“People seem to think that a unit of some entity (with certain constraints) is the appropriate and optimal amount. We refer to this heuristic as unit bias. We illustrate unit bias by demonstrating large effects of unit segmentation, a form of portion control, on food intake. Thus, people choose, and presumably eat, much greater weights of Tootsie Rolls and pretzels when offered a large as opposed to a small unit size (and given the option of taking as many units as they choose at no monetary cost). Additionally, they consume substantially more M&M’s when the candies are offered with a large as opposed to a small spoon (again with no limits as to the number of spoonfuls to be taken). We propose that unit bias explains why small portion sizes are effective in controlling consumption; in some cases, people served small portions would simply eat additional portions if it were not for unit bias. We argue that unit bias is a general feature in human choice and discuss possible origins of this bias, including consumption norms.”
Unit bias. A new heuristic that helps explain the effect of portion size on food intake.
I came across the fact that unit bias is a thing that has a name and at least one paper written about it just recently. In addition to being generally interesting, I think there’s a really cool analogy between unit bias and the power of concepts.
I think concepts are a lot like units. In the same way that it seems to be true that our conceptions of quantity tend to snap toward units we are familiar with or presented with, I think our brains tend to snap toward the concepts that are the most powerful and established in them.
Explaining non-binary gender is an easy example of this.
“But what are you, really?”
“Okay, but are you AMAB or AFAB?”
This can be immensely powerful. Man and woman are the established concepts, and peoples’ brains snap to them reflexively and powerfully. Even once people start stepping outside of these concept-units, it tends to be much easier and much more reflexive to think of new concepts of gender as solely composed of parts of the more familiar concepts.
“So, you’re like part boy and part girl?”
I have written before about how developing new concepts feels a lot like digging to me—like inside my brain there is an ant hill of interconnected concepts, and I’m a worker burrowing out a new room in it. It’s hard, but it’s also incredibly powerful.
It’s not always about forming new concepts, either. Sometimes it’s about making adjustments to the ones we already have.
“So you’re cheating?”
“No, everyone knows about it and is okay with it.”
“They’re OKAY with you cheating?!”
“It’s not…that’s not…how that word works…”
A lot of people’s concept of cheating in relationships include that it is necessarily defined by sexual and romantic exclusivity. It takes some digging to realign the concept of cheating to “Breaking the agreed-upon rules of the relationship, whether they involve exclusivity or not.”.
“What do you mean, you don’t like soccer? What other sport is there?”
“Well, I like basketball. I play on a local team.”
“Basket ball? What’s that?”
“Well, players try to get a ball into the other team’s basket.”
“Ok, I follow. Like soccer.”
“Yeah, except you bounce the ball with your hands instead of using your feet.”
“Wait, what? You mean you can CHEAT?”
“No, it just has different rules.”
“What do the other players think about that?”
“Well, they all play by the same rules.”
Read the rest of this piece at: Polyamory and a Sports Metaphor
Sometimes concepts can be powerfully positive and others they can be powerfully negative. It all depends on what ideas your ecosystem of concepts pulls you toward. The invention of terms like cisgender, rape culture, and unit bias for those ideas helps solidify them in our brains. Having those concepts defined helps us understand them, and helps us move forward. At the same time, having a well-established cultural concept of virginity does perhaps fewer good things and more very bad things.
Rape culture is not only easier to talk about today than it was a few years ago—it it is easier to believe. I don’t think it’s just because there are more arguments and evidence readily available now than ever, though that certainly helps. I think it also helps having a solid, established concept in the first place. I would be willing to bet that it is, quite simply, more difficult to believe something that you don’t have a coherent, solid concept for, regardless of what the evidence is.
Unit bias is a useful concept to have because it makes it easier to talk about and be aware of as an established concept. Additionally, it provides a stepping stone to conceptualizing other things, like some of my thoughts on concepts.
In the hypothetical anthill ecosystem of concepts, when you have to dig a new tunnel, it helps if you can find another that’s nearby. Not as far to dig, you see. That’s what I see analogies as. They’re these incredible shortcuts to new concepts. One of the best ways to learn new things is to find nearby concepts that you already have and leap off of them toward the new ones. The brain is like a computer. Rutherford’s model of the atom is like a solar system (or plum pudding, says Google autocomplete). Electricity moving through wires is like fluid moving through tubes. Depression is like having dead fish.
“Saying “Serotonin treats depression, therefore depression is, at root, a serotonin deficiency” is about as scientifically grounded as saying “Playing with puppies makes depressed people feel better, therefore depression is, at root, a puppy deficiency”.”
SSRIS: Much More Than You Wanted to Know
I wonder if learning new concepts rewards exponentially. The more concepts you have, the more points there are to jump off of to new ones.
They operate on a cultural level as well, and to some degree it’s sheer chaotic chance that, as a culture, we have the set we do. We do have them though, and every day our brains are snapping in different directions on account of them. Every day our brains are jumping to new concepts by spring boarding off of them.
How different would we each be with a different set of them? How different would the world be with a different set? How different can we make it by building new ones?
Very, I think.