Nothing new in seeing and not believing

There are two fundamental problems – neither of them new – about how people perceive messages and information.

The first is the traditional one – albeit currently more prevalent – that whatever is seen or heard is perceived through the prism of existing biases or simple cognitive dissonance.

The second is also traditional and has been practised by shamans and priests – and more recently in company reporting practices – when information is deliberately framed to create an impression a little far from the actuality.

Tony Jaques recently cited a good example of the latter. He wrote that ASIC had recently issued a media statement: “Following a significant ASIC investigation, payday lender Nimble will refund over 7,000 customers more than $1.5 million after ASIC had concerns that Nimble was failing to meet its responsible lending obligations.”

The company also issued a statement: “Nimble announced today that it has reached an agreement with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) to resolve some application assessment issues affecting a small number of customers.”

“Notice anything different?” Tony asked and then pointed to some results from ASIC’s investigation: “ASIC identified significant deficiencies in Nimble’s compliance with the responsible lending laws when providing loans of short duration to consumers …. Nimble had not properly assessed the financial circumstances of many consumers before providing them with loans …. Nimble did not take sufficient or appropriate steps as required by law before providing a loan to the consumer.”

And how did the company represent that? “There has (sic) been no adverse findings against Nimble.” The company went on to say: “Nimble supports improved financial literacy and will make a donation of $50,000, plus any unclaimed monies to Financial Counselling Australia.” No mention that it is “required” by ASIC to make such payment.

This is an extreme case but ordinary corporate reporting also has problems. In the Weekend FT (7/8 January 2017) Ben McLannahan started a column with the words: “Imagine if every time you stepped on a set of bathroom scales it started making deductions” for things like shoes, belts, gym sessions and diets that you plan to start. “Before long it wouldn’t be much of a guide to your weight. It might even be closer to fantasy.”

The US SEC is worried that’s exactly what’s happening with companies tailoring profit calculations to come up with more flattering numbers. McLannahan cites Audit Analytics research which indicated that in the 2016 fourth quarter 96% of companies in the S&P 500 tailored results compared with 88% in the third quarter. Other research showed that the profit gap between accepted principles and actual reports of companies in the Dow Jones Industrial Average was almost a third. Warren Buffet has warned about the problem and there is also growing concern about Australian practices.

A midway point between misleading and perception dissonance problems is the persistence of urban legends – some of which have no doubt been fostered – but many of which persist because they sound right. The forecaster, Phil Ruthven, recently served up a list of dominant urban legends in the November 2016 issue of the AICD magazine The Company Director. He ranged across whether crime was on the rise, speed being the major killer on the roads, immigrants taking jobs, robots taking jobs, Australia being highly taxed, needing to cut costs to balance the budget and that Australia could become the food bowl of Australia. He listed a few others which the blog thinks may be borderline but he still makes his main point – many common Australian beliefs are just plain wrong.

Why is it so? Well that gets back to classic studies of beliefs and perceptions. A classic psychology paper They Saw a Game, published in 1954 by Hastorf and Cantril, looked at different perceptions of a Dartmouth versus Princeton football game. They concluded that: “It seems clear that ‘the game’ actually was many different games and that each version of the events that transpired was just as ‘real’ to a particular person as other versions were to other people.” In a finding presaging the Trump advent, one of the respondents in the survey insisted a film of the game must have been edited because it didn’t gel with his recollection.

Similar results have been reported more recently – this time in a 2012 paper (They Saw a Protest) by Kahan, Hoffman, Braman, Evans and Rachnlinski. The authors were testing some liberal and constitutional principles and the impact of ‘cultural cognition’ on attitudes to a protest. Half were told the protest was an anti-abortion one and half that it was about the US military’s don’t ask don’t tell policy. Needless to say participants disagreed sharply on key ‘facts’ about the protests.

And there is a good Australian example of how some cognitive proclivities can withstand significant changes in attitudes on many other things – that’s the blog’s favourite ex-Maoist, Keith Windschuttle. Reading a review of Tan Hencheng’s recent book, The Killing Wind, about the Maoist-era Daoxian county massacres it struck the blog that Keith didn’t see the massacres back then and still can’t see them when it comes to indigenous Australians post-European settlement.

There is a possible antidote, however, according to a paper referred to the blog by its friend John Spitzer. The Kahan in the protest paper combined with Landrum, Carpenter, Helft and Jamieson to look at what might change biases given that: “Knowledge does not always change biases, and people tend to absorb information that fits their prejudices.” In a summary of the Political Psychology journal article the publisher says: “… rather than studying scientific knowledge, Kahan et al. studied scientific curiosity—the tendency to look for and consume scientific information for pleasure. Two sets of subjects, including several thousand people, were given questions about their interests and activities. Reactions to documentaries and to news stories that contained surprising or unsurprising material were also tracked. The more scientifically curious people were (regardless of their politics), the less likely they were to show signs of politically motivated reasoning. People with higher curiosity ratings were more willing to look at surprising information that conflicted with their political tendencies than people with lower ratings.”

Cause for hope even given levels of scientific knowledge in the US in the face of widespread fundamentalist Christian beliefs.