All knowing

Kevin Lewis

December 04, 2018

The Dark Side of Information Proliferation
Thomas Hills
Perspectives on Psychological Science, forthcoming


There are well-understood psychological limits on our capacity to process information. As information proliferation — the consumption and sharing of information — increases through social media and other communications technology, these limits create an attentional bottleneck, favoring information that is more likely to be searched for, attended to, comprehended, encoded, and later reproduced. In information-rich environments, this bottleneck influences the evolution of information via four forces of cognitive selection, selecting for information that is belief-consistent, negative, social, and predictive. Selection for belief-consistent information leads balanced information to support increasingly polarized views. Selection for negative information amplifies information about downside risks and crowds out potential benefits. Selection for social information drives herding, impairs objective assessments, and reduces exploration for solutions to hard problems. Selection for predictive patterns drives overfitting, the replication crisis, and risk seeking. This article summarizes the negative implications of these forces of cognitive selection and presents eight warnings that represent severe pitfalls for the naive “informavore,” accelerating extremism, hysteria, herding, and the proliferation of misinformation.

Power Increases the Self‐Serving Bias in the Attribution of Collective Successes and Failures
Joris Lammers & Pascal Burgmer
European Journal of Social Psychology, forthcoming


Three studies test the effect of power on the self‐serving bias in attributing collective outcomes. The first two studies measure (Experiment 1) and manipulate (Experiment 2) power and then measure the internal (vs. external) attribution of past successes and failures. Consistently, those who feel powerful show a stronger self‐serving tendency to selectively attribute successes internally and failures externally than those who feel powerless. Experiment 3 compares the effects of power (control over others) and personal control (over oneself). We find that power increases the self‐serving bias, but a lack of control can limit this effect by reducing the external attribution of failures. Presumably, people who lack control are disinclined to attribute outcomes – including failures – externally because doing so would further aggravate their lack of control. Together, these results suggest that power increases a bias in the attribution of success and failure and thus presents a fundamental challenge to good leadership.

Does Counter-Attitudinal Information Cause Backlash? Results from Three Large Survey Experiments
Andrew Guess & Alexander Coppock
British Journal of Political Science, forthcoming


Several theoretical perspectives suggest that when individuals are exposed to counter-attitudinal evidence or arguments, their pre-existing opinions and beliefs are reinforced, resulting in a phenomenon sometimes known as ‘backlash’. This article formalizes the concept of backlash and specifies how it can be measured. It then presents the results from three survey experiments – two on Mechanical Turk and one on a nationally representative sample – that find no evidence of backlash, even under theoretically favorable conditions. While a casual reading of the literature on information processing suggests that backlash is rampant, these results indicate that it is much rarer than commonly supposed.

Do You Really Know If It’s True? How Asking Users to Rate Stories Affects Belief in Fake News on Social Media
Patricia Moravec et al.
Indiana University Working Paper, October 2018


The rise of “fake news” has become a major concern for social media platforms. In response, Facebook has proposed and tested the idea of users flagging and rating news articles and sources, much akin to how consumers rate products and services on the Internet. One obvious challenge with this crowdsourced rating approach is whether the users really know enough to rate news articles and sources. Perhaps, a side benefit of asking users to evaluate an article — and asking about their personal experience with the event described in the article — is making them realize that they do not know enough about the event to make an accurate judgment, thus pushing them to become more skeptical. We asked 68 social media users to assess the believability of 42 social media headlines. We found that, while users were generally more likely to believe articles that agreed with their point of view, asking users to rate pushed them to think more critically about the truthfulness of the articles. Moreover, once users had been asked to rate some articles, they remained critical of other articles as well, even without the rating prompt. Overall, our findings suggest that asking users to evaluate the truthfulness of articles may not only produce rating information that can be a useful reference at a later point in time but also have an immediate benefit of alerting users to think more critically about all articles they see.

Fake science: The impact of pseudo-psychological demonstrations on people’s beliefs in psychological principles
Yuxuan Lan et al.
PLoS ONE, November 2018


Magicians use deception to create effects that allow us to experience the impossible. More recently, magicians have started to contextualize these tricks in psychological demonstrations. We investigated whether witnessing a magic demonstration alters people’s beliefs in these pseudo-psychological principles. In the classroom, a magician claimed to use psychological skills to read a volunteer’s thoughts. After this demonstration, participants reported higher beliefs that an individual can 1) read a person’s mind by evaluating micro expressions, psychological profiles and muscle activities, and 2) effectively prime a person’s behaviour through subtle suggestions. Whether he was presented as a magician or psychologist did not influence people’s beliefs about how the demonstration was achieved, nor did it influence their beliefs in pseudo-psychological principles. Our results demonstrate that pseudo-psychological demonstrations can have a significant impact on perpetuating false beliefs in scientific principles and raise important questions about the wider impact of scientific misinformation.

A Theory of Blanket Recommendations
Doron Levit & Anton Tsoy
University of Pennsylvania Working Paper, September 2018


“One-size-fits-all” recommendations are common in many contexts, including those with a widespread heterogeneity. We propose a model that rationalizes this phenomenon. An expert recommends two agents whether to adopt a policy. The expert is privately informed about the benefit of the policy to each agent, but also about the bias in his judgment. We show that a blanket recommendation arises endogenously in equilibrium even though the benefits from the policy are independent across agents. A blanket recommendation allows the expert to conceal his bias, thereby increasing his influence. This result is robust to the introduction of disobedience costs or having more than two agents. We discuss the application of the model to economic reforms proposed by the IMF and the World Bank, voting guidelines by proxy advisory firms, policy recommendations of the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, central bank communications, and mentoring.

