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reasoning errors, empathy,
attention and concentration

New translation, the Magna Carta
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sociology - the structure of analysing belief systems

on errors of reasoning, including wanting closure and making assumptions






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There has been a spate of recent books and papers on why people make errors in their thinking, together with constant attempts to classify these errors under various headings. But many of the errors are much more basic than the classifications used, and all stem from fundamental errors in the approach to problems, rather than the specific, somewhat artifical, categories that these writings suggest.

As psychology is advancing, large numbers of categories are being invented and used with greater or lesser utility or sense. Many of the categories used in these recent meanderings appear counter-productive to me (though I shall list some of them). But they all appear to me to arise from similar basic errors in thought. A prime root of these errors is a seeking for closure.

Now, the real world is not like that. There is no closure, life goes on. Steadily, if we increase our knowledge with an open, curiosity-driven, explorative and humble mind, such errors of thought are far less likely.

It does not amount to avoiding this error or that, it amounts to a far healthier and more effective approach to life and the solution of problems.

The prime imperative for problem-solving is ever-increasing knowledge - that is, an ever-growing database. This means a life of constant study and keeping up with new discovery, arming oneself with with all and any methods and techniques that one can find. Meanwhile, one must realise that there will always be more to learn tomorrow, and that our present knowledge is exceeding limited and restricted.

Much of this discussion of error refers to errors of judgement made in complex situations under time pressures. A human, like any machine, can only process a given amount of information in a time period. A Lamborghini maybe able to cover more miles than a Mini in a given time period, albeit at greater cost and with greater fuel consumption. Likewise, not all humans have the same capacities or skills.

on errors of reasoning, including wanting closure and making assumptions
availability error
attribution error
some errors in thinking, and so in behaviour
on ‘empathy’
on helping others
addendum to take account of comments received
on attention and concentration
confirmation error
sunk costs error
    a: good money after bad
    b: endowment error

background bibliography
end notes

Obviously, a medic of reasonable ability will make more errors of judgement as his time per patient is reduced from half an hour to quarter an hour, to five minutes or less. While such a deterioration in decision processing efficiency is a general rule, keep in mind that a world-class chess player or medic will make better and more reliable decisions, on average, in seconds, than an amateur can be expected to make in days. However, just because a chess-player can assess a chess position quickly does not mean that they can assess medical problems well, and visa versa.

Thus, this sort of analysis is aimed at improving the performance of the most able decision-makers. High-ability decision-makers get that way, to a great extent, by being self-critical of their own mental errors and working to correct them.

A fundamental error in discussing improvement of human performance has long focused on human malfunction or erroneous actions, or the attitude of ‘jump in and correct the errors afterwards’. While examining errors maybe marginally useful in teaching, it is immensely better to teach effective thinking from the very earliest training. Far more efficient to teach a person from the get-go to use their mind and body effectively, rather than draw their attention to various, theoretical, possible mistakes. Better to teach a person not to make assumptions in the first place, rather than concentrate too forcefully upon the great variety of false assumptions that may be made.

Teaching any skill requires recognition of large numbers of relevant patterns, but patterns are just another name for assumptions. It is very important that this is hammered into a learner, for there to be any hope of efficient education. The teacher should make sure that any individual never ever becomes dependant upon a recognised pattern. Rather, the individual will do better to remain constantly aware that the real world is not a pattern, but will always vary in detail.

Using pattern-recognition to speed up decision-making, however useful, will inevitably increase error rates. Examples might be

  • driving a car, where the faster the decisions have to be made the more likely you are to end up in a box;
  • the faster a medic works, the more likely the patient is to end up in a box,
  • or the more the educational process is replaced by some system of mass-production, the less effective will be the educational outcome.

Now for some of these, perhaps silly, crude, invented categories.

