Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Psychology of Religious Intuitions: Imagination, Science & Availability

This series explores the psychology of intuition and cognitive illusion, specifically as applied to religious intuitions.  See background, representativeness, and randomness & chance.


Consider the letter R in most English words: in words of at least three letters, do you think R is more likely to appear in the first position of a word or in the third position?

When Tversky and Kahneman asked this question to survey participants, a large majority answered that R appears more frequently in the first position.  The correct answer is that more words in English feature R in the third spot.  Why would people intuitively think differently?

It is easier, Tversky and Kahneman answered, to think of words that begin with R--and people use this ease of recall as a cue about frequency.  The intuition goes something like: "Hmm...rabbit, road, race, rock, sure is easy to think of words where R comes one is harder.  There must be more words where R comes first."  This rule of thumb is known as the availability heuristic: we think what is more mentally available (i.e. easier to recall or imagine) is more likely. 

A caveman would have a hard time imagining how a
computing machine would ever be built. That doesn't
change the likelihood it would happen. 
In particular, people will often use the ease of imagining a scenario to judge how likely it is.  For example, if you see a car accident, it becomes easier for you to imagine one, and you will have an increased estimate of the likelihood of getting in an accident.

In reality, though, the ease of remembering or imagining a scenario does not necessarily tell you how likely it is. So, for example, people heavily overestimate the number of deaths from tornadoes each year but underestimate the number of deaths from drowning each year, because we hear more on the news about tornadoes than drowning--it is more available. 

Like all heuristics, this one can be useful in daily life, but it is just a best guess that can easily be wrong--especially when we are dealing with the nature of the universe, which is complex. Daily life simply doesn't give us a basis for imagining what happens over eons (i.e. evolution), or at the quantum level (i.e. quantum indeterminacy), or at the level of the astronomical (i.e. the big bang).  Therefore, scientific explanations can often be true and well-evidenced, yet difficult to imagine and thus counterintuitive.

Religious intuitions often draw on what is easily imaginable.  I.e., "I just can't imagine how all life could have evolved on its own without a Creator."  A commenter once wrote on this blog:
Every facet of the universe is so unbelievably complex, that any single element within the whole sufficiently testifies to the handiwork of the Creator. If a magnificent work of art cannot be formed by merely spilling paint, certainly the entire world cannot have been fashioned by accident. For the logical mind, seemingly there is nothing more irrational than suggesting G-d not create the world.
This comment is largely based on the representativeness heuristic, which was previously discussed.  Beyond that, though, the author's confidence comes from the difficulty of imagining any alternative.  It is indeed difficult to imagine how something complex can come about without conscious design--but that doesn't actually make it unlikely! It is the availability heuristic that incorrectly transforms a difficulty of imagination into an intuition of probability, and a gut instinct into a false sense of logic.

Indeed, it takes work and careful reasoning--not simply imaginative impulse--to override intuition and figure out how each piece came to be.  In the case of evolution, for example, one can read books that carefully map out each step, like The Blind Watchmaker. But some people stop before that; they just take the fact that something is hard to imagine and incorrectly use that difficulty as a cue that it is unlikely. 

Philosopher Dan Dennett aptly writes that a failure of imagination should not be mistaken for an insight into necessity.  The availability heuristic explains why.

Further reading:

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Psychology of Religious Intuitions: Randomness & Chance

This series explores the psychology of intuition and cognitive illusion, specifically as applied to religious intuitions.  See background and representativeness

Randomness & Chance

Consider two questions:

1) You flip a fair coin six times.  Which of the following two sequences is more likely to occur:  H-T-H-T-T-H or H-H-H-H-T-H?
2) A basketball player is on a major hot streak, landing him a spot on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Soon afterwards, his performance drops and he is no longer noteworthy.  Is this evidence for the "Sports Illustrated Jinx," according to which appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated jinxes athletes to bad performance?

1) If you're like most people surveyed in the experiments of famed psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, you probably think the answer to question 1 is the first sequence: it just looks more random, right?  The correct answer is that they are both about equally likely under the laws of chance.