Psychological Distance Promotes Exploration in Search of a Global Maximum
Daniel Yudkin et al.
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, forthcoming


Agents must sometimes decide whether to exploit a known resource or search for potentially more profitable options. Here, we investigate the role of psychological distancing in promoting exploratory behavior. We argue that exploration dilemmas pit the value of a reward (“desirability”) against the difficulty or uncertainty of obtaining it (“feasibility”). Based on construal level theory, which suggests that psychological distance increases the importance of rewards’ desirability (vs. feasibility), we expect that psychological distance will increase exploration. Four experiments support this prediction. In Experiment 1, participants who were prompted to consider an exploration game from a physically distanced perspective were more likely to leave a local maximum in search of a global maximum. Experiments 2 and 3 show that social distance has similar results. Experiment 4 finds evidence of a direct association between construal mind-set and exploration. Overall, this research highlights how psychological distancing strategies can promote exploration.

Education, Decision-Making, and Economic Rationality
James Banks, Leandro Carvalho & Francisco Perez-Arce
Review of Economics and Statistics, forthcoming


This article studies the causal effect of education on decision-making. In 1972 England raised its minimum school-leaving age from 15 to 16 for students born after September 1, 1957. An online survey was conducted with 2,700 individuals born in a 36-month window on either side of this date. Participants made 25 incentivized risk choices that allow us to measure multiple dimensions of decision-making. Despite the policy having effects on education, educational qualifications, and income, we find no effects of the policy on decision-making or decision-making quality.

The Impacts of Stress on Economic Decisions
Zachary Hohman et al.
Texas Tech University Working Paper, September 2018


The rational choice model presumes that individuals are rational and make optimizing decisions based on available information. Theory suggests that lack of information and risk (and risk perceptions) can alter decisions from the static perfect information case, but do not necessarily result in irrational decisions. Stress is another factor that may alter our perceptions and increase cognitive loading (increase the cost) of decision-making. Here, we use an experiment to induce stress and employ a simple ultimatum bargaining game to determine whether stress impacts economic decisions. Our results indicate that those exposed to stress (psychological, uncertainty or physiological, cold pressor task) significantly lower their gains (become less aggressive in bidding) than the control group. These results suggest that stress does, in fact, change behavior and leads to “hedging” behavior that lowers overall gains but increases the probability of success.

Fame as an Illusion of Creativity: Evidence from the Pioneers of Abstract Art
Banerjee Mitali & Paul Ingram
Columbia University Working Paper, August 2018


We build a social structural model of fame, which departs from the atomistic view of prior literature where creativity is the sole driver of fame in creative markets. We test the model in a significant empirical context: 90 pioneers of the early 20th century (1910–25) abstract art movement. We find that an artist in a brokerage rather than a closure position was likely to become more famous. This effect was not, however, associated with the artist’s creativity, which we measured using both objective computational methods and subjective expert evaluations, and which was not itself related to fame. Rather than creativity, brokerage networks were associated with cosmopolitan identities -- broker’s alters were likely to differ more from each other’s nationalities -- and this was the key social-structural driver of fame.

Networks Created Within Exhibition: The Curators’ Effect on Historical Recognition
L.E.A. Braden
American Behavioral Scientist, forthcoming


This research examines artist networks created by shared museum exhibition. While previous research on artistic careers assesses self-cultivated networks, historical recognition may be further influenced by connections created by important others, such as museum curators and art historians. I argue when museum exhibitions show artists together, curators are creating symbolic associations between artists that signal the artist’s import and contextualization within his or her peer group. These exhibition-created associations, in turn, influence historians who must choose a small selection of artists to exemplify a historical cohort. The research tests this idea through a cohort of 125 artists’ exhibition networks in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, from 1929 to 1968 (996 exhibitions). Individual network variables, such as number and quality of connections, are examined for impact on an artist’s recognition in current art history textbooks (2012-2014). Results indicate certain connections created by exhibition have a positive effect on historical recognition, even when controlling for individual accomplishments of the artist (such as solo exhibitions). Artists connected with prestigious artists through “strong symbolic ties” (i.e., repeated exhibition) tend to garner the most historical recognition, suggesting robust associations with historical peers may signify an artist’s exemplary status within his or her cohort, and consequent “good fit” into the historical narrative.

The Sounds of Silence: Inferences from the Absence of Word‐of‐Mouth
Kimberlee Weaver & Anne Hamby
Journal of Consumer Psychology, forthcoming


While past work has explored some of the reasons why people themselves may remain silent in a group, almost no research has examined the mirror image of this question: How do consumers construe the silence of others? Do they project the opinions of the speakers in a conversation onto the silent individuals, assuming that silence signals agreement? Do they have a usual or “default” naïve theory of silence that they use to explain it across multiple contexts — i.e., “silence usually signals disagreement?” Or does silence act as a mirror, reflecting observers’ own opinions back at them? Three experiments contrasted perceivers’ estimates of conversational silence with their estimates of unknown opinions outside the conversation. Estimates of opinions outside the conversation generally followed an agreement‐with‐the‐speakers rule — the more an opinion was expressed in the group, the more consumers assumed others would support it too. In contrast, silence inside the conversation was interpreted very differently, serving as a mirror for participants’ own thoughts, even when the vocal majority favored the opposite position. Results suggest a process whereby observers project the reason they personally would have been silent in the group (given their opinion) onto silence, leading to an inference that the silents agree with the self.

to your National Affairs subscriber account.

Already a subscriber? Activate your account.


Unlimited access to intelligent essays on the nation’s affairs.

Subscribe to National Affairs.