Reason is not the only means of overcoming bias

by multifoliaterose4 min read9th Sep 201030 comments

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Personal Blog

Sometimes the best way to overcome bias is through an emotional appeal. Below I interweave discussion of how emotional appeals can be used to overcome the bias corresponding to the identifiable victim effect and maladaptive resource hoarding instinct.

The beginning of the abstract to Paul Slovic's article "If I look at the mass I will never act”: Psychic numbing and genocide reads

Most people are caring and will exert great effort to rescue individual victims whose needy plight comes to their
attention. These same good people, however, often become numbly indifferent to the plight of individuals who are “one of many” in a much greater problem.

Eliezer has discussed this and related topics extensively, for example in Scope Insensitivity. See also the references listed at wikipedia under identifiable victim effect. How can we go about overcoming this bias? One answer is "by keeping it in mind and by teaching people about it." But while some people have the intellectual interest and ability to learn about the identifiable victim effect, others don't. Moreover, it's not clear that being aware of this bias is by itself very useful in overcoming it.

But reason is not the only means of overcoming bias.


Before I proceed I should make some disclaimers:

Disclaimer #1: Below I discuss overcoming biases that people have against donating money for the purpose of improving health in the developing world. In doing so I am not advocating in favor of developing world aid over other forms of charity. The case of developing world aid simply provides a good example. Most people who decline to donate to charities that improve health in the developing world do not decline to do so because they think they have a better cause to donate to.

Disclaimer #2: This posting is intended to advocate the use of emotional appeals specifically for the purpose of overcoming bias. Obviously emotional appeals can and are frequently used to create bias - this is not what I'm advocating. I believe that the video which I discuss below does more to overcome bias than it does to create bias for the typical viewer

Disclaimer #3: The use of emotional appeals strikes some as patronizing or manipulative. I do not view them in this light when they are used for the sake of aligning people's behavior with their values for the sake of good causes. I subject myself to stimuli with emotional appeals in order to keep myself motivated to do what I think is right. The video below is one such example. Another such example is the paragraph of Eliezer's One Life Against The World which reads

I agree that one human life is of unimaginably high value. I also hold that two human lives are twice as unimaginably valuable. Or to put it another way: Whoever saves one life, if it is as if they had saved the whole world; whoever saves ten lives, it is as if they had saved ten worlds. Whoever actually saves the whole world - not to be confused with pretend rhetorical saving the world - it is as if they had saved an intergalactic civilization.

Disclaimer #4: In referencing the topic of charitable donation, I'm not advocating that people encourage others to donate money to any cause to the point of becoming unhappy about it. A few months ago I wrote an article explaining my position on this matter here. I was interested to be reminded that Eliezer has made similar remarks in his video response to a question by komponisto.


The video titled The Life You Can Save in 3 Minutes does a great job of overcoming the absence of an identifiable victim effect without providing an identifiable victim and without explicitly mentioning the identifiable victim effect at all. The first 1:15 minutes make a case for the viewer donating money to save lives in the developing world. The text of the next segment of the video reads

(cue the skepticism)

Does aid even work?

Doesn't it breed dependence?

Isn't it wasted?

And poverty is bottomless!

Eternal!

Infinite!

Isn't it all pointless?

In doing so the authors of the video are channeling a common reaction to appeals for developing world aid. It's rational for viewers to have the concerns mentioned above. As the video comments next:

There are long answers to these tough questions.

Developing world aid is a very tricky business and a high level of vigilance is required to make sure that it goes well. But at the moment it appears to me that there's a bottom line that it's possible to greatly improve people's lives by donating money to certain charities working to save lives in the developing world. See GiveWell's International page for more information.

More to the point of this post, in practice there are problems of people:

  1. Raising legitimate doubts as to the value of developing world aid and then failing to follow up on determining whether these doubts are well grounded.
  2. Asymmetrically focusing on potential negative unintended consequences of developing world aid rather than potential positive unintended consequences of developing world aid.
  3. Imagining that donating money would correspond to a greater sacrifice of material resources than it actually does.