  • availability error:
    There is a rule of thumb/short cut, when you hear the thundering sound of hooves - think of horses, not zebras. This is not an excuse for shutting your mind and your eyes to stripes. If on the last three times you looked, you saw horses, a lazy-minded approach [1] is to omit to look. Horses are what are more available to your mind, most recent to your experience and what you know about. Therefore, you make the false assumption that this time is also horses; or just a common cold, without checking for meningitis. You may have heard of zebras, but you have not met one lately.
  • attribution error:
    Returning to your thundering hooves, you may not notice the stripes, or you may ignore them. Examining the creature futher, you find that it has four legs and a noble head, and it is even walking down a main street. Your mind is now made up - it is obviously a horse. Feed it a horse pill, stick it between the shafts of a cart and say gee-up. No need to check for stripes, our mind is already made up. This is a horse, act accordingly. A false category has been attributed to the wild zebra. It’s a shame that it kicked the cart apart, stamped on your toe and ran off in search of the veldt. This error has similarities to the “white swan, white swan, white swan, all swans are white” generalisation. You may never have heard of a zebra.

Some errors in thinking, and so in behaviour:

  • making assumptions
  • making generalisations
  • ignoring information that does not match assumptions
  • acting precipitately/not checking actions
  • guessing/not checking information given
  • not doing necessary calculations
  • thinking you know how someone else is thinking.

related material:
why Aristotelian logic does not work
laying the foundations for sound education

on ‘empathy’

If I think I know what is causing a person pain/discomfort,
or even if I assume I know that they are ‘suffering’ pain or discomfort,
or even if they call what they are experiencing/suffering ‘pain’ or discomfort,
or even if I believe what they call pain or ‘discomfort’ is equivalent to my own ‘feelings’ or responses,
I am making assumptions.

Making assumptions is very bad news, the worst possible news.
It stops me analysing effectively.
(It is also dangerous, when assumptions are made that are totally in error and then foolish, or dangerous, actions could be taken on the basis of those assumptions.)

‘Empathy’ is believing that you can understand what another person is feeling, it is believing that you can experience or ‘feel’ another’s world vicariously. This is delusional - you cannot.

Empathy is bad!

Will an ‘empathist’ claim that they have to feel the pain of their Bentley engine in order to repair it?

A Bentley that runs well is a happy Bentley.
Happy Bentleys motor more effectively.
Honest Bentleys pay for that service.
Minis try to get away without paying.

Because the world is full of dogs, does not mean I feel ‘empathy’ with them.
Dogs may feel empathy with other dogs, but dogs cannot fix Bentleys.
They cannot even fix Minis.
Dogs have their standards, I have mine.

Rex Stout on the subject suits me fine:

“[...] if it could be managed to keep one’s self-esteem without paying for it”
“[...] our best efforts. The strongest obligation possible for a man with self-esteem [...]”

I do not claim to mind-reading abilities, thus I do not claim to know what goes on in others’ fiction-addled heads when they use words like ‘sympathy’ and ‘empathy’.

Neither are my ‘feelings’ accessible to others. You cannot read minds.

on helping others

Why not help a Bentley? We do it because we can. Because we prefer a machine to function effectively. As for helping other people, we do it because other humans are useful to us.

Altruistic behaviours are increasingly being shown in various other animals. Why would people not expect altruistic behaviours? These behaviours are survival fit on the group level, and thus are built into instincts. But glory knows why people are desperate to call these behaviours ‘empathic’.

Even bees and ants act for the good of the hive or nest.

‘Empathy’ is a term normally used by idiots, it’s like people who believe in telepathy.

addendum to take account of comments received

Without getting into an infinite regress of qualification, my section on empathy is directed to what I regard as very real dangers of inadequate communication that lead to intrusive behaviour and counter-productive actions.

The guesswork to which both your comments refer can, in my view, be defanged - to varying degrees - by those doing the guessing, only as long as they attend with great concentration to a self-awareness that they are guessing.

This awareness would include that the guessing is a ploy, or pragmatic tool, and never a reliable guide upon to which to rest for support as a substitute for observation and analysis.

  related material

The heart of parenting by John Gottman Gottman, John, with Declare, Joan
The Heart of Parenting: How to raise an emotionally intelligent child
(1997, Bloomsbury; 0747532818)
How to train children to handle their emotions and relationships. Not bad, not marvellous.

to top of the document




on attention and concentration

Human attention, memory [3] and concentration are far less robust than most humans may wish to believe.

Here are two experiments by Daniel Simons:

  • A young man stops a passer-by to ask the way. As the passer-by gives complicated instructions, two men carrying a large door walk between the the young man and passer-by. After the men with the door have passed by, the passer-by continues giving instructions. A young man is still nodding and responding to the passer-by.

