Saturday, September 19, 2015

Recency Bias in Society

According to this poll, Barack Obama is the worst president in U.S. history.  The 2nd?  George W. Bush.  Obama's term hasn't even ended yet, and it still takes time before we can objectively assess the true effects of Bush's presidency.

Obama is clearly not the worst president in U.S. history.  There's a good chance that Bush isn't either, so why did their names get so many votes?  The answer could have something to do with recency bias.

Recency bias:  The tendency to think that trends and patterns from the recent past will continue in the future.  The term "bias" implies that it is not a fair, impartial evaluation of something, implying that a truly objective person would be led to think otherwise.

Another example:  What was the most powerful invention in the last 300 years?  Most people say the internet, since we all use it and can google search any question we may have.  It seems like a very tempting, powerful answer to give, but there have been a lot of inventions in the last 300 years, and we tend to forget the ones that occurred more than a few decades ago.

Ha-Joon Chang, a South Korean economist and professor at Cambridge, notes that the washing machine actually had a more historical impact than the internet (23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism).  People have a tendency to weight their opinions toward more recent events, forgetting about the long term events of the distant past.  So how was the washing machine more significant than the internet?

Before its invention in 1851, laundry used to be a full time job.  It was absolutely necessary that somebody stay home to scrub out stains, run through large rinse cycles through different temperatures of water.  Tough stains were scrubbed out sometimes with flat rocks, as one needed something strong enough to chip off tough stains.  Women, being assigned the gender role of homemaker, would toil for hours washing clothes.

After its invention, the possibility of women actually working outside the house existed.  Although still not popular, women were afforded the chance to work outside of home, producing textiles, or working at factories to support household income.  For women, the washing machine liberated them extensively in ways that we can't really understand, since we are so far removed from those times.

We are swayed to think that the internet is so much more powerful because of all the things we can now do.  However, most of those things were actually still doable; you could look up answers in almanacs and encyclopedias, which is more time consuming, but still doable.  Every online resource has a physical counterpart that although is not as efficient, can still get the job done.  It can be argued that people were really more productive before the internet caused tremendous distractions in the workplace and at the school, as surfing can cause hours of wasted work time.  

The washing machine is way more significant than the internet.

This is simply another form of recency bias.  We do this frequently in sports, too., a site that specializes in advanced baseball research performed a study on 2nd half records and playoff success.  Every year, there is at least one team that despite initial success and hoarding wins, struggles in the latter months in the season, barely making the playoffs.  There is also a team that can't do anything right in the first 2 months and finishes the season with a brilliant record looking like the best team in baseball.

The study performed last year confirmed that overall record is more indicative than 2nd half performance; teams that skidded through the last 2 months had just as much playoff success as teams that flourished in the 2nd half.  There has always been a lingering perception that 2nd half performance is more indicative of playoff success, when it clearly is not.

Recency bias is prevalent in the stock market; stocks that experience short-term growth streaks tend to attract more investors, followed by regression, in which the stock's true value is approached.  The converse can occur; a stock that struggles for a few weeks incites panic, motivating investors to sell off their shares, when there is no major reason to be alarmed.

Recency bias occurs in global warming.  A short term polar vortex causes many skeptics to fallaciously believe that there is no global warming, even though in the past 30 years, the average temperature has holistically risen steadily.  I found a visual graphic illustrating this fallacy by showing the Titanic sinking, and you could read this quote:  
                "How could this ship be sinking if we are further away from the water?"
While the stern part of the ship was out of the water at the moment, it would only be a matter of minutes until the entire ship would be entirely underwater, but people were fixated on the recent situation of the ship being leveraged above water level.

Global warming cannot be confirmed nor denied based on what is happened in the last 2 years; you have to look decades into the past in order to actually understand what exactly is occurring.

Last year, Ray Rice was heavily criticized for his domestic violence incident with his now wife in an elevator.  People were supporting a lifetime ban from the NFL, which was subsequently dropped.  Now, the general consensus seems to be a bit lighter, and more favorable about a return to professional football, arguing that it is in the past, and should be forgiven.

While domestic violence is no laughing matter, and not a good thing for him to do, last year's opinions are clearly a matter of recency bias, in a sense that people were shocked by something that just happened and wanted to believe that he could never be moral enough to be allowed back into the NFL.  Rice, like Michael Vick, and other former NFL stars, is deserving of a 2nd chance, as many of these individuals learned from their mistakes.

In short, don't get overly fixated on what is happening in today's world.  Just because something happens today or yesterday, does not mean it will happen forever.  Most of the time, today's popular new trend becomes a forgotten thing of the past in a few short years.