I view these observed behaviors as being in line with Yvain's Conflicts Between Mental Subagents: Expanding Wei Dai's Master-Slave Model: it seems as though these lapses in reasoning arise from modules of our brain which were designed to allow us to preserve our self-image as a good person while declining to relinquish material resources. I agree with Yvain's Would Your Real Preferences Please Stand Up? posting that there's no meaningful sense in which such lapses in reasoning should be viewed as revealing our preferences.

As I say in Missed opportunities for doing well by doing good I suspect that:

  1. Our tendency to hoard material resources is largely maladaptive and doesn't improve our lives very much at all.
  2. The psychological benefits of donating money to help others are considerable and systematically undervalued

So it looks highly desirable to help people overcome their irrational hoarding of material resources, overcome the psychic numbing attached to the absence of an identifiable victim, and see the relative costs and benefits of donating in clear terms. The creators of The Life You Can Save in 3 Minutes do a great job of this in the subsequent portion of the video. After the text "there are long answers to these tough questions" the video shifts into a different mood and the text reads:

But here's the short one:

What if your daughter was the "drop in the bucket"?

Real lives are saved every single day. People with real names whose families weep with joy to see them still alive.

If you were one of those people you wouldn't think it was pointless.

This serves to dispel the absence of an identifiable victim and make the true benefits of donating (or equivalently, the true opportunity cost of not giving) psychologically salient. [Edit: At least sometimes, but see byrnema's comment and my response.] A portion of the remainder of the video makes low cost of giving to the donor psychologically salient. Key to the video's effectiveness is its use of music and visual imagery. The video is well worth viewing in entirety.

As I said above, sometimes the best way to overcome bias is through an emotional appeal. This is especially so when communicating with neurotypical people whose minds are naturally drawn toward emotional detail rather than logical detail.

Members of the Less Wrong community who are interested in this topic might find it useful to study the research of Deborah Small.

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Random thought about scope insensitivity:

One person in need is a potential ally.
A group of people in need are a potential threat.

Evidence against this as an explanation: the original studies on scope insensitivity were about birds and national parks. 20,000 birds aren't more of a threat than 200 birds, Hitchcock movies notwithstanding. Since scope insensitivity is sufficiently explained by the factors that produce it in bird and park studies, why posit extra factors to explain it on humans?

Does the bird study attempt to rule out the explanation that people are using the number of birds claimed to be saved as a cue to how many birds there are in total and so adjusting their estimate of how rare they are?

I place little to no value on the lives of individual birds but I do value the existence of some species of birds (because they are aesthetically pleasing) and I value biodiversity for both aesthetic and practical reasons. I therefore place some value on maintaining a viable breeding population of particular bird species but the marginal value of additional birds over this level is very low.

If someone asks how much I am willing to pay to save a small number of birds this is evidence that the birds are rare - the fact that someone considers it worth bringing the issue to my attention for a small number of birds suggests as much. If someone asks how much I am willing to pay to save a very large number of birds this is evidence that the birds are not rare. I would pay more to save the last 10,000 of a rare species from extinction than to save 1 billion from a population of several billion.

Good point. I voted PhilGoetz up as well when he said this.

Fair point regarding scope insensitivity proper. But note that people are less willing to help a group of humans in need than an individual human in need. This comes through in the references on the Wikipedia page for the identifiable victim effect.

Thanks for pointing out this possible interpretation of scope insensitivity - it had not previously occurred to me!

Sometimes the best way to overcome bias is through an emotional appeal.

Yes. Another good example is in debating (at least, debating to change someone's mind, not just to win in the eyes of observers).

