.

    Is that the picture of a war effort in which one is committed to win? Yet it is abstract while the visceral impact of GWB as being determined and confident is concrete. Armed Liberal can use his social intelligence to diagnose a defensive less aggressive posture in John Kerry's words, and he compares this to the aggressive determination in Bush's words. He chooses the later, even though the fact is that we know that there are regular shortfalls of military supplies that have been noted at the highest levels of military command. Yet because of his cognitive errors, of which he is manifestly unaware or he would not make a point of pride of them, Armed Liberal ignores the later evidence in favor of the former.

    Because of the cognitive error Armed Liberal engages in this sort of fact based and statistical evidence is useless.

    Why? Because Armed Liberal's vivid personal impressions of a determined-seeming George Bush, his confirmation and overconfidence bias. George Bush seems determined and confidence to him while John Kerry does not. However if we present abstract evidence that GWB is in fact not committed to doing what it takes - black and white troop deployment and budget allocation numbers - then he will ignore this abstract data in favor of that which is concrete which confirms his biases formed on recently available experience and attributing it to personality rather than weighting the contribution of circumstance.

    These common types of errors are why the reality-based community or the community who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." is losing the argument in the public sphere. To be part of the reality-based community one has to accept the premise that success is determined only in part by individual choices, and must for the rest depend upon an external independent reality whose nature must be studied to optimize success. The reason of course why it must be studied is that because of cognitive biases very few people can naturally learn to come to conclusions correctly on their own. Facts are not obvious or self-evident. They must be ascertained through systematic and abstract study to determine statistical patterns. It is for this very reason that we created science - because physical reality is not self-evident.

    The consequences of our choices are relative to our environment. Our environment is not in its true nature apparent immediately to us. Therefore we must train ourselves to discern its true nature before we can understand the full impact of our choices. It seems incredibly obvious to baldly assert this, but Armed Liberal is departing from this way of thinking in an equally obvious way.

    It was in that aspect that I wrote Shaula, who ironically has accused me of metaphorically abusing my authority to analogously sexually harrass her, wrote the following:
    oldman, I was thinking about Germany (again) today. The people of Nazi Germany who were "true believers" went through the experience of watching the official Nazi myths destroyed before their eyes (which didn't cure all of them, but certainly remedied the cognitive dissonance on a national scale); and afterwards, of course, the partition and occupation of Germany was about, among other things, building a new, "reality-based" Germany.

    It got me thinking...how do we return the cognitive dissonants here to the real work? Will it take a national public failure on the magnitude of the fall of Germany?

    Let me clarify that I'm not indulging in wishful thinking or schaudenfreude; I don't want to see the US destoryed (otherwise I'd be working for, not against, the Republicans). But if Hitler had not declared war on other countries and their violence had been strictly internal and discrete...would the Nazi's still be ruling Germany today?
    Shaula Evans

    For the record I have never groped a woman without her prior and later confirming assent that she wished to be in fact groped by my person.

    My response to her is that I'm afraid that something similar must happen. It is in the nature of hubris to push one's luck until in overextending one goes too far and must fall. I love my country but it seems that they are in love with their self-flattering myths (and here I include the myth of a viable progressive Democratic party) and we must fall into the darkness before people will come to their senses.

    Bush appeals to the prejudices in our way of thinking, that sheer determination and American might will infallibly carry the day. The reason why people are breaking away from Kerry is that he is the voice of caution that reminds them that we are not inexhaustible. They find comforting the notion that if we keep on pushing forward we will triumph and be vindicated.

    However in the real world we all know that no one, and I mean no one, is invincible. Germany was not invincible and neither are we. Without the ability to learn from our mistakes we are not just doomed to repeat them but to push them to the breaking point.

    For it is the definition of madness to attempt the same thing over and over again but expect a different outcome from what reality shows us.

    As the case of the Armed Liberal shows, there are a lot of people running around out there who basically don't know shit. Unfortunately they get to vote to elect someone to office to take care of matters which as mentioned before they not just merely know nothing about but are completely and disasterously wrong about. GWB is smart enough to play to these cognitive errors, which charming or harmless in the context of an ordinary citizen's life, become monstrous in the context of choosing an executive to conduct official policy.

    Damn I was supposed to stop writing for a while wasn't I?


    At October 27, 2004 at 6:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

    When I was 18 years old, I voted for Jimmy Carter. The reason I voted that way, not knowing anything really, about politics was, I wanted -change-! I knew that Ford would not change anything, just keep the same old ball rolling.

    Now, if I were to think about choosing Kerry, it would have to be in the same light! About wanting -change-! Mind you, if America doesen't enact drastic changes in the near future we are going to fall as a nation.

    Many of the problems talked about in the past articles of this post keep saying "government" not a particular political party. But, by changing the guy on top we are hoping for -change-, hopefuly in the direction that we wish that change to go.

    I have toyed around with the ideal that, if there was a Democrat in the White House, then the world media would move it's focus away from Iraq, thus removing some of the political power playing and allowing the war to come out to a better conclusion, sooner.

    Some how, I get the impression that people are hopping and praying that if Kerry does get elected, he will do a better job and make the changes that "they" want him to make. Not much like I felt when I voted for Carter.

    At October 31, 2004 at 11:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


    My favorite example of the attribution error and disregarding of statistical evidence has always been Rockefeller (from dishwasher to millionaire). Only I was thinking in that case it was probably deliberate propaganda of "virtues", "opportunity", and "prosperity" in order to encourage more butt-busting on the part of "individual contributors".

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