    However, observe this incident from a different viewpoint. The passer-by is observed talking to the young man. The two men carrying the door pass between. As the door obscures the view of the passer-by from the young man, one of the two door carriers takes his place. As the door and two men move away, the passer-by continues his conversation with the new young man - he has not noticed the substitution.

    The replacement young man is wearing different clothes, as well as looking and sounding different, but this is not noticed by the passer-by, intent on giving directions. When this experiment was repeated with different people being asked directions, with the change not being noticed by half the participants.

  • In a different experiment, a group of people is shown a short video of two teams playing basketball in a corridor, one team dressed in black and the other in white. The observers are told to decide which team passes the ball the most times. The observers are told to concentrate, as it is important to have the right answer.

    In the second part of the experiment, the observers are shown the same short video again, but this time with no requirement to count passes. They are asked to comment on anything that they see this time that they had not noticed before.

    Half the observers now see something that they had not noticed in the first showing - a tall pantomime gorilla walking through the two basketball-playing teams. The gorilla even stops and waves at the camera. During the first showing, the observers were concentrating so hard on counting passes that half of them just did not notice the bizarre, costumed character, walk-on part. [2]

Human witness statements are notoriously unreliable, and some believe that as much as twenty percent of court cases that rely on witness statements result in miscarriages of justice.


  • copying

  • Copying behaviour is found in many situations. Other labels are ‘the bandwaggon effect’, and ‘imitative behaviour’.

    This behaviour can be seen in the hysteria of crowds, for instance, following one pop group or football group. The hysteria surrounding very mediocre political candidates like Hitler or Obarma are other examples. This response is part of the herd instinct in humans, where they cling together for safety and anonymity.


  • confirmation error

    It is widespread that people buy the newspapers that confirm their present views. They do not look at contrary sources. They will examine their ‘horse’ to make sure that it has ears, not to check for stripes. If, by some mischance, they do notice the stripes, they will start making up reasons that this is really a horse - someone has painted stripes on the horse, this is a freak horse, a genetic sport. It cannot possiblity be a zebra, because zebras are in Africa.

    This is sometimes called anchoring, “my mind is made up, please don’t confuse me with the facts”, this is a manifestion of dogmatism. As you have no access to a person’s internal state, you have no full evidence why this strange behaviour [3] is be exhibited by another person. You may attribute it to ‘lazy-mindedness’ in your own behaviour, should you wish.

  • sunk costs error

    a: good money after bad

    This is one of the most dangerous and foolish errors of common sense, widely seen in government and business. A project is failing, therefore put more money into it; whereas the sane response for a businessman is to look for projects which are succeeding and, instead, put the money there and close down and cut the losses from the failing project.

    Try getting that through the head of a socialist politician!

    b: endowment error

    endowment error
    the inclination to cling to what you ‘own’ more strongly than your propensity to purchase the same object.

    “Supposedly rational economists are affected, too. Dr Thaler, who recently had some expensive bottles of wine stolen, observes that he is "now confronted with precisely one of my own experiments: these are bottles I wasn’t planning to sell and now I’m going to get a cheque from an insurance company and most of these bottles I will not buy. I’m a good enough economist to know there’s a bit of an inconsistency there." ”
    [Quoted from]

    Speculation is that, in small tribes, a disinclination to sell is likely to drive up the price. Experimentation also suggests that real-world survival goods are more subject to endowment effect than toys and vouchers.
  • hindsight

    Hindsight error can be deemed to be convincing yourself, after an event has occurred, that you knew all along it was going to happen - and why.

    This is an even more dodgy idea than several other of these weak categories. You have no way of knowing whether the person making such claims has convinced themselves that they “knew all along”, or they are merely trying to convince you in order to increase their social status.

    While some people are not aware of some of the simple human emotionalism that tends to cloud reasoning. (This is the more relevant study under the heading of behavioural economics or, more outlandishly, neuroeconomics. See also Lie detection.) People who deal with money or economics on any serious level learn many of these behaviours as a matter of survival and success. It is arrogance, lack of knowledge and foolishness that bring most people to failure and large and damaging percentage losses.

