Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Einstellung effect: simple truths we cannot see.

Epistemic closure (in political thought). Confirmation bias [6]. Availability heuristic (Kahneman System 1). Premature cognitive commitment. Even, perhaps [5], delusion. These are all forms of cognitive bias [1].

They drive me nuts [7]. Not because I have a problem with the concept of cognitive bias, but because I always know I’m missing something obvious.

It’s just out there. A better solution to a problem, something I’m doing wrong and can’t see it, a problem I don’t even know I have. Something in my blind spot that’s closing fast. An opportunity, a threat an ….. argggggggghhh!

Ok, I’m back. Do you know how hard it is to find a paper bag in 2014?

Cognitive bias is why, more than most people I know, I’m always seeking criticism. That includes anybody, often not a friend [2], who is happy to tell me why I’m an idiot. Every so often see what I missed, and the joy of that correction more than compensates for minor tweaks of my thick skin.

So I’m happy to point to a new entry in the ‘what am I missing’ category — the Einstellung Effect. This is best described in a SciAm article that’s available from the 1st author’s web site (pdf, see also 2008 academic pub). Bilalić and McLeod’s work adds neurophysiology to one version of premature cognitive closure; a tantalizing connection given how much we seem to think with our bodies [3].

Their recent research has explored cognitive error in expert chess players whose very expertise leads them to errors more naive players would avoid. They seem to have adopted their visual cortex to solve certain thinking problems [4], and thus to be afflicted by the visual processing adaptations that evolved for the physical world (emphases mine)…

Why Good Thoughts Block Better Ones, Bilalić and McLeod, SciAm March 2014

…  Building on Luchins’s early work, psychologists replicated the Einstellung effect in many different laboratory studies with both novices and experts exercising a range of mental abilities, but exactly how and why it happened was never clear. Recently, by recording the eye movements of highly skilled chess players, we have solved the mystery. It turns out that people under the influence of this cognitive shortcut are literally blind to certain details in their environment that could provide them with a more effective solution. New research also suggests that many different cognitive biases discovered by psychologists over the years—those in the courtroom and the hospital, for instance— are in fact variations of the Einstellung effect.

… the mere possibility of the smothered mate move was stubbornly masking alternative solutions… infrared camera revealed that even when the players said they were looking for a faster solution—and indeed believed they were doing so—they did not actually shift their gaze away from the squares they had already identified as part of the smothered mate move.

I think of Delusion as an extreme manifestation of the Einstellung effect. Given our emerging understanding of autism and schizophrenia as similar manifestations of a neural network injury, I wonder if we’ll find connections between delusional beliefs and visual networks…

- fn -

[1] I love Wikipedia’s “List” articles; I suspect Google’s Knowledge Graph loves ‘em too. See also Wikipedia’s recursive Lists of Lists of Lists

[2] My favorite corrector is an correspondent who I don’t know enough to claim as a friend, but who is a wonderfully cordial correspondent. That’s the best of all.

[3] An extraordinarily brilliant college roommate, who was later disabled by a schizophrenia like disorder, first suggested this to me in 1981. So the modern literature did not surprise me. Incidentally, he subsequently acquired a PhD and joined a NASA research facility. He found a way around his disorder.

[4] No, I cannot resist thinking of using GPUs to solve parallelism problems faster than CPUs.

[5] I personally think of delusion as an extreme form of cognitive closure; and I think it’s far more common than the psychotic disorders. An area ripe for research.

[6] Via the Einstellung article, a fantastic quote from one Francis Bacon’s 1620 Novum Organum:

“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion . . . draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects or despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects.... Men ... mark the events where they are fulfilled, but where they fail, though this happen much oftener, neglect and pass them by. But with far more subtlety does this mischief insinuate itself into philosophy and the sciences, in which the first conclusion colours and brings into conformity with itself all that comes after.”

Bacon always amazes. I’d declare him “father of cognitive science” for this quote alone. “Epistemic closure” is not new …

[7] This isn’t a new obsession. As a first year med student @1982 I devoured a 1970s text on clinical diagnosis that listed common cognitive errors, beginning with confirmation bias. This book has been rewritten many times since, alas the title and author are lost to my memory.


MaysonicWrites said...

The final paragraph of the SciAm article has the following gold from Darwin: “I had ... during many years, followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed by my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once,” he wrote. “For I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from memory than favourable ones.”

JGF said...

Beautiful quote.