A random series of coin flips is expected to be half heads and half tails only in the very long run. But, people use a mental shortcut (the representativeness heuristic) that expects short runs to be representative of long runs: we think any sequence of coin flips should look as fair as a long run.  This leads to a systematic bias called the clustering illusion: people think clusters are meaningful patterns even when they are frequently produced by chance, because that's not what we expect chance to look like.  We are terrible intuitive statisticians.  Randomness actually creates clusters, according to the laws of probability--but we intuitively think it won't.

Religious intuitions often involve claims about patterns that "could not possibly be due to chance."  (I don't have in mind evolution here, because evolution is actually a systematic process, not a chance process--a point often misunderstood by creationists.)  People cite supposed miracles or facets of the world that "could not be coincidence;" they see shapes of Jesus in crackers when elements cluster together more than they intuitively expect, and see divine signs in the world around them.  But as we have seen, people are notoriously bad at judging intuitively what randomness looks like: we are very prone to seeing patterns where there are none.  The only way to ascertain randomness is by using formal statistical procedures; logic and scientific thinking are trustworthy where intuition leads astray. 

2) If you are like many people, you might intuitively think the Sports Illustrated jinx is real, or at least eery.  But, it is easily explained by an overlooked fact called regression toward the mean. A basketball player's performance is due both to his actual skill level and to some degree of luck--aka random chance.  If someone is suddenly performing well enough to make the cover of SI, they probably have been experiencing unusually good luck. Since unusually good luck is...well, unusual, we don't expect it to continue, meaning that they go back (regress) to how they normally play (their mean). Appearing on the cover of SI just coincides with the time of unusually good luck, which we expect to end anyway. The SI jinx is an example of a general tendency people have: we are very good at seeing cause and effect (or inventing explanations) when random fluctuations are actually at work.

In his book How We Know What Isn't So, psychologist Thomas Gilovich relates an experience he had on a trip to Israel:
"A flurry of deaths by natural causes in the northern part of the country led to speculation about some new and unusual threat. It was not determined whether the increase...was within the normal fluctuation in the death rate that one can expect by chance. Instead, remedies for the problem were quickly put in place.  In particular, a group of rabbis attributed the problem to the sacrilege of allowing women to attend funerals, formerly a forbidden practice. The remedy was a decree that subsequently barred women from funerals in the area. The decree was quickly enforced, and the rash of unusual deaths subsided" (Gilovich, 1991, pg. 28.)
A string of deaths can be expected by chance fluctuations, just like the string of "heads" above. But, people saw a meaningful pattern because we wrongly expect randomness not to come in clusters. Meanwhile, the actual death rate at a given moment is due to the average death rate plus some degree of luck (chance); if the death rate rose unusually, it means there was a string of unusually bad luck that is unlikely to continue (the death rate should regress to its mean). So, surprise, surprise: the rabbis enacted their decree while there was unusually bad luck and the death rate went down to normal, and--voilá!--they see cause and effect.

The moral of the story is that people are biased to see patterns and cause and effect where there is randomness, leading to religious intuitions. Scientific thinking must be employed to understand complex phenomena and the nature of the universe.  In this case, carefully applied statistics can tell us what is random and what is not, when our intuitions turn us into hyperactive pattern-detectors.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Psychology of Religious Intuitions: Representativeness

This series explores the psychology of intuition and cognitive illusion, specifically as applied to religious intuitions.  See background.


Consider the following: 
Lisa is 30 years old, single, bright, and outspoken. She majored in philosophy in college, where she became very concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice. How likely would you judge each of the following possibilities to be?
-Lisa is a bank teller
-Lisa sells insurance
-Lisa is a bank teller and active in the feminist movement. 

If you have the intuitions of most people surveyed in psychology experiments, you would report a low likelihood for the first option and a higher likelihood for the third option. It intuitively fits, right?  In actuality, the third option is less likely than the first: the probability of A and B happening is always lower than the probability of A alone (see here for an explanation). So why do we intuitively think otherwise?

