Human Nature: A Bias Buffet

The training world is full of ideas that were formed through bias and then supported by bias until they come to represent fact.

I think a healthy dose of skepticism is one of the best things you can cultivate when it comes to caring for and training your animals. The reason why is because it is astonishing how what we come to believe can be twisted and warped by bias. And most of the time we have no idea it’s happening. The training world is full of ideas that were formed through bias and then supported by bias until they come to represent fact purely on the basis that a lot of people have said it, and some of them sounded like they knew what they were talking about, or were perhaps professionals.

I get criticised for being cautious about believing people, particularly when they say things that everyone knows, but why shouldn’t I be cautious if I don’t know how they came to their conclusions? To put it in perspective, I will discuss just some of the biases that may affect the reliability of information specific to animal training.

Firstly, it’s important to understand that the decisions we make are first and foremost based on risk assessment. All the biases I’m about to describe are most likely to occur when the consequences of being wrong are less risky than the consequences of being right. There is a great paper by Haselton and Nettle (2006) that explains this concept in terms of natural selection.

Brace yourselves for a reality check, folks. Generally people have inflated views of themselves, being quite optimistic and considering themselves more in control of events than they are likely to be (Taylor and Brown, 1988; Roese and Olson 2007). The cool thing I just cannot help but share is that the biases people show in how they view themselves are strongly influenced by the personality traits valued in their culture (e.g. Kitayama et al. 1997). Think on that! I think our first question of ourselves in training should be are we as good at it as we think we are? Will we truly see the details we imagine we would see? As we explore some of the biases we are subject to, the answer to that last question may become more and more uncertain.

Where events are random to some degree, people believe they have more control over the flow of events than they do in reality, creating an illusion of control (Alloy and Abramson 1979). We develop rituals and a strong belief in our ability to control events (Matute, 1994, 1995). This is where superstitions come in, and, incidentally, obsessive/compulsive behaviors. Animal behavior is not random, but it is extremely complex and there can be an element of uncontrollability.

I think we should be very careful how much of an animal’s behavior we attribute to our actions. Remember that when we are training an animal, our behavior is still subject to reinforcement. If the animal does what we intended it to do, it’s part of our nature to attribute that to something we did and so we do it again. And as I will soon describe, once we think we are creating an effect, we will do just about anything to find support for our continued belief in that effect. Behavior is always changing, and it changes due to a variety of reasons, not just the application of training. What other possible reasons are there for a change in behavior that seems to coincide with your training? Changes in arousal, motivation, health and attention can all result in changes in behavior. What else might?

Confirmation bias is the big one. This is where we seek or interpret evidence in ways that support  existing beliefs, expectations, or a hypothesis in hand (Nickerson 1998). For example, This training method I used once and appeared to have success with is a highly effective training method. One obvious reason for this is the desire to find a hypothesis correct or incorrect, usually because people like being right. We’ll do just about anything to make sure we are right! Not only do we look specifically for evidence to support us, but we tend to ignore or even avoid evidence that goes against an already held belief (Koriat et al. 1980).

Confirmation bias may include selective testing of an hypothesis (Wason, 1960), paying more attention to positive evidence than negative evidence (e.g. Gilovich 1983), and seeing what you are looking for or expect (e.g. Foster et al. 1976). People often draw conclusions early on in a process and then seek evidence to support those conclusions, which is known as the primacy effect (Anderson 1965). What’s more, once a belief is formed, it tends to be very resistant to change even in the face of strong evidence against it (e.g. Ross and Leper 1975), and we are entirely likely to take information unrelated to the hypothesis at all as evidence for our continued belief (Pitz 1969)!

On top of this, we have other odd little biases to contend with. We tend to think we are less biased than everyone else (Bias Blind Spot) (e.g. Pronin et al. 2002), which is just gloriously ironic. You’ve been thinking it all along, haven’t you? I’m not like that! And we tend to prefer immediate pay-offs over long-term pay-offs (Hyperbolic Discounting) (Green and Myerson 1996 for review) which reminds me of that sublime split second in which a dog pauses in its barking after you shout at it.

There’s the Mere Exposure Effect, where people prefer things they are familiar with, particularly at a sub-conscious level (Bornstein and D’Agostino 1992), and Negativity Bias, where people pay more attention to negative than positive experiences (e.g. Rozin 2001). Something like my hatred and deep distrust of check chains after being forced to hang my dog a couple of times when an aggressive dog charged her. And lastly, perhaps the most insidious of biases, Inattentional Blindness, where we just don’t see what we’re not looking for (see Simons 2004 for a decent review). There are some good videos on YouTube that will demonstrate this. It’s a lot of fun and very enlightening, so look them up. Do a search for in-attentional blindness or change blindness.  The things we think we will notice we often don’t. That goes for small details and major changes.

