Cognitive biases

The human mind takes shortcuts where it can, and bias of many kinds is the price of efficiency. See also Memory, where accuracy is far from the mind’s highest priority.

Scientific discussions:

Festinger, L. (1962). Cognitive dissonance. Scientific American, 207(4), 93-107. (paywall)

The original exposition of the classic theory of cognitive dissonance: the idea that if we know things that are inconsistent with each other, we will use all kinds of strategies to make them more consistent in order to reduce the discomfort that arises from dissonance. The paper gives examples from decision-making, lying, and resisting temptation.

Krueger, J. I., and Funder, D. C. (2004). Towards a balanced social psychology: Causes, consequences, and cures for the problem-seeking approach to social behavior and cognition. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 27(3), 313-376. (full text)

Suggests that doing psychology through a normative lens is unhelpful when it comes to attributing beliefs and actions to cognitive ‘errors’ and ‘biases’, and that a broader perspective on the range of human behaviour and judgement would make social psychology both more optimistic and more accurate.

Haselton, M. G., Nettle, D., and Andrews, P. W. (2005). The evolution of cognitive bias. In D. M. Buss, The handbook of evolutionary psychology (pp. 724-746). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. (full text)

How cognitive biases may be evolutionarily adaptive, for example by being heuristically efficient or offering means of error management.

Schacter, D. L. (1999). The seven sins of memory: Insights from psychology and cognitive neuroscience. American Psychologist, 54(3), 182-203. (full text)

The seven basic sins (or sources of fallibility) are: transience, absentmindedness, blocking, misattribution, suggestibility, bias, and persistence.

Jing-Schmidt, Z. (2007). Negativity bias in language: A cognitive-affective model of emotional intensifiers. Cognitive Linguistics, 18(3), 417-443. (full text)

The negativity bias denotes our tendency to pay more attention to unpleasant than pleasant information. This article discusses the role of emotion in the negativity bias, and suggests that the Pollyanna effect (the finding that positive words are used more frequently and easily than negative ones) is motivated by avoidance of the negative – talking about the bright side of life isn’t the same as looking on the bright side. It provides evidence of how this cognitive pattern is manifested linguistically, specifically in the use of emotional intensifiers in descriptions of threat-related emotions (fear, disgust, and anger). Finally, the paper explains how metaphorical and metonymic mapping mediate between the domains of emotional experience and linguistic emotion-intensification, supporting the notion of a dynamical body of cognition cutting across brain-body-world divisions.

Leboe, J. P., and Ansons, T. L. (2006). On misattributing good remembering to a happy past: An investigation into the cognitive roots of nostalgia. Emotion, 6(4), 596-610. (full text)

Presents evidence that when we experience nostalgia for the past, what we may be responding to is less a pleasant past than the simple fact of having successfully remembered something rich in meaning.

Rosset, E. (2008). It’s no accident: Our bias for intentional explanations. Cognition, 108, 771-780. (full text)

Describes three studies which indicate that we have a bias towards interpreting all descriptions of actions (e.g. ‘He set the house on fire’) as denoting intentional rather than accidental acts, even with prototypically accidental actions like ‘She broke the vase’; intentional readings seem to be the default, and deciding that something is unintentional requires more processing.

Cognitive humanities discussions:

Tobin, V. (2009). Cognitive bias and the poetics of surprise. Language and Literature, 18(2), 155-172. (full text)

The ‘curse of knowledge’ is a cognitive bias that makes it hard for us to imagine not knowing something once we know it. This paper argues that this bias plays a major role in narrative structure, by helping authors engineer satisfying twists that surprise readers without feeling implausible. By exposing us at length to specific characters’ perspectives, texts can encourage us to align ourselves so much with these perspectives that we fail to discount this knowledge when imagining from other perspectives; we are then nicely surprised when a twist contradicts the information whose availability we have overgeneralised, but are also inclined to see the revelation as inevitable once it is made. This provides new insights into literary communication and verisimilitude.

Sizemore, C. (1977). Anxiety in Kafka: A function of cognitive dissonance. Journal of Modern Literature, 6(3), 380-388. (paywall)

Suggests that the unsettling effects of Kafka’s fictions can be explained in part with reference to cognitive dissonance. The uneasiness created by the two irreconcilable interpretations of reality – the reader’s own familiar world, and Kafka’s persuasive one – makes the reader try to resolve the dissonance by looking for clues that say it was all just made up, but these are never quite forthcoming.

Troscianko, E. T. (2013). The cognitive realism of memory in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Modern Language Review, 107(3), 772-795. (full text)

Argues that Emma Bovary’s psychology, and its effects on readers’ responses, can be understood better by taking into account the effects that cognitive dissonance has on memory. Emma’s pivotal life decision – marrying Charles – can be seen as the trigger for a series of dissonance-reducing strategies that profoundly alter her relationship with her own past, present, and future. In this respect the text can be seen as cognitively realistic – in corresponding to what we know about cognitive dissonance, constructive memory, and the biases they involve. Predictions about the unsettling effects of this cognitive realism on readers are borne out in many of the critical responses to Emma as a character. The article concludes with reflections on the text’s connection to 19th-century Realism as it relates to readerly expectations and responses.