For the fast majority of the population of people who disagree with you, you can't just drop a logic dump on them and expect them to magically change their minds. The only way they will be able to consider your arguments rationally is if you can get around all the biases they currently hold towards you or the topic of your argument. Sweeping the field clean of their biases, or compensating for them, may require various forms of influence, including emotional appeals, Cialdini's 6 weapons of influence, and various forms of signaling and framing.

The goal of using these forms of influence and rhetoric is not to switch the person you are debating from mindlessly disagreeing with you to mindlessly agreeing with you. The goal is just to get them to consider what you are saying in a less-biased way.

One of the best ways to change the minds of people who disagree with you is to cultivate an intellectual friendship with them, where you demonstrate a willingness to consider their ideas and update your positions, if they in return demonstrate the willingness to do the same for you. Such a relationship rests on both reciprocity and liking. Not only do you make it easier for them to back down and agree with you, but you make it easier for yourself to back down and agree with them.

When you have set up a context for the discussion where one person backing down isn't framed as admitting defeat, then it's a lot easier to do. You can back down and state agreement with them as a way to signal open-mindedness and the willingness to compromise, in order to encourage those qualities also in your debate partner. Over time, both people's positions will shift towards each other, though not necessarily symmetrically.

Even though this sort of discourse is full of influence, bias, and signaling, it actually promotes rational discussion between many people better than trying to act like Spock and expecting people you are debating to do the same.

Thanks for introducing the larger topic. I see you and raise you: I think emotional responses can actually encapsulate information, in something like the way visual perception delivers an overall verdict (e.g., "that's my Aunt Lydia") without requiring doing the math on details (like the shape of the nose, eyes, etc.). Without emotion, reason is crippled. Antonio Damasio's book Descartes' Error is a good source on the topic.

Perhaps the reason emotional reactions seem so untrustworthy is that significant details of this implicit information can be altered without the alteration being emotionally evident. That is, we can change the logic enough that it no longer applies, but do this subtly enough that the emotional reaction is preserved. Therefore, rationalists feel safest if everything is laid out explicitly, so that their emotions are less likely to give them false positives for "convincing argument".

If I can indulge my nerdy side, it reminds me of cryptographic hash functions. The idea there is that the slightest change in the source string ("dinosaur" -> "dinosaus") will result in a completely different hash, one that you couldn't even tell was related to the original. The hash function relating information -> emotion fails at this: it isn't sensitive enough to reflect small but significant changes.

Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I enjoy your posts and comments and think I would enjoy corresponding with you. PM me with your email address if you're so inclined.

Reason is not the only means of overcoming bias.
Sometimes the best way to overcome bias is through an emotional appeal.

You still use reason to decide that a given intervention (which doesn't necessarily have a form of a rational argument) is the correct thing to try in order to attain your goals. Obviously, rational argument is a very special kind of intervention, and one can make use of any number of environmental parameters in order to tweak one's mind.

I'll just throw these links here for counterpoint:

James Shikwati: For God's Sake, Please Stop the Aid!

Dambisa Moyo: Dead Aid

Kevin Myers: Africa is giving nothing to anyone -- apart from AIDS

And yeah, I agree with Tim that the line about "your daughter" is blatantly manipulative and I immediately tune out anyone who uses such rhetoric for any goal. I spend my resources on helping people who are important to me. (For real - most of my salary every month goes to friends and relatives.) Don't trick me into thinking you're important to me so you can get some of my money.

I'll just throw these links here for counterpoint:

Do you have any reason to think that the issue of some developing world aid doing more harm than good applies to GiveWell's top-ranked charities? If you have a good such reason I'd certainly be interested in knowing about it.

Regarding Malthusian problems, see the post to the GiveWell mailing list titled Population growth & health.

And yeah, I agree with Tim that the line about "your daughter" is blatantly manipulative and I immediately tune out anyone who uses such rhetoric for any goal. I spend my resources on helping people who are important to me. (For real - most of my salary every month goes to friends and relatives.) Don't trick me into thinking you're important to me so you can get some of my money.

