I was recently reading about the Confirmation Bias, and had a bit of an epiphany. One of the first tests of the confirmation bias was the “2-4-6 problem.” The following is Wikipedia’s description of the experiment:
“Subjects were told that the triple conforms to a particular rule. They were then asked to discover the rule by generating their own triples and using the feedback they received from the experimenter. Every time the subject generated a triple, the experimenter would indicate whether the triple conformed to the rule. The subjects were told that once they were sure of the correctness of their hypothesized rule, they should announce the rule.And here’s where it gets interesting: While the actual rule was simply “any ascending sequence”, the subjects seemed to have a great deal of difficulty in inducing it, often announcing rules that were far more complex than the correct rule.”(emphasis mine)
While the confirmation bias is interesting on its own I think this experiment reveals something else as well: Humans like complexity. Think about it. If you had been the one taking the test how annoyed would you have been to find out the rule was “any ascending sequence”? And why would you feel that way? Because we as humans enjoy the complex more than the simple.
When was the last time you saw a police drama where three people saw a man kill someone, that man confessed, and then it actually turned out that that man was the killer? There are plenty of real life crimes that are solved like this every day, but it makes for terrible television because people don’t want the answer to be simple. We want intrigue, subplots, multiple suspects, locked rooms; anything that tickles the brain’s mystery bone.
This tendency is so ingrained in our thought process that we’ve had to come up with things like Occam’s Razor to keep it in check. The layman’s version of this rule is: “If you hear hoof beats, think of horses not zebras.” But the corresponding statement of the complexity bias says: “If it does turn out to be zebras than that would be freakin’ awesome.”
In a way the complexity bias is entwined with the confirmation bias. For instance, the confirmation bias explains how people can continue to believe conspiracy theories even in the face of contradictory evidence, but it doesn’t explain where those theories come from in the first place. We need the complexity bias for that. The complexity bias also explains a lot of things about our culture, such as the success of such shows as Lost or CSI and movies like The Matrix and it fits with what we know to be true about ourselves. We eschew boredom and embrace complexity when a simple solution would suffice, and it is the quality of the human mind to tend toward irrationality that fascinates me most of all.
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