Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Castro, Taleb, and The Superman Effect

An interesting coincidence -- and addendum to yesterday morning's post (read it first).

So, in the afternoon, while flying from Vancouver to Honolulu I was listening to a podcast (EconTalk, April 02007) of Nassim Taleb talking about his new book The Black Swan. About 27 minutes in, Taleb describes a classic psychological experiment in which subjects were shown a very blurred image, which was incrementally brought into focus, and they were asked to identify what was in the picture (e.g., a dog).

I dug up the paper by Bruner and Potter that he was referencing, which appeared in the journal Science in 01964: "Interference in Visual Recognition". Their conclusion was that "The greater or more prolonged the initial blur, the slower the eventual recognition." How so?
The amount of exposure necessary to invalidate an incorrect interpretation seems to exceed that required to set up a first interpretation, so that at any particular clarity of the display, those who see it for the first time are more likely to recognize the objects than those who started viewing at a less clear stage.

It seems the early hypotheses people formed about what they were looking at while the dog image became sharper threw them off the scent, as it were. I don't know if this tendency has an official name, but for convenience we might call it the Superman Effect ("Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird...It's a plane...It's Superman!")

Viewers with less hypothetical baggage perceive more clearly at the same level of resolution. This provides an insight into the cognitive goings-on behind the viewer's experience of Hanley's Castro corpse video; we can surmise that the gradual reveal, counterintuitively, culminates in more surprise for the viewer than would a clear snapshot of the same thing. This may have implications for communicating futures, for both activism and pedagogical purposes.

For Taleb, this effect illustrates the "confirmation bias" at work (the tendency to process new information so as to confirm our preconceptions or beliefs). This is perhaps the key concept informing his work at the moment, and he urges us to recognise it as a serious hindrance to apprehending what's really going on, when we try to understand the world.

Now, the post yesterday implied an analogy between visual perception and thinking ahead (the idea being that "prediction" of what's swimming into focus corresponds to one's understanding of the unfolding process you're watching). I'll get into why this troubles me some other time. But for now, this relationship seems to me more than merely a casual metaphor or convenient symmetry -- for instance, it's deeply embedded in the very notion of "foresight". And it leads me to wonder whether the Superman effect (viewers with less hypothetical baggage perceive more clearly at the same level of resolution) might be related to political psychologist Philip Tetlock's findings in his book Expert Political Judgment (see this earlier post). His massive research project on predictions showed, among many other things, that dilettantes can do as well as or better than subject-matter experts in making forecasts about the future in a given domain. Greater familiarity with a complex topic may actually get in the way of discerning the broad trends at play.

This is good news for the generalist, but bad news for those who seek to understand of the broad changes going on by following current affairs. In the same EconTalk interview, Taleb argues -- and I concur -- that newspapers are best avoided because of their tendency to overblow, overinterpret, and overnarrativise every micro-event.

Which also explains why, in light of the Cuban President's fluctuating health in recent times, reports of his imminent death have been greatly exaggerated.

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