See my response to Tim.

I don't understand your response to Tim. You say "the point wasn't X, it was Y", but I can't see any difference between X and Y.

Another answer which may be more to the point of your question: I don't think that the linked video makes a case for the people who would benefit from developing world aid literally being the viewer's family/friends. I think that the linked video makes a case for the people who would benefit being somewhat similar to the viewer's family/friends. It's certainly not true that the people who would benefit are literally the viewer's family/friends, but I think that most viewers with enough information would agree that the people who would benefit are somewhat similar to the viewer's family/friends.

I think that the video helps make this point salient to potential donors for whom it would otherwise not be salient on account of the psychic numbing effect which Paul Slovic talks about.

[-][anonymous]11y 1

Okay.

The typical human with lots of money for luxury spending who lives nearby a family who had a daughter with measles would not care about saving the daughter's life as much as saving his own daughter's life. But he would still be willing to donate something to save the daughter's life. This is because the typical human has sufficiently strong prosocial tendencies to be happy to part with a relatively small amount of excess wealth to help somebody in need.

Now, you may insist that this pro-social tendency is directed at helping people who one knows personally and that to generalize it to those who one doesn't know is to behave out of accordance with one's values. This may in fact be true for some people. But there are some people who feel that all humans' lives are of (very roughly) comparable intrinsic value. Such people (including myself) often do not behave in accordance with this feeling. My suggestion is that stimuli like the linked video can help them behave in accordance with their values.

The video titled The Life You Can Save in 3 Minutes does a great job of overcoming the absence of an identifiable victim effect without providing an identifiable victim and without explicitly mentioning the identifiable victim effect at all. The first 1:15 minutes make a case for the viewer donating money to save lives in the developing world.

It asks: "What if it was my daughter?" Then I would spend to save her.

...but it is not my daughter - and that would make an enormous difference to most humans who are in reasonable working order. Is anybody really taken in by the counter-factual "What if it was my daughter" line? It seems like a straightforward case of attempted manipulation to me.

It is in a charity's interests to fool people to thinking prospective aid recipients are akin to family members. So, they are inclined to encourage the association - thus attempting to manipulate viewers. However, it is basically a simple psychological trick - intended to part the individual from their money.

I see a lot of this sort of thing. Charities - with the best of aims - are using much the same box of tricks that con-artists do.

I have some trouble guessing why*, but while watching the video, I felt a visceral negative reaction to the idea of giving aid first when I realized they weren't going to give me the 'very long story' (what a cop-out, I thought, because I do have concerns) and then in a very dramatic way when they had the line, "What if it was your daughter?" -- That was a strong click-the-video-closed moment.

I know that I am sensitive to emotional manipulation, and react to such manipulation by bristling defensively. (For example, I cannot watch the news or listen to country music.) So that could explain it, or it just might not be very effective. Perhaps it goes too far, and the message only works if it is more subtle?

Could other people comment on their emotional reaction to that part of the video?

I thought the video picked up from there. I liked the idea of a 'wave' and that idea was strong enough (in theory) to induce me to give aid. What was missing at the end, I think, was some evidence of the wave. For example, how many people on Facebook gave aid on this wave or what fraction of my friends?

* My first guess was that the idea of my daughter needing aid actually stimulated a hoarding response, because I need to prepare for eventualities. My second guess was that it stimulated the indignant republican in me ('I take care of my own daughter -- why don't they?'), which is obviously uncharitable but possibly an initial emotional reaction. My third guess was the one about just resenting being manipulated.

[-][anonymous]11y 0

I thought the video picked up from there. I liked the idea of a 'wave' and that idea was strong enough (in theory) to induce me to give aid. What was missing at the end, I think, was some evidence of the wave. For example, how many people on Facebook gave aid on this wave or what fraction of my friends?

