THE (IN)ACCURACY OF HUMAN JUDGMENT


Humans are said to be rational beings. Compared to any other living beings, humans are considered to be much more equipped in using reason and logic in their actions. This can be corroborated by the fact that the neocortex (the outermost covering of the brain), associated with higher order brain functions such as cognition, is developed the most in humans, in comparison to any other living organism. The front part of the neocortex, known as the frontal lobe, is specifically associated with higher order cognitive skills such as reasoning, problem solving, and decision making.
The neocortex and thus the frontal lobe being the most developed in humans, as compared to other living organisms, suggests that human beings are very accurate in the higher order cognitive skills associated with them. These higher order cognitive skills used in making important judgments that can be very crucial for the growth and development of the individual.
Research, however, indicates the contrary. Human beings, just because having a frontal lobe that is highly developed does not necessarily make them highly skilled in the cognitive abilities associated with it, and therefore, does not necessarily make them very accurate in making judgments. They surely have the potential, but that is not always the case.
Human beings have been found to try to make as little cognitive effort as possible. It has been found that humans try to come to conclusions quickly with putting very little of their cognitive capacities into use, consequently being termed as cognitive misers. This, often, makes individuals fall trap to what psychologists call cognitive biases. Cognitive bias is referred to a deviation from rationality in making a judgment.
Such biases in judgment are very often made when it comes to evaluating other people. This cognitive bias is referred to as halo effect. According to this, when it comes to making an overall judgment about others, people, very often do so on the basis of one or a few characteristics of the person. Quite often one positive characteristic of the person makes him/her to be evaluated positively in other aspects
For instance, if a person is found to be physically attractive, very often he/she is also evaluated to be intelligent, hardworking, and having good social skills. Likewise, a good communicator maybe evaluated as a good leader, which many a times may not necessarily be the case.  In the same manner, one negative aspect of a person becomes a basis to evaluate that person negatively in other aspects.
It is very obvious that making an overall evaluation of an individual on the basis of one aspect, positive or negative, is not the right way to do so. Just because a person has one positive or negative aspect does not really mean that he or she will be the same for other aspects. Despite this, people very often do make such errors in judgment.
The halo effect, even though a cognitive bias, becomes the basis for developing relationships and even hiring people for jobs. Research shows that people who are found to be physically attractive have a better probability to be hired for jobs, even if they may not be competent enough for that job.
The halo effect can also be used to manipulate the judgment of people. Many a times an individual may be deliberately presented in a way in which one of their positive or negative aspect is highlighted. Based on that one aspect, people, without even thinking properly, make an overall assessment of that person. This is how public relations agencies and media houses function when it comes to creating a positive or negative image of film and television personalities, and even politicians.
Such a bias has been corroborated in classic social psychological research, especially by psychologists Edward Thorndike and Solomon Asch. It is, therefore, advisable to form impressions only after knowing multiple aspects of the individual, and not just one aspect. By doing so, it will help in not falling trap to the halo effect, and thus, not evaluating people in an inaccurate manner.             
One of the most commonly occurring and widely researched cognitive biases is that people tend to make judgments on the basis of information that is readily available, which is called the availability heuristic. Individuals encounter a lot of information around them. This information can be in the form of the conversations that they have with others or it could be available in the general media and the internet.
The authenticity of these information and whether or not these are the only information available, can be questionable. Yet, people, without thinking about it take such information as a given, easily believe it, and make their judgments on the basis of that.
There has been a lot of research that shows that information can be manipulated to be made readily available. Especially, media has, more than often, been found to present some information and not highlight or display a lot more information. Information, time and again, has been found to be manipulated by the media to make people believe something and not even think about other things. The excessive usage of internet and information being so easily accessible through social media, has made such things easier.
Often it has been found that the information that is presented is not even accurate. In recent times, it has been found that there has been a presentation of a lot of fake information. Not only people start believing this, but they also come forward to defend and support such information. Only because this information is readily available, people tend to believe it, without thinking much about it.
This tendency of believing any information that is readily available, even if it is inaccurate, is worrisome, especially when it has been found that it is being deliberately presented by media houses, corporates, and political parties. By making such information readily available, they are manipulating the thought processes of individuals by making them believe what they want. In doing so, they are made to be away from the truth and believe what is false, and take forward their agenda, no matter how dangerous or illogical it may be.
A lot of advertising agencies use the availability heuristic very well to promote a product. For instance, eatables are promoted in a specific way in such that more and more people buy it, even if it is unhealthy; the health aspect many a times is deliberately not revealed.
