Fallacy Saturday – Confirmation Bias

confirmation biasI just read what appears to be a well thought out article from the Huffington Post about the decline of Olive Garden restaurants and the meaning this has for our overall economy. At first read it appears completely reasonable but it’s not. Happily it gives me the opportunity to talk about an incredibly important logical fallacy called Confirmation Bias.

The article itself looks into the declining market for Olive Garden and Red Lobster which are owned by Darden Restaurants. It then compares them to their high-end Capital Grill restaurants that saw growth in the most recent quarter. It then concludes that because the middle-class catering restaurants are seeing declining sales and the high-end restaurants are increasing this clearly means that the middle-class is suffering while the upper-class is thriving.

I’m not going to say the argument is completely false but it’s a classic example of Confirmation Bias. Yes, Olive Garden and Red Lobster have seen dramatic losses in the last few years but at the same time Fast Casual restaurants like Chipotle, Qdoba, and Panera (or St. Louis Bread Company as we call it here in St. Louis) are growing by leaps and bounds. These are clearly not high-end restaurants.

So what is Confirmation Bias? It’s the willingness to look only at facts that support your preconceived notion and either ignore or simple refuse to look at other factors that might not support your hypothesis.

It’s a very easy fallacy to fall into. When you see a post on Facebook that confirms what you believe there is the instant urge to Share and Like that post without even reading the article that is behind. This almost happened to me in regards to an article about Hospice Care that a friend posted on Facebook. When I went and actually read the article I saw that it was heavily biased.

We so badly want to believe that certain things are true that we are willing to accept any evidence that supports this point of view while ignoring those facts that seem to contradict our hoped for conclusion. This is an extremely dangerous fallacy. Just ask the brave men and women who served our country in Iraq ostensibly because they were going to stamp out the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction.

This fallacy is pervasive in today’s political culture where ideology trump facts. When we make important political decisions based on what we want to be true then we are doomed to making horrific mistakes.

What I’m saying is that the reason Olive Garden and Red Lobster are struggling might be because of the changes in economics for the Middle Class but there are likely other reasons as well. Certainly other Middle Class aimed restaurants are doing quite well. I’m sure there are a number of fine-dining establishments that aren’t doing very well. Can we assume the rich have less money?

The next time you hear someone make a claim that seems to support your position pause for a moment. Examine the facts from a Critical Thinking perspective. Do your homework. Think twice before Sharing that Facebook post.

The bottom line is that when we make better decisions we experience more favorable outcomes. Better decisions are driven by complete information. When we fall into the trap of fallacies we make worse decisions. When the people of a nation make bad decision after bad decision there are bound to be serious repercussions.

Tom Liberman

Super Bowl … Saturday?!

Super Bowl 2012

It’s Super Bowl Sunday and I’m going to use the occasion to examine the question of moving the game day to Saturday. This is an idea I’ve been a proponent of for quite some time and when talking about it with friends I always complained that the NFL was foolish not to adopt it.

For many years I stood by this argument without bothering to further examine why the Super Bowl remained on a Sunday. This demonstrated a fallacy called Ought-Is or Wishful Thinking. Simply put it is the idea that we want something to be true so we therefore believe it is true without critical analysis. The Ought-Is is a pretty common reason why we fail to fully examine situations and make mistakes.

So, let’s put on our Critical Thinking caps and get to work!

The benefits of a Saturday game are fairly self-evident. Parties could occur on Saturday night instead of Sunday night. Bars, hotels, and other venues would get a boost in revenue because the revelry could go on all evening. The game itself would air in the evening rather than late afternoon. People could stay up late without having to go to work the next morning.

Our critical thinking skills come into play to determine why the game, with all these tangible benefits, hasn’t been moved. One of the important aspects of critical thinking is determining who stands to gain and who stands to lose by a particular proposition. In this case the thing I chose to ignore was the idea of who loses with a Saturday game. Can you think of the answer? Take a moment.

Two parties lose by moving the game to Saturday, the NFL and the host city. The process by which the NFL determines the host city does not involve, to my knowledge, a direct cash payment. However, the host city is generally chosen by their “ability to host”. Well, let’s parse that phrase. What the NFL means by “ability to host” is really how much money can they extract from people who come to see the game.

While the NFL benefits from direct ticket sales and certainly from advertising I would imagine that the events surrounding the Super Bowl, including specially built venues to entertain the visitors in around the host city, provide a hefty boost to that income. Most of these special events take place on Saturday with a continuation onto game day. This revenue would certainly decrease with only half a day on Saturday to run before the game.

Likewise, the host city gets more hotel revenue and more tourist revenue by having the game on Sunday. Tourists arrive either late on Friday or early on Saturday and spend the rest of their time spending money. If the game were played on Saturday this would eliminate a full day of tourist revenue. Now, certainly many tourists would stay through Sunday in any case but the loss of revenue would certainly be significant.

Ok, now we’ve uncovered the reason for the game staying on Sunday, can we come up with a solution to the problem? The only real solution that I can think of is to have some sort of national holiday on the Friday before the Super Bowl (if the game is on Saturday) or the Monday after (if the game remains on Sunday). The NFL has proposed such solutions but it seems unlikely that the government will get involved and even if they do, some companies would ignore the holiday and this might curtail some of the revenue generation.

So, for all our critical thinking we don’t have an easy solution. That’s the way of it sometimes but at least I have some peace of mind as to why the game continues to be played on a Sunday.

I would suggest that we all try to use our critical thinking skills when faced with a seemingly absurd situation. Oftentimes you will find that Wishful Thinking has blinded you to the reality of a dilemma.

Tweet, Link, Like, Comment, and all the rest if you think other people might like to read this!

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Twist