I was at the gym the other day - this finely chiselled physique doesn’t come naturally - and Alexandra Burke came on the TV, singing “The bad boys are always catching my eye.”
Well of course they are. Bad boys hang around on street corners and in malls where you can see them. Good boys on the other hand are working or studying and so are in offices and libraries where they’ll not catch your eye.
This is a sampling bias. It’s an elementary cognitive error.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg.
By this I don’t just mean over-confidence. Yes, this is ubiquitous, but in many cases it serves a rational purpose. When Tinchy Stryder sings “I will never leave you” to Amelle we all know the sub-text.
No, what I mean are more egregious errors. Take for example the Black Eyed Peas: “I gotta feeling that tonight’s gonna be a good good night.“
This, surely, is the base rate fallacy. Past experience shows us that tonight is rarely gonna be a good night; the best we can expect is to avoid too bad a fight and cop off with a girl who weighs less than us. But Will.i.am is ignoring this prior probability, and over-weighting his subjective feeling. This is a basic deviation from Bayesianism.
Let’s move to Cheryl Cole:
Anything that's worth havingThe first two lines are acceptable. But the last two, surely, are not. Except in cases of severe duress, which Mrs C is not addressing, quitting can never be out of the question. Sometimes, when it gets tough, quitting is the right thing to do. To think otherwise is to commit the sunk cost fallacy.
Is sure enough worth fighting for
Quitting's out of the question
When it gets tough, gotta fight some more
Her protege Joe McElderry presents a more awkward case:
There's always going to be another mountainThis, I fear, is an example of time inconsistency. At the start of the climb, you might believe you should always keep moving. But what about when you face the third or fourth mountain? Will your preference be to keep moving then? Or will you prefer not to climb at all? If so, your later preferences will be inconsistent with your earlier ones.
I'm always going to want to make it move
Always going to be an uphill battle,
Sometimes you going to have to lose,
Ain't about how fast I get there,
Ain't about what's waiting on the other side
It's the climb
Keep on moving.
It could be that singing about the climb is a rational precommitment strategy; if you publicly say you’ll keep on moving, you’re increasing the costs of subsequently stopping moving by exposing yourself to more embarrassment if you do. But it’s not clear that Joe is doing this.
Now, I don’t want to claim that all of this year’s most popular songs contain howling irrationalities. The mighty Lady Gaga passes muster. But could it be that such irrationalities - as distinct from plain nonsense - are more common now than years ago? If so, isn’t this yet more evidence of the decline of civilization? And what hope is there of people becoming properly educated if they are exposed to such cognitive errors? Will no-one think of the children?