In the 1960s and 1970s, famed psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky found that people aren't usually as rational as we think.  We rely on mental shortcuts called heuristics that save time and energy and are often useful, but are prone to systematic error. It is a tradeoff between speed and accuracy, and it makes us bad intuitive statisticians in predictable ways.

In this case, the mental juicer in our analogy delivers a cup of intuition about what is likely.  The process that makes the juice, though, is not proper statistical calculation. It is a shortcut called "representativeness:" we judge each option in terms of how much it is representative of, or similar to, an imagined prototype.  In this case, the image of Lisa as a bank teller and feminist is more representative of how we imagine someone like her, so we think it's more likely--even though it is not.  Many judgments of probability can be shown to be wrong for this reason.

This heuristic leads people to expect that causes will resemble (be representative of) their effects; that outcomes will resemble the process that created them; that big effects will have big causes; etc. While this is true often enough to be useful, it is often not true: small viruses can cause massive epidemics, and cigarettes can create raging forest fires (small cause, big effect). Or, people incorrectly expect sons to be the same height as their fathers more often than would be predicted by the laws of chance (outcome does not resemble what created it). 

The representativeness heuristic has been argued to underlie magical thinking: in superstition and in homeopathy, people believe that "like cures like"--i.e., tree bark that causes malaria-like symptoms supposedly cures malaria (causes should resemble their effects). Intuitively, many people think something as complex and intelligent as humans must have been caused by something complex and intelligent, rather than a systematic but "blind" natural process (outcomes should resemble the process that created them). Or, many people think that disasters like earthquakes must have deeper spiritual causes, rather than mere tectonic plate shifts (big effects should have big causes).  

But, all these intuitions rely on a shorthand rule known to produce wrong results.  As such, these intuitions cannot be taken at face value; it takes scientific investigation and critical analysis to determine probabilities and causes.  (That being said, if any of these intuitions still have some pull on you, hold on until we get to later installments--I believe representativeness is one contributor to these intuitions, but that there are others as well.) 

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Psychology of Religious Intuitions

Intuitions are very useful. When it comes to complex decisions (like buying a house or deciding who to marry) or when using expertise (like a grand master in chess deciding on a move), intuition is undoubtedly the way to go, as evidenced by common sense and psychological research.

But people often also use intuitions to try to understand the nature of the universe or religious truth. At this point, are intuitions still reliable or do they lead us astray? If you have any interest in the psychology of intuitions and cognitive illusions, or if you wonder whether and when you should trust religious intuitions (and why or why not), you should find this series of interest. To be up-front about it: I will explore evidence suggesting that many types of religious intuitions are indeed based on cognitive illusions that yield fascinating insight into our minds.


What are intuitions? As I will consider them, intuitions are judgments or feelings we come to without knowing how we came to them. If you reason through each step, it's logic. If you have a gut feeling that you don't know how you got, it's intuition.

Intuitions do not emerge magically or from a sixth sense, though: they emerge from non-conscious processing. They are like a mill, or the juicer shown above: our brains take input, do something to it inside our mental machinery, and out comes an intuition. Because the processing is non-conscious--hidden inside the machinery, in the juicer analogy--we only see the output (the intuition). However, experimental psychologists can study how the juicer works: what input does it take and what does it do to it in order to produce this intuition?

Consider catching a baseball. In a sense, this involves intuition: your brain takes visual input and must solve some complex physics problems to determine where the ball will go, when it will go there, and at what speed. Consciously, though, you just intuitively know. Again, this can be incredibly useful and time-saving.

So what could go wrong? A few things. For example: 1) Intuitions often involve shortcuts, also called heuristics. These shortcuts usually serve us well, but are fallible and may lead to illusions. 2) Our intuitions developed to handle our ordinary-thing world and ordinary time lengths. Their usefulness can break down at the level of the microscopic or the astronomical, or nanoseconds or eons--but people still feel intuitive tugs at those levels.

Therefore, there are many times when our intuitions about what is true must be critically examined or restrained by logic and scientific thinking.

In future installments, I'll use this background to explore specific intuitions and heuristics we often rely on, examine how they work and when they go wrong, and identify how they connect to religious intuition.