Interview with a supremo

On the SNAP.PA site (PA is the Press Association in London) yesterday, a piece by Thomas Hornall, “After you learn a new fact it appears everywhere again and again – here’s why”, about the frequency illusion, a selective attention phenomenon closely related to confirmation bias — on which, see this Gary Larson Far Side cartoon (from the Sex Mahoney website on 12/6/11):

Hornall’s piece is the result of an e-mail interview I had with him back in August; I figure very prominently in it — and eventually get referred to as “the linguistics supremo”. For non-Brits, from NOAD2:

supremo  Brit. informal   a person in overall charge of an organization or activity: the Channel Four supremo. – a person with great authority or skill in a certain area: an interior by design supremo Kelly.

Excerpts from Hornall:

There is a curious phenomenon whereby once some new scrap of information is learned it pops up again hours, even minutes, later.

Your friend mentions an obscure rock band in the morning, you hear their music in an advert by lunch, notice their album outside a record store on the way home, and now you hear their tinny track coming out of your sister’s headphones at night.

It can feel like it’s following you around.

The term “frequency illusion” was coined by Stanford linguistics professor Arnold Zwicky who describes it as a “seductive effect of selective attention”.

It happens as we unconsciously keep an eye out for things that stick with us for whatever random reason, then when we see them again it over-hypes the significance making it seem pseudo-profound.

Humans are pattern-seeking mammals after all and our brains are perfectly prejudiced toward sequences.

Professor Zwicky explained: “We are not videotaping our experiences, taking in everything in bright detail and then squirreling the tapes away in a storage space …

“The recorder comes with built-in editors that reject or discard a lot of stuff and re-shape a lot of the rest to fit their expectations.

“And then the stored tapes are constantly re-edited in the light of new experiences.”

… The linguistics supremo said he no longer trusts his own observations because of how prejudiced and misleading they can be.

He added: “No-one, not even professional linguists, has an idea what the real frequency of particular usages is … all they know is that they’ve collected a bunch of examples, so to them it looks frequent.”

Without reliable data, all we have to go on are our own “extraordinarily imperfect” personal experiences which are riddled with bias and random weighting of significance.

So, next time you hear someone say: “Oh my god no way, I was just reading about that, how strange!” you’ll know exactly what’s going on.

And, if this is the first you’re hearing of all this, you can expect another encounter soon.

One Response to “Interview with a supremo”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Ned Deily on Facebook:

    AMZ & The Linguistic Supremos: “Stop! In The Name of Words”

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