Saturday, January 28, 2006

Confirmation Bias

Is it just the skeptics and the scientists who take epistemology seriously?

This question springs from my continued study of The Bible and its prima facie absurdity. Confronted with the Bible's inherent lunacy, Christians metaphorically wave their hands and avert their eyes, and take comfort in those biblical passages that glorify faith. It seems very few of them are truly concerned with the fundamentals of how we know what isn't so. I find it fascinating that religious folk can be so blind when it comes to their own crazy beliefs and yet so rational when it comes to the crazy beliefs of others. Jews laugh at Catholics. Catholics laugh at Mormons. Mormons laugh at Scientologists... ad nauseum. Of course, this tendency isn't restricted to the religious sphere alone. It seems par for the course in any sales pitch for snake oil.

While I was an admissions counselor at the University of Phoenix (really nothing more than a glorified telemarketing position) I had the pleasure of having two "network marketers" on my admissions team. One was affiliated with Quixtar (an Amway offshoot - though they don't like to point that out) and the other was affiliated with some long-distance service reseller called ACN. I was only able to have a couple brief (though animated) conversations with the Amway/Quixtar zombie before he was completely alienated, but they were enough for me to surmise that the guy was completely closed off to rational discourse. For example, he felt it was a huge selling point that Quixtar "pays you back" for the things that you purchase from them. Inexplicably, he thought that this was materially different from if Quixtar simply lowered the prices of the items in question, and he further felt - again, inexplicably - that this was an important demonstration of the truth that he would soon be able to retire and live off the massive residual income - he would soon be living the dream.

Meanwhile, my ACN friend was often privy to these conversations, and he would happily join in the derision. Unlike the Amway zombie, my ACN friend, Mike, was someone I had known for a while. Based on overheard conversations I had always kinda guessed he was in on some sort of get-rich-quick scheme, but I always felt it was none of my business. Subsequent to the Quixtar conversations, I broached the topic with him.

The first thing I asked him was why he was so down on Quixtar. He said it was because that was clearly an unworkable pyramid scheme, whereas ACN was the real deal. This is, of course, the standard sales pitch of every pyramid scheme out there. They all claim that their compensation plan avoids the pitfalls of the "real" pyramids and assures success to those "business owners" who "only have what it takes." Nevermind the mathematical impossibility of this claim. The mental gymnastics that Mike performed, when confronted with these inherent obstacles to easy money, were a sight to behold:

Well, obviously we both look at network-marketing differently. I look at as something you can do part-time, which is fun, where you have no boss, where it is all up to you. If you produce, you get paid if you do not you don't, there is no grey matter. I look at is as sorting through people, looking for superstars and believing in someone who may not ever think they can do something great. I have gone in knowing most who take this ride will fail because of either lack of belief, work ethic, or fear. I know I have to pay very close attention to those who are successful and duplicate what they have done . For what they have and the experiences they have are what I want for myself and my girlfriend.
I'll take the easy pot-shot first and say that I agree with him when he says "there is no grey matter." Of course I'm sure he meant to say "area," but in this instance I choose to have faith that Freud was on to something. The rest of the 'graph reads like Kiyosaki on a three-day speed binge, but when he makes the claim that what he is doing is "fun" I have to call foul. Having been a Realtor for two years, I know how uncomfortable it is soliciting your friends and family for business.

Now, I don't mean to pick on my unfortunate friend (who has, since writing the above, not-so-much come to his senses about ACN as ground to a halt - the way he put it: "I have transferred my time and energy into other areas"). He simply serves, I think, as a reminder that the religious impulse lurks in unexpected places. We have an insidious--though perhaps understandable--tendency to see what we want to see and believe what we want to believe--what the philosophers, skeptics, and scientists call confirmation bias.

Oh, and by the way, check out the real "Secrets of the Rich" here.

No comments: