False Positives and Us

Cognitive scientists often discuss various forms of cognitive bias. Confirmation bias is just one well-known type (see here). Recognizing cognitive biases in all their forms is really important. But that effectively only focuses on symptoms. not the underlying causes or mechanisms of cognitive biases. In order to better overcome them, we also need understand the mechanisms that give rise to them.

As I discuss at length in my book (see here), our brains are essentially pattern recognition machines. Almost everything we do is a form of pattern recognition. And evolution has tuned our pattern recognition neural networks to err strongly on the side of false positives.

Here’s an example I often use to illustrate the importance of false positives. Imagine when we were evolving as animals. There were real tigers in the forest that were a mortal threat to us. Therefore, our neural networks were trained to recognize even the most vague hint of a tiger in the trees as a real tiger. It did not much matter if we imagined a hundred tigers that were only shadows or leaves blowing in the wind. What was critical however, was that we not miss even one real tiger, no matter how cleverly it concealed itself. An extreme bias toward false positives was a gigantic evolutionary necessity.

The result of all of this natural selection is that today we both benefit from and are hampered by powerful neural networks that are tuned to err strongly on the side of false positives. This is particularly acute when it comes to anything that might threaten us or distress us or make us uncomfortable.

This soft-wiring of our neural networks on the side of false positives not only underpins many of our cognitive biases but has huge ramifications in our social and interpersonal interaction.

For example, false positives certainly bias our perception of any *ism that offends or distresses us. If I am sensitive about my hair, I almost certainly detect far more insensitive comments about my hair than are objectively real. This is true of any *ism that impacts us, whether it be sexism, racism, or any other form of bigotry or hostility. And let me be very clear. All these things do exist and do happen, but I’m making the claim that any given individual almost certainly detects many false positives that are not really incidents of it.

This expands on our usual assessment that I am “sensitive” about my hair. Such prosaic sensitivity can be seen as a another symptom of these underlying mechanics. Our understanding of the false positive bias of our neural networks helps us understand how and why this happens and make us better able to accept it in others and defend against it in ourselves.

This is important because our exaggerated perceptions based on false positives have huge repercussions for individuals and for society. They cause us to react negatively in situations where such a response is actually counterproductive. It also exaggerates our feelings of anger and hostility which not only produce unfortunate behaviors and emotions, but those false positives also act as new legitimate “facts” that “train” our pattern recognition brains to recognize even more extreme false positives. Our biased perceptions and our memories of those false perceptions serve to reinforce our biased neural network in a self-reinforcing feedback loop. Soon we see our *ism everywhere, we hear it in every comment, see it in every glance, and respond with depression and anger which make it still worse.

These same mechanisms play a critical role in our one-on-one interpersonal interactions as well. If our friend or spouse says something we find bothersome or offensive, we quickly become attuned to it and start to see it in every nuance of expression and hear it between the lines in every comment. This reinforces our neural network to become even more sensitized toward it, detecting even more false positives. We can soon get to the point where there is nothing you can say, or even not say, to the listener that is not further evidence to support their feelings. We can quickly become surrounded, even paralyzed by all the tigers in the shadows.

Certainly merely being aware of this mechanism of false positive pattern recognition does not eliminate our susceptibility to all cognitive biases, but I think that understanding how our pattern recognition network functions is essential to protecting ourselves against perceptions that are not realistic or healthy. I know that for me, understanding how I am vulnerable to false positives does not immunize me by any means, but it does help me on many occasions to recognize and to push back against my own pattern recognition biases. And this is true even for perceptions or memories that seem incredibly real and compelling. Having some appreciation, and some humility, with regard to how susceptible we are to false positives can have a tremendous impact for the better.

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