    When the herd is charging the prices up the hill, the judgment a money manager must make is “At just what point is the herd likely to panic” and “How long can I sensibly carry this risk?”. Likewise, a sane manager receiving huge bonuses for interests by collecting the bonuses and stuffing them away in rather safer harbours, while planning retirement when the house of cards eventually collapses. “Who cares, the government will bail us out with taxes anyway.”

    The person who takes an unsustainable mortgage is housed for a few years and, maybe, comes out smelling of roses. It is all very well for these so-called behavioural economists to suggest that being emotionally driven, or decisions that may look like short-term foolishness, are matters of mental or logical misfunction. Much of the time, such decisions may be viewed as the best strategies available at the time for those individuals, in view of the situations and incentives which those people experience in their everyday lives.

    The real, major gap is, as usual, a market where ignorance and sophistication are competing to the same ground rules. Just as a chess grandmaster can brush any tyro aside and a prize footballer can make mock of a Sunday amateur, so any able economist (especially if well-funded) will tend to come out ahead in a society that is, in the general, innumerate.

    The real test of hindsight is clearly available in results seen in company growth and personal bank accounts, not in gossip and claims of foreknowledge.

background bibliography
of marginally relevant books on these classifications, which I have used while writing this document

on the area of finance:
Beyond greed and fear by Hersh Shefrin Beyond greed and fear, understanding behavioural finance and the psychology of investing by Hersh Shefrin,
OUP Inc, USA, 2000, hbk,
ISBN-10: 0875848729
ISBN-13: 978-0875848723 / $19.95 [] {advert}
ISBN-10: 0195304217
ISBN-13: 978-0195304213
£11.99 pbk [] {advert}
Irrational Exuberance by Robert J. Shiller Irrational exuberance by Robert J. Shiller,
Princeton University Press, 2005, 2nd edition, hbk
ISBN-10: 0691123357
ISBN-13: 978-0691123356
£17.49 [] {advert}

Currency, 2006, pbk
ISBN-10: 0767923634
ISBN-13: 978-0767923637
$10.85 [] {advert}
on the area of medicine:
How doctors think by Jerome Groopman How doctors think by Jerome Groopman
Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007, hbk
ISBN-10: 0618610030
ISBN-13: 978-0618610037
$17.16 [] {advert} / £11.63 [] {advert}
on the area of psychology:
Intuition, its powers and perils by David G. Myers Intuition, its powers and perils by David G. Myers
Yale University Press, 2002, hbk
ISBN-10: 0300103034
ISBN-13: 978-0300103038
$12.75 [] {advert} / £11.00 [] {advert}
on general behaviour and knowledge:
The eye, a natural history by Simon Ings

The eye, a natural history by Simon Ings
Bloomsbury, 2007, hbk
ISBN-10: 0747578052
ISBN-13: 978-0747578055

[Quoted in “bee sight pics - pretty” news item]

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Related further reading

marker at psycho-bunk 5 - what is memory, or intelligence? Incautious claims of ‘IQ’ genes
marker at establishment psycho-bunk 4 - repressed memory
marker at Memory, paranoia and paradigms

end notes

  1. See laziness/neuroticism. It is important to be cautious when relating to the term ‘lazy’. A human being is genetically programmed to seek the greatest return from the least effort, as is any efficient machine. Efficiency produces more work for the same expenditure of effort. Production is a function of acting smart, not just some crude measure of the number of litres of sweat that can be collected from the brow each day.

    Production pressure will, inevitably, introduce the errors caused by slapdash work. This will, inevitably, generate costs - a dead patient, goods returned to the factory and a customer lost, or a broken leg from not checking the trafic properly. Humans tend to optimise quality; a modern camera is not built to last two hundred years (and neither are you). After all, the technology will be superceded well within ten years.

    Working to a too high quality can be as wasteful as as the costs associated with sloppy work. Every situation requires its own cost-benefit analysis (COBA). Modern manufacturing is, increasingly, designed in such a manner that all components have an approximately similar working life. Nature has constructed humans to a similar pattern, as can be seen with the increasingly rapid breakdown of the body in old age.

  2. The videos from these two experiments are available from this page. [Due to the copyright conditions imposed , we are unable to hoste these videos at]
    The research and findings of Daniel Simons’ research [16-page .pdf]

  3. See Mad, bad and sad and Denialism to top of the document

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