So, I think that the situation is that at present there are very few people who are giving money to effective charities which improve health in the developing world but that with the internet and resources like GiveWell there are prospects for this changing significantly. For some indication of where the "wave" is now, see:

  1. The Facebook group for "Giving What We Can."

  2. The information under the "who pledges" links on the website for The Life You Can Save.

  3. The information under "about us" at the website for Giving What We Can.

I felt a visceral negative reaction to the idea of giving aid first when I realized they weren't going to give me the 'very long story' (what a cop-out, I thought, because I do have concerns)

Sure, so I think that the situation is that most people are too impatient to listen to the 'very long story' so that it's useful to condense the basic points into a few minute narrative. But since you're the sort of person who's receptive to very long stories there are superior options for you. The three links below provide a good starting point for the 'very long story.'

  1. GiveWell's International Charities Page

  2. GiveWell's page on standard of living in the developing world

  3. Holden's comments on Population and Health

Also, in fairness to the video I think it's important to note that they link to the website for The Life You Can Save which has a link to GiveWell and which also begins to provide an indication of where the "wave" is at the moment.

I know that I am sensitive to emotional manipulation, and react to such manipulation by bristling defensively. (For example, I cannot watch the news or listen to country music.) So that could explain it, or it just might not be very effective. Perhaps it goes too far, and the message only works if it is more subtle?

Thank you for sharing your reaction, which I find illuminating. It did not occur to me that some people might react in this way because I do not and do not know anybody in person who has professed to having this reaction, but there's the usual Generalizing From One Example issue and the selection effect that comes from the people who I spend time with.

In any case, your reaction definitely helps me better understand where timtyler and cousin it might be coming from.

Anyway, I would say that the "What if it was your daughter" line in the linked video helps some people overcome bias for the reason that I gave in my responses to cousin it, but that it appears to be ineffective or worse for other people. It would be very good to know about the relative frequencies of these populations among people who are potentially interested in developing world aid.

I thought the video picked up from there. I liked the idea of a 'wave' and that idea was strong enough (in theory) to induce me to give aid. What was missing at the end, I think, was some evidence of the wave. For example, how many people on Facebook gave aid on this wave or what fraction of my friends?

So, I think that the situation is that at present there are very few people who are giving money to effective charities which improve health in the developing world but that with the internet and resources like GiveWell there are prospects for this changing significantly. For some indication of where the "wave" is now, see:

  1. The Facebook group for "Giving What We Can."

  2. The information under the "who pledges" links on the website for The Life You Can Save.

  3. The information under "about us" at the website for Giving What We Can.

The point of the What if your daughter was the "drop in the bucket"? line in the linked video is not to convince you that saving some stranger's daughter is equivalent to saving your own daughter.

The point of the What if your daughter was the "drop in the bucket"? line is to highlight the fact that that if it was your daughter, it would mean a lot to you if somebody helped her out and that it's the same for people in the developing world. That there are real individuals involved who have something in common with you - not just some amorphous blob of "poor people in the developing world."

The effect seems to be to create a sympathetic helpful mood in the watcher - by getting them to imagine the problem affecting their own daughter - and then switching the context to: helping a stranger in Africa. This sort of technique is often known as framing.

Of course, whether being manipulated into giving away your cash is a good thing or not seems to depend rather on your perspective.

I agree that the video engages in framing. The point is that framing is always present. The "(cue the skepticism)" segment of the video and people who say similar such things are also engaging in framing.

For about 3 years now I've been giving to a number of charities through a monthly standing order. Initially setting it up was very satisfying and choosing the charities was a little like purchasing a new gadget, assuming a hands on experience is not available, and there are no trusted reviewers, I look at the various options and go with the ones whose advertising most closely reflected my personality and who looked the least like charlatans. With gadget purchases I find these indirect signals much more informative of the experience with the product than any enumeration of features, while individual statistics can convey value (and certainly attract attention) they often obscure the interaction experience or final quality.

