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Friday, September 26, 2014

Negative Bias

Suppose you have a long academic career, publishing many articles, and having others rejected or given a "revise and resubmit." If twice in the your career you have really bad experiences with reviewers, and you have another subset of reviewers who are ok but mediocre, and you the rest of the time you have really insightful reviewers, what are you likely to remember most?

You will remember the really bad reviewers, who are least typical, the most often, because negative experiences are more salient. If a reviewer says my work is fine, and I get published, I don't even remember much later about what s/he said. It could be a bad reviewer, even, but I won't care.

There is a cognitive distortion in the direction of negativity, and this distortion seems reasonable to us in some cases. Suppose a murderer claims that the murder is very atypical of his overall behavior. In fact, if the murderer has killed one person, you could rightly say that there are thousands of days, or even tens of thousands of days, in which he did nothing of the kind. But you would reject this argument because, well, the person is a murderer.

Another mechanism, though, is for the severity of bad experiences to fade in time. You can laugh over very bad experiences in the past (sometimes) that were very painful to live through.


Andrew Shields said...

There's the joke about Lincoln's assassination: "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?" It's a funny line. But a month or so after the Rabin assassination, I used the Lincoln line with my sister-in-law, who thought it was morbid. And when we tried it out with other assassinations, we came up with one for Rabin: "Other than that, Mrs. Rabin, how was the demonstration?" That seemed totally sick to us at the time. Now a little less so.

And in between, we tried out one for JFK: "Other than that, Mrs. Kennedy, how was your visit to Dallas?"

So anyway, yes, the passage of time can painful experiences into humor.

Jonathan said...

I think many of us react this way when it is argued that "not all priests are molesters." Or, if it is only 10%, or whatever. Suppose "only" 5% of priests molested children. Then the negative bias that tells us to watch out is perfectly reasonable, even if we conclude, with perfect accuracy, the vast majority of Mrs. Lincoln's playgoing was perfectly pleasant over the course of her life, or that most priests don't do that.