An Experiment in Bias on Boundary Surveys
Dr. Anna Freud, the highly respected psychoanalyst and daughter of Sigmund Freud, once observed, “It has not been possible to demonstrate… that the human intellect has a particularly fine flair for the truth or that the human mind shows any special inclination for recognizing the truth. We have rather found, on the contrary, that our intellect very easily goes astray without any warning, and that nothing is more easily believed by us than what, without reference to the truth, comes to meet our wishful illusions.” Truer words may never have been spoken but, according to Freud, it’s our nature to ignore if convenient to do so.
My personal “expertise” in human behavior is based not upon years of study or an advanced degree in psychology, but on observation and the fact that I too am a runner in the human race. Notwithstanding these limited credentials, would it be fair to say that Freud has made a comment of particular relevance to the retracement of land boundaries and the discord that sometimes surrounds them?
The bulk of my work is in the resolution of boundary disputes. Before accepting a new client, I deliver a lengthy and well-rehearsed preamble. The normal thrust of the monologue is, “I don’t care where your boundaries are.” That is, in point of fact, a direct quote. The statement is most often met with dead silence and confusion; however, to date, I’ve not lost a client because of it.
Those who are heavily invested in a boundary dispute are passionate for many reasons and mistakenly assume that their surveyor of choice will share in and vigorously defend those same passions. Of course, this is neither possible nor advisable. The phrase, “I don’t care where your boundaries are,” although harsh, is undoubtedly an effective deterrent to this line of thinking and a perfect segue to discuss the actual duty and function of a land surveyor.
Canon 4 of the National Society of Professional Surveyors Creed states, “A Professional Surveyor should develop and communicate a professional analysis and opinion without bias or personal interest.” This is an admirable and appropriate goal, but is it possible? It is highly unlikely that a licensed professional surveyor would purposely allow bias to influence their decisions, and thus mistreat or otherwise ignore relevant evidence.
In the words of Sir Francis Bacon, “The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion … draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects….” This is commonly known as confirmation or “myside” bias, and everyone is susceptible to it.
All participants in a boundary feud customarily hold opinions as to the “proper” location of their boundaries, and as a surveyor, your conclusions of the same are judged accordingly. Regardless of technical measurements, documents, and legal principles to the contrary, one or both parties will often hold fast to their original suppositions. And as “myside” bias is notably prevalent when information is ambiguous – a common stumbling block during a dispute – it frequently extends or even worsens conflicts. By interpreting somewhat opaque evidence in their favor, opposing parties can become overconfident that they hold the stronger position.
More commonly, bias is a subtle whisper. Not convinced yet? Perhaps it is time for yet another informal examination of human nature.
Fifty land surveyors, engineers and attorneys (many of them loyal POB readers who read my previous column) were asked to take a simple online assessment. Forty-seven either responded immediately or were cajoled into doing so, and the results, while hardly scientific, are quite interesting.
Twenty-four of the participants were given Test “A,” while 23 were given Test “B.” Those taking Test “A” were given a series of words describing a hypothetical surveyor and then asked to rate their opinion of that person on a scale of one to 10, with one being the lowest. Those words in order are: envious, stubborn, critical, impulsive, industrious and intelligent. Participants were then asked to rate how likely they would be to hire this person on a scale of one to 10, with one being least likely.
Additionally, participants in Test “A” were given a series of words describing a piece of survey equipment and then asked to rate their opinion of it on a scale of one to 10, again with one being the lowest. Those words in order are: reliable, efficient, familiar, old-fashioned, suspect and tired. They were then asked to rate how likely they would be to purchase this equipment.
Test “B” was identical except for the order of the descriptive words. For both the surveyor and equipment questions, the order of the words was reversed. Participants then ranked a surveyor who was intelligent, industrious, impulsive, critical, stubborn, and envious, while the equipment was described as tired, suspect, old-fashioned, familiar, efficient and reliable.
The surveyor in Test “A,” described first with negative attributes, enjoyed an average rating of only 4.92 or, dare I say, unfavorable. The survey equipment in the same test, described first in positive terms received an average rating of 7.08, or favorable.
The Test “B” surveyor, described by the very same words, but in reverse order (positive attributes first), received an average rating of 6.95. For the survey equipment in that test (with negative terms coming first), the average rating dropped all the way to 4.52.
The Primacy Effect
What our esteemed colleagues so kindly demonstrated is known as the Primacy Effect, and our little experiment is based upon one created by psychologist Solomon Asch in the 1940s. His work in the formation of impressions and conformity was foundational to social psychology. Asch found that the order in which information was presented had a dramatic influence on the impressions formed by participants in his study. What does this have to do with boundary retracement?
While preparing a boundary survey, a great deal of evidence and information is collected and reviewed. Numerous studies, including those of Asch, have demonstrated that information gathered early on is likely to have a more significant influence on decision-making than that gathered at a later date. There is a tendency to develop an opinion based upon initial observations and to evaluate subsequent information based upon this conclusion. If we are not careful, information reviewed at the beginning of a survey project – including but not limited to prior surveys, parol evidence, or even instructions from well-meaning attorneys and clients – can influence our decisions.
Suppose for a moment that we have been engaged to mitigate a boundary dispute. During the opening stages of our work, we review an early boundary retracement prepared by a well-known and highly respected local surveyor – our old mentor perhaps. At a later date, we come into possession of a survey produced by a firm from out-of-state. We are unfamiliar with the firm and the quality of their work, but their lines differ considerably from that of the local surveyor. Application of the Primacy Effect would suggest that reviewing our mentor’s survey first, coupled with our fondness for the preparer, would likely cause us to evaluate the subsequent survey not on its own merits, but in comparison to the first. Is it possible that the slightest breath of bias might slant our evaluation of the facts?
Anticipation in like manner can sow the seeds of bias. When a specific result is expected based upon initial observation, the promise of that result is often allowed to drive the outcome of the investigation. For instance, when arriving onsite, the field crew discovers that a disturbance such as construction or flooding has occurred in the vicinity of a property corner. Would they then offer the same level of effort in searching for the monument as they would if the site were undisturbed? What if a previous survey shows that the corner was not recovered? Would they even look? Would you?
A complete study of any discipline includes knowledge of potential pitfalls and how to prevent them. The fundamental key to avoiding bias in boundary surveying is knowledge. Not just technical knowledge and expertise in advanced mathematics, but a familiarity with ourselves and our natures. This awareness, for better or worse, seems to develop through time and experience. However, studies have shown that the older and more qualified one becomes, the more difficult it is to overcome one’s bias.
To remain objective, surveyors must purposefully and deliberately lessen the pressures placed upon them. Clients and their attorneys should be limited in their amount of “over your shoulder” viewing time. Surveying for an audience, although unavoidable at times, is to be avoided. Likewise, time pressures are unrelenting and a fact of modern life. However, they should be kept to a minimum if at all possible. The process of boundary retracement is complicated enough without the addition of frequently arbitrary deadlines.
We must always fully perfect our opinions based upon proper methods and information, and then search for inconsistencies within them. All possibilities should be considered, not just those that support our conclusions. You can be sure that in a court of law, opposing counsel will thoroughly question your opinions. It only makes sense for the surveyor to vet them first.
Bias is a subtle, albeit constant companion, and it would seem, a part of the human condition. One has to look no further than the nightly news for a demonstration of this. Recognition of this fact is the single most important means to overcome the obstacle it presents.