So it is with charities, I cannot easily experience for myself whether they convey benefit, nor have I found a trusted source of recommendations. Charities don't tend to focus on the statistics of their work often preferring to focus on the emotions of the problem, perhaps reflecting the reality that naive, emotional people are the most likely to give to charity. Even when statistics are used they are like the feature lists for the gadgets, I feel no confidence that they reflect the whole picture.

While I have received some satisfaction from my donations, I do feel uncomfortable with the lack of confidence I have that my donations are actually causing an improvement, or whether they are directed towards genuine priorities. From my experiences in work I am familiar with the enormous waste within many organisations and how small steps of progress can be eradicated by later poor decision making.

What I really want is a kind of economics of suffering, a measurement of the various problems that I can apply my own weights and hypotheses to. I would like to see a comparison of the expected loss of life, and loss of quality of life, due to temperature rises, famines, AIDs, cancer etc. as well as the expected rate of return on my investment: have any of the charities I can give money to achieved progress or do they just maintain a status quo. How many charities have done the equivalent of eradicating small pox (i.e. solved a problem). Does anyone know of anything like this? I think it would be a much more valuable step than using rationality to empower the emotional arms race between charities.

So it is with charities, I cannot easily experience for myself whether they convey benefit, nor have I found a trusted source of recommendations.

Have you seen GiveWell before? If not, it's well worth looking into.

If you have seen GiveWell before and don't trust its recommendations, why? They're always looking to improve and would welcome suggestions.

Thank you! That's a great link I'll look into it.

The video identifies two broad objections to giving: that the aid is not helpful (1:18–1:21) and that the aid's help is insignificant (1:22–1:29). Even emotionally, it doesn't address the first of these; it does address the other.

Interestingly, the rational answer to the second objection is also very short, and runs along much the same lines as the emotional answer. To wit: the correct comparison is not between the effect that your aid has and the size of the problem, but between the good that your aid does and the harm that it does in wasting money. To connect to the emotional argument: if a life saved beats a pair of expensive shoes, then this is true regardless of how many other lives there are to save. So the second objection is now reduced to the first one: am I in fact saving a life?

Overall, I agree with the OP: there are emotional replies to emotional bias, so emotion can overcome bias. In this case, the question ‘What if [it was] your daughter […]?’ can encourage emotions that overcome bias. That doesn't mean that I like the rest of the video, however. I can also see why even that line (which I do like) can turn off people, like the readers of LessWrong, who recognise emotional manipulation.

I went to the website, where they have plenty of room to give long answers to the first objection; I found nothing! The pledge is very vague, and I already meet its requirements (so I signed it). Given that Peter Singer seems to be behind this, I'm rather disappointed, actually; I respect him as a philosopher.

I went to the website, where they have plenty of room to give long answers to the first objection; I found nothing! The pledge is very vague, and I already meet its requirements (so I signed it). Given that Peter Singer seems to be behind this, I'm rather disappointed, actually; I respect him as a philosopher.

•I agree that Singer has given insufficient attention to the question of effectiveness. In the past he has greatly underestimated the cost of saving a life and paid little attention to the question of whether international aid charities do what they claim to do.

•To be fair to Singer, his most recent book does give information about the effectiveness of international aid.

•The first three links under my response to byrnema and the links therein provide good discussions of the track record of international aid and what effect the best health interventions can reasonably be expected to have.

I still haven't seen a shred of evidence that ongoing "aid" of any kind was ever helpful, and huge volume of evidence against it.

Tricking people into giving away their money is not overcoming bias, it is increasing bias.

I just noticed this comment now.

I still haven't seen a shred of evidence that ongoing "aid" of any kind was ever helpful, and huge volume of evidence against it.

I've addressed The Effectiveness of Developing World Aid previously. What "huge volume of evidence" do you have in mind?

Tricking people into giving away their money is not overcoming bias, it is increasing bias.

Why do you think that "tricking people into giving away their money" is relevant to my posting?