Sunday, April 06, 2008

How misinformation influence sense of reality

Professor Alex Bavelas, a noted expert in small-group interaction, has shown in several experiments that misinformation has a powerful influence on a human being's sense of reality.

In one experiment, two subjects, A and B, are seated facing a projection screen. There is a partition between them so that they cannot see each other, and they are requested not to communicate. They are then shown medical slides of healthy and sick cells and told that they must learn to recognize which is which by trial and error. In front of each of them are two buttons marked "Healthy" and "Sick," respectively, and two signal lights marked "Right" and "Wrong." Every time a slide is projected they have to press one of the buttons, whereupon one of the two signal lights flashes on.

"A" gets true feedback; that is, the lights tell him whether his guess was indeed right or wrong. His situation is one of simple discrimination, and in the course of the experiment, most "A" subjects learn to distinguish healthy from sick cells with a fair degree of correctness (i.e., about 80 percent of the time).

"B's" situation is different. His feedback is based not on his own guesses, but on A's. Therefore it does not matter what he decides about a particular slide; he is told "right" if "A" guessed right, "wrong" if "A" guessed wrong. B does not know this; he has been led to believe there is an order, that he has to discover this order, and that he can do so by making guesses and finding out if he is right or wrong. But as he asks the "sphinx" he gets very confusing answers because he does not know that the sphinx is not talking to him

In other words, there is no way in which he can discover that the answers he gets are non contingent -- that is, have NOTHING to do with his questions -- and that therefore he is not learning anything about his guesses. So he is searching for an order where there is none that he could discover.

A and B are eventually asked to discuss what they have come to consider the rules for distinguishing between healthy and sick cells. "A"'s explanations are simple and concrete; "B"'s are of necessity subtle and complex -- after all, he had to form his hypothesis on the basis of very tenuous and contradictory hunches.

The amazing thing is that A does not simply shrug off B's explanations as unnecessarily complicated or even absurd, but is impressed by their sophisticated "brilliance." "A" tends to feel inferior and vulnerable because of the pedestrian simplicity of his assumption, and the more complicated "B"'s "delusions", the more likely they are to convince A.

Before they take a second, identical test (but with new slides), A and B are asked to guess who will now do better than in his first test. All B's and most A's say that B will. :-)