These human biases are not defects, they are adaptations. We all do it, even scientisits. Scientists have just had it drilled into them to look for bias and always try to find something more concrete than their own interpretation of events. Remember that biases have all run through the natural selection gauntlet and ultimately benefit us in many circumstances. But they can be real pitfalls in training and interpreting behavior. Our animals are at the mercy of our decisions and interpretations, and the way we make decisions and interpret events is coloured by our biases.

When trying to prove something scientifically, the general rule is numbers don’t lie (although interpreting numbers puts us squarely back in bias wonderland). Our animals can’t tell us directly when we are wrong about them, but they can often tell us indirectly. Count the occurrences of behavior within a set timeframe to determine whether it is increasing or decreasing or staying the same. Calculate success rate. Get a stopwatch. Record unwanted behavior in a diary. Familiarise yourself with an ethogram for your species or make one for your animal.

Look for the behaviors in your ethogram, even when you don’t expect to see them. That’s what we do to convince ourselves in science. It’s actually not that hard on a small scale for a layperson, and my guess is it will be a real eye opener. Start with one behavior at a time and do lots of watching. I think it’s a bit more kind to yourself than becoming your own biggest skeptic, which I guess is the second best thing you can do to keep yourself honest. Honestly, the more I learn the less I trust anyone, myself included. I’m glad I have a hund that seems to find every flaw in my behavior and training methods. He keeps me more honest than I could keep myself!

A note about references

I spent many weekends putting this together. It seemed crazy to write a post warning about biases without referencing peer reviewed literature. I didn’t have a lot of time to do a proper literature search, so these references mostly come from a few reviews on biases and I generally picked just one or two examples. I’ve added links to free copies of  papers where I could find them, but I didn’t spend much time looking. Please don’t consider it the full story! The literature goes on and on.

Alloy, L. B., & Abramson, L. Y. 1979. Judgment of contingency in depressed and non-depressed subjects: Sadder but wiser? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 108, 443-479.

Anderson, N.H. 1965. Primacy effects in personality impression formation using a generalized order effect paradigm. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2(1): 1-9.

Bornstein, R. F., D’Agostino, P.R. 1992. Stimulus recognition and the mere exposure effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 63(4).

Foster, G., Schmidt, C, & Sabatino, D. 1976. Teacher expectancies and the label “learning disabilities.” Journal of Learning Disabilities, 9, 111-114.

Gilovich, T. 1983. Biased evaluation and persistence in gambling. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 1110-1126.

Green, L and Myerson, R. 1996. Exponential Versus Hyperbolic Discounting of Delayed Outcomes: Risk and Waiting Time. American Zoologist 36(4): 496-505.

Haselton, M.G., Nettle, D. 2006. The paranoid optimist: An integrative evolutionary model of cognitive biases. Personality and Social Psychology Review 10(1):47.

Kitayama S, Markus HR, Matsumoto H, Norasakkunkit V. 1997. Individual and collective processes in the construction of the self: self-enhancement in the United States and self-criticism in Japan. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 72(6): 1245-1267.

Koriat, A., Lichtenstein, S., & Fischhoff, B. 1980. Reasons for confidence. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 6, 107-118.

Matute, H. 1994. Learned helplessness and superstitious behavior as opposite effects of uncontrollable reinforcement. Learning and Motivation, 25, 216-232.

Matute, H. 1995. Human reactions to unavoidable outcomes: Further evidence for superstitions rather than helplessness. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 48, 142-157.

Nickerson, R. 1998 Confirmation Bias: A Ubiquitous Phenomenon in Many Guises. Review of General Psychology 2(2):175-220.

Pitz, G. F. 1969. An inertia effect (resistance to change) in the revision of opinion. Canadian Journal of Psychology, 23, 24-33.

Pronin, E., Lin, D.Y., Ross, L. 2002. The Bias Blind Spot: Perceptions of Bias in Self Versus Others. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 28(3):369-381.

Ross, L, Lepper, M.R., and Hubbard, M. 1975. Perseverance in Self-Perception and Social Perception: Biased Attributional Processes in the Debriefing Paradigm Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1975, Vol. 32, No. 5, 880-802.

Roese, N.J., Olson, J.M. 2007. Better, Stronger, Faster: Self-Serving Judgment, Affect Regulation, and the Optimal Vigilance Hypothesis. Perspectives on Psychological Science 2 (2): 124-141.

Rozin, P. 2001. Negative bias, negativity dominance, and contagion. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (5)4: 296-320.

Simons, D. 2000. Attentional capture and inattentional blindness. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 4(4): 147-155.

Taylor, S. E., & Brown, J. D. 1988. Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health. Psychological Bulletin, 103, 193-201.

Wason, P. C. 1960. On the failure to eliminate hypotheses in a conceptual task. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 14, 246-249.