A very common misuse of the availability heuristic by media houses and social media is to spread false or misleading information about specific social groups. Because such information is so readily available, people start believing in it, no matter how misleading or incorrect it may be. This plays an important role in developing stereotypes. These stereotypes become a basis for developing hatred among people. Often political organizations use media houses and social media to spread such information and misguide people.
They more than often succeed in doing so, because people have the tendency of falling trap to what is called the outgroup homogeneity effect. The outgroup homogeneity effect is the tendency to view people from the outgroup to be more similar and less diverse as compared to the group that they belong to.
One of the reasons for this is a lack of information about the other group. The lack of information makes it easier for individuals to fall trap of the availability heuristic. When people do not know much about members of an outgroup then they tend to believe whatever information that is provided to them. This becomes all the more possible when such (misleading) information is constantly out there via social media and other media houses.
Therefore, the availability heuristic coupled with the outgroup homogeneity effect tend to create strong negative and inaccurate beliefs. These beliefs get further enhanced due to the tendency of people overweighing information that is similar and confirming to their beliefs, and disregarding and undermining information that is disconfirming. This is a fundamental cognitive bias known as the confirmation bias or confirmatory bias.
Because of overweighing of information that is conforming, people tend to completely ignore and undermine any counter-argument. Further, they will seek out information that supports their belief and ignore information that contradicts their belief. They also tend to misinterpret information, so that their beliefs are supported. Finally, they even recall information that is confirming.
The confirmation bias takes place because people do not want to be proved wrong and always want to be proved right. This is why when any information that is contradicting their beliefs, they ignore and disregard it, and even tend to trivialize it. Such information creates cognitive dissonance, which is a discomforting experience when confronted with contradictions. In order to reduce this dissonance, people get drawn towards information that is more in light of their existing beliefs. Such acts also tend to be reinforcing them as it helps them to prove themselves to be right.
Again, the way in which information is presented can play a role in having confirmation bias. When people are always exposed to similar kind of information, from media houses or their peers and family members, it continuously reinforces their beliefs. The more exposure they get to information confirming their beliefs the more reinforced they feel, and the more they will undermine any contradictory information in order to sustain that pleasant feeling of being reinforced.
It is a well-established fact that human perception and beliefs are blemished with inconsistencies, fallacies, and inaccuracies. The many cognitive biases are good examples of this. This problem gets intensified to a much greater extent when socio-political organizations, media houses, and corporates deliberately take advantage of these cognitive biases and present information in such a way that misleads and misguides people.
However, as mentioned above, humans, even though are known to be cognitive misers, certainly do have the potential for deep level cognitive processing. This is where the idea of critical thinking comes into play. Critical thinking is about always doubting, questioning, and challenging one’s ideas and beliefs, even the deepest of beliefs. It involves not accepting any information as a given, even from the most trusted individuals or the highest of authorities, and looking at multiple facets of the same information, before coming to any kind of conclusion.
Critical thinking also involves the idea of not always being right and accepting that one can be wrong, and that there is nothing wrong in changing one’s perspective and beliefs according to more reliable and accurate information. This is what in fact makes a person grow. It is about not always being guided by emotions and rather taking more of a rationalistic and skeptic perspective when making judgments.
In the age of social media, media manipulation, and fake news, the understanding of cognitive biases such as the availability heuristic become highly relevant. People, for the sake of unwarranted, gratuitous, and unlawful gains can easily and unknowingly be misinformed and misguided. It has the tendency to have adverse ill-effects on not only the individual psyche, but on the society and civilization as a whole.
An understanding of these cognitive biases, therefore, helps in countering such illicit acts, which has the potential to prosper the individual and the society. It gives the realization that there is a need to constantly ask questions, dig in the multiple layers, reach the innermost of depths, and not accept the given, the obvious.

Saif Farooqi

A PhD in Psychology (from the University of Delhi). I have been blogging about psychological issues for more than ten years. I am extremely passionate about teaching psychology. I'm a writer, an independent researcher, and conduct workshops and awareness programs in schools and colleges. Currently, I'm also working as an Assistant Professor in Psychology at the Department of Applied Psychology, Vivekananda College, University of Delhi, India.

2 comments:

TF said...

Very nice article. Misinformation is very prevalent today due to social media. Anyone can start posting any information freely and are guaranteed to get an audience. Many political parties and media houses actually have armies of people who are paid to only spread misinformation on social media to sway people's thoughts and beliefs. It's a very very sad and unfortunate situation.

Saif Farooqi said...

Yeah, social media is really misused in this manner by political parties. I read this book called The Dark Net by Jamie Bartlett. He has written a lot about it in the book.
It is really unfortunate that people easily get swayed by all this ...

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