I love how stupid the brain can be. The way it’s wired can often result in some pretty stupid behaviour in, say, the human possessing the brain. And I love it. I find it entertaining, in a bizarre and somewhat despairing way, and I find it informative, because it tells us about the elaborate, multi-coloured, lumpy-textured blanket of self-serving sham and deception that our brains crochet for us to protect our precious egos and make us think we’re, like, totally awesome ‘n’ stuff and so much better than, I don’t know, that random guy over there – just look at that idiot. He thinks he’s so good, but he’s not. But I am. Seriously. You probably don’t even know how good I am, because you’re probably an idiot too. Poor, stupid idiot.
My favourite example is the better-than-average effect, a convenient self-serving cognitive bias that means that a lot of people think they’re, hmm, better than average. A lot of people, as in 80% of the population… which is interesting when, by definition, only 50% of people can be better than average. So for things like sense of humour, or driving ability, 80% of the population thinks they’re better than at least 50% of the population. Awesome, well done on the mathematics there.
An extension of the better-than-average effect is the Dunning-Kruger effect, which makes me want to laugh until I vomit in disgust or something, because it is bitterly funny and depressingly amazing. The Dunning-Kruger effect describes the tendency for incompetent, unskilled people (i.e. the worse-than-average people on a given task or skill) to completely overestimate their ability. So now it’s not just people thinking they’re kind of more awesome than the majority – it’s the certified idiots thinking they’re great. The effect is perfectly summed up in the title of the original paper by Dunning and Kruger, “Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments”. There was also another chap who put it quite nicely, more than a century before:
“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”
(And following on from that, another twist in the story is that competent, skilled people are also unaware of their competence or skill – but they tend to underestimate it. So, basically, we’re mostly kind of useless at judging the difficulty of tasks and at assessing our own competence when it comes to said tasks. There are people who are good at those judgement calls though – people with depression. Sigh.)
So our brains like to protect us from realising how incompetent or inaccurate we are, which isn’t surprising, because if you spent your life not being confident that your judgement in general was at least “adequate”, if not “amazingly blindingly fantastic and infallible”, you’d be crippled by self-doubt and unable to make decisions. Consequently, our brains have become pretty good at telling us “Oh hey, you know that decision you made? Brilliant. Well done, you. No doubt you made the right choice there. Help yourself to some ice-cream or something.”
For instance, you give me two photos to look at briefly:
I have to choose which one I think is more attractive:
Then, in a sleight of hand, you swap the photos without me knowing, and give me the one I didn’t choose:
And you ask me to explain why I chose that one. And I’ll do a fantastic job of explaining, and I won’t have noticed it wasn’t the one I originally chose. This is called choice blindness, and the theory is that I don’t realise there’s been a deception and a swap but I think that I must’ve chosen that particular photo for a reason, so my brain does a fantastic job of retrospectively justifying that “choice” because, hey now, I wouldn’t make a bad choice. Not me. Oh no.
Kind of unsurprisingly, this extends into the realm of taste, flavour and food. In an experiment by Hall and colleagues, participants had to make a choice between two types of jam or two types of flavoured tea. The bit of the experiment that thrills me no end is the way the sleight-of-hand was conducted – jars with secret compartments. Ah, brilliant!
So in one instance of the experiment, there would be two jars and the participant would take a spoonful of jam from an opaque white plastic jar (and maybe it was cinnamon-apple jam) and taste it, and the experimenter would ask the participant to rate how they liked the jam on a scale of 1 to 10. While the experimenter was distracting the participant by asking for the rating, another experimenter surreptitiously turned the jar upside-down. Then the participant tasted a sample from an opaque blue jar, this time containing a different jam (maybe grapefruit). Again the participant was asked to rate how they liked the jam, and again the other experimenter turned the jar upside-down without the participant noticing. And the marvellous thing is that the jars contain two compartments, so when you turn them upside-down and take a sample of jam, you’re getting the other jam – turn the cinnamon-apple jam jar upside down and you get a jam that looks identical, but is actually the grapefruit jam. Turn the grapefruit jam jar upside down and you’ll get the cinnamon-apple jam. Gah! So cunning!
So the participant was then asked to re-sample the jar that they had given the higher rating to out of the pair. Say they rated the cinnamon-apple jam higher. The cinnamon-apple jam jar has now been turned over, and the participant takes a sample of jam (which is now grapefruit jam) from the same jar and tastes it, and now… they’re asked to explain why they preferred that jam to the other one.
And they do explain.
And they generally haven’t noticed that the jam has changed.
In fact, in two-thirds of these jam-tastings, the participants didn’t realise the jam had been changed.
It was the same case when the participants sniffed the flavoured teas. They’re less likely to detect the change when the two samples are somewhat similar (e.g. blackcurrant jam vs blueberry jam) but even when the difference seems like it would be obvious (e.g. cinnamon-apple jam vs grapefruit jam, or aniseed-flavoured tea vs mango-flavoured tea), more than half the time the change was not detected.
In the case of the cinnamon-apple jam vs grapefruit jam, just over 20% of people immediately noticed that the jam had been changed and that they had been given the jam that they hadn’t originally preferred. Another 20% reported, when asked, that some quality of the jam they had preferred had tasted different the second time, so maybe it was a bit stronger or a bit sweeter, but they still didn’t notice the change. And less than 10% said “Hey… umm… was that a different jam?” or something along those lines towards the end of the experiment, well after the change had occurred. For apple pie-flavoured tea vs honey-flavoured tea, the change was only detected immediately about 7% of the time, it was detected retrospectively about 7% of the time, and no other change in the qualities of the tea was reported. So the change went completely undetected 86% of the time. The change between ginger jam and lime jam went completely undetected about 63% of the time. The change between blackcurrant jam and blueberry jam went completely undetected about 80% of the time. Seems kind of unbelievable, doesn’t it?
It’s not that the flavours were difficult to distinguish: another part of the experiment showed that participants had no trouble telling apart the different jam or tea flavours. Participants were often very surprised or voiced disbelief when they were told that the samples had been switched – they genuinely (unless they are very good actors with strange motivations) did not notice the change.
And in addition to this experiment being dastardly and clever (everything you want in an experimental psychology study), the authors are people I want to hang out with, because they made this paper fun to read with its rhetorical questions and random embellishments. I’ll leave it to them to outline the limits of the insight with which this experiment provides us:
Obviously, an experimental finding like choice blindness is bound at the limits by choices we know to be of great importance in everyday life. While it lies close at hand to speculate about couples at the altar solemnly affirming their choice of partner, and then (after the minister pulls some unearthly sleight-of-hand!) bringing home a complete stranger, no one would fail to notice such a change (and this, we hope, includes even those involved in the most hasty of Las Vegas marriages).
So true, Hall et al. (2010), so true.
In my own clunky attempt at sleight-of-hand, I’ve created what I consider a nose-bleedingly amazing triumph: Vegemite in a dessert. These Vegemite caramel pots with dark chocolate ganache are are nose-bleedingly amazing because Vegemite isn’t one of my favourite things (I don’t mind it scraped over water crackers, but that’s about it) yet I have made a dessert that, to be frank, impressed me.
It impressed me because the flavour works amazingly well (Vegemite and caramel – the new flavour pairing that will take the world by storm, just you wait and see) but also… it may be the world’s richest dessert. It’s so rich it could probably buy several hotels in Dubai. The Vegemite jars I served the stuff in that you can see in the photos – that much of this stuff would feed about 4 people. I ate about three tablespoons before I started to feel like my stomach was going to start convulsing in protest. Which means: my work here is done.
Read on for the recipe for Vegemite caramel pots with dark chocolate ganache.