Saturday, April 28, 2012

Memory, creativity, and bias

Here is some recent psychology research that seems obvious to me. Freakonomics reports:
New research finds that it’s alarmingly easy to create false memories for people, even when they know an event didn’t happen
Yes. People can be sincerely trying to tell the truth about their own experiences, and yet be completely wrong. Some personal stories should be treated with suspicion.

A SciAm article reports:

However, despite the widespread positive image of Jobs as a creative genius, he also has a dark reputation for encouraging censorship, “losing sight of honesty and integrity”, belittling employees, and engaging in other morally questionable actions. These harshly contrasting images of Jobs raise the question of why a CEO held in such near-universal positive regard could also be the same one accused of engaging in such contemptible behavior. The answer, it turns out, may have something to do with the aspect of Jobs which is so admired by so many.

In a recent paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers at Harvard and Duke Universities demonstrate that creativity can lead people to behave unethically. In five studies, the authors show that creative individuals are more likely to be dishonest, and that individuals induced to think creatively were more likely to be dishonest. Importantly, they showed that this effect is not explained by any tendency for creative people to be more intelligent, but rather that creativity leads people to more easily come up with justifications for their unscrupulous actions.

SciAm also reports:
The key part of the experiment was that the participants were fully aware of the setup; they knew that they were only hearing one side or the entire story. But this didn’t stop the subjects who heard one-sided evidence from being more confident and biased with their judgments than those who saw both sides. That is, even when people had all the underlying facts, they jumped to conclusions after hearing only one side of the story. ...

Tyler Cowen made a similar point in a TED lecture a few months ago. He explained it this way:

There’s the Nudge book, the Sway book, the Blink book… [they are] all about the ways in which we screw up. And there are so many ways, but what I find interesting is that none of these books identify what, to me, is the single, central, most important way we screw up, and that is, we tell ourselves too many stories, or we are too easily seduced by stories. And why don’t these books tell us that? It’s because the books themselves are all about stories. The more of these books you read, you’re learning about some of your biases, but you’re making some of your other biases essentially worse. So the books themselves are part of your cognitive bias.

The current top-selling science book (besides the Jobs autobiography) is Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer. The author is all over TV, giving a bogus Einstein quote to promote the book. Here is a devastating review:
But my main criticism is that the book relies almost exclusively on anecdote. He trots out case after case of well-known successes (masking tape, Bob Dylan, 3M, Pixar, google, and so on.), and some unknown ones (a surfer, a bartender who puts bacon grease and celery extract in drinks) --always in retrospect -- and draws out what he presents as yet another insight into creativity. But many of these are contradictory. For example, does creativity come out of isolation (p 19) or from teamwork (p120); from breaking convention (p 20) or submitting to its constraints (p 23)? Does it help to be in a positive mood (p32) or a depressed one (p76) or an angry state (161) or a relaxed one (50); does caffeine and other stimulants make the epiphanies less likely (33) or more likely (57)? Should stealing others' ideas be encouraged (247) or discouraged (244)? Does broadening one's set of skills and interests increase creativity (41) or should one concentrate on a single goal (95)? Does relaxation stimulate creativity (p 45) or does difficulty do it better (54)? Does creativity drive toward perfection (p 63) or is it a celebration of errors? (87). Does insight come in a flash (p 17) or is it revealed slowly, after great effort (56)? Must a good poem be "pulled out of us, like a splinter," (p 56) or is it best "vomited." (19)

All of these, apparently.

The book could be added to Cowan's list. There are some well-told stories, but forget about actually learning something about creativity.

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