If you could push a button to eliminate one cognitive bias, which would you choose?

post by MalcolmOcean (malcolmocean) · 2015-04-09T07:05:47.084Z · score: 3 (6 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 39 comments

I realize this question is contrived, but I figure it might provoke some fun discussion, so here goes:

If you could push a button and have your brain modified to precisely remove a cognitive bias (and have no other unnecessary effects—most convenient possible world), which would you choose? Why?

What if you were choosing for the whole human race?

39 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Dahlen · 2015-04-09T23:54:43.333Z · score: 21 (25 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Availability heuristic! ... It was the first one that came to mind.

comment by James_Miller · 2015-04-10T04:24:02.092Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Scope insensitivity so we would care more about existential risks.

comment by Bound_up · 2015-04-13T18:40:00.217Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This one seems best to me.

It provides the reason for rationality, the motivation sufficient to overcome the others.

Once everyone feels like Hirou with the Sword of Good, a very great many will be driven to fix things. Akrasia would be all but eliminated for worthwhile goals, and those without worthwhile goals could never concentrate on them, and would have to pursue something better. Even better would be plagued by the constant nagging reminder of best, until all would do what their knowledge indicated was best.

Granted, what everyone thinks is best will probably have some flaws, but this strikes me as the best change.

comment by Val · 2015-04-09T13:46:10.624Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This could have a chance of not ending well. Many of the biases are useful, even if they might hinder us under specific circumstances. It is very useful if society has a number of rational people, but if everyone was perfectly rational, I don't think society would work anymore.

A major benefit of biases, especially before advanced technology made our lives safer, was that in a dangerous, life-threatening situation you didn't have the time to evaluate all the choices and make a rational decision. You had to decide in the split of a second if you trusted that odd looking guy over there, or if the sound you heard was that of a tiger or not. This decision was made mostly by a large dose of prejudice, but could save your life.

comment by SeemsToMe · 2015-04-10T00:28:38.812Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think society would work anymore.

Who says it's working now? Is there a basis for comparison? Such as what the world would look like under other circumstances?

The way a fallacy appears to infect a population is that it's evolutionarily a more useful survival mechanism. A fallacy is an efficient shortcut to more expensive thinking involving a commonly-encountered dichotomy with a bias toward inaction... Why inaction?

Because expending calories is risky. Not just to the organism, but risky to a creature's ability to pass on and protect genes. While I'm out fighting for justice and make a difference to a starving kid on another continent, someone else has a chance to knock up the old lady, rob my house, beat my kids, and eat their food.

"Let's think this through." Thinking costs time. And time is money. It leads you to question authority pretty quickly. And that can get you killed or exiled or threatened, which makes you look a lot less confident to a potential mate.

And thanks to the just world fallacy, your potential mate won't be thinking about rethinking her snap judgment when you lose confidence at the wrong moment.

comment by Algon · 2015-04-09T09:14:31.507Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The confirmation bias.

comment by CronoDAS · 2015-04-09T19:40:42.727Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Confirmation bias first. Hindsight bias a close second - I'd like to be better able to decide if a mistake was actually a mistake given the information I had available at the time.

comment by dottedmag · 2015-04-09T13:31:02.975Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Learned helplessness, if that counts as a bias. Anchoring otherwise. Both are hard to overcome even one if aware of them, and decrease quality of judgement badly.

For the whole human race I'd dispense with availability heuristic, which would heal a political system and decision-making in democratic countries a lot (not due to individual politicians having radically better judgement individually, but due to decreased pressure from voters swayed by rare, but spectacular events).

comment by William_S · 2015-04-09T13:52:56.423Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Negativity bias (from wikipedia: "Psychological phenomenon by which humans have a greater recall of unpleasant memories compared with positive memories"), or some other modification reducing negativity in my perception of the world for myself.

Maybe toning down scope insensitivity for the whole human race? (I'm not sure if completely eliminating it is a good idea - I don't know if having a brain which feels the correct emotions about arbitrary amounts of suffering would be too traumatic and lead to paralysis. Whatever level of modification that leads to correct actions)

comment by bbleeker · 2015-04-10T07:48:51.171Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Oh, yes! I'd love to get rid of the negativity bias, I suffer badly from that.

comment by L29Ah · 2015-04-12T18:03:45.650Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The one that makes people think cognitive biases are distinct entities.

comment by CurtisSerVaas · 2015-04-12T23:47:18.783Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was about to speculate as to how many biases could be reduced to "Wishful Thinking". Certainly, most (if not all) of them are instances of being a "cognitive miser."

comment by passive_fist · 2015-04-11T09:39:42.315Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not sure if this is a bias or not, but "magical thinking" -- the mode of thinking that implicitly ascribes a hidden 'essence' to events or objects. Different manifestations of this are: karma, homeopathy, "handmade is better than factory made", and so on.

comment by taygetea · 2015-04-10T06:31:02.940Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Typical Mind Fallacy. Allows people to actually cooperate for once. One of the things I've been thinking about is how one person's fundamental mind structure is interpreted by another as an obvious status grab. I want humans to better approximate Aumann's Agreement Theorem. Solve the coordination problem, solve everything.

comment by MalcolmOcean (malcolmocean) · 2015-04-12T02:10:21.561Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I really like this.

There would be, I think, a strong and weak version of not having typical mind fallacy. The weak one is where you simply stop short of unreasonable assumptions of how much others will be like you (less certainty but fewer mistakes). The strong version would be having actually really accurate and precise models of other minds. It seems plausible that someone who had the weak one might grow towards the strong one if they were very curious and attentive.

comment by bbleeker · 2015-04-09T09:46:47.605Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Difficult to choose just one. The fundamental attribution error, probably. People would get along so much better if they didn't fall prey to that.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-09T15:14:35.992Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not sure what aspect of that is actually an error. All we know is that we judge ourselves different than others, but there is no information whether we judge others accurately or ourselves accurately.

In the past when people used to be stricter, there was a saying nemo iudex in causa sua, nobody be allowed to judge in his own case, because we would be far, far too lenient with ourselves, finding excuses. Today, we live in a world where being soft and forgiving is more fashionable, so today it would be more popular to think we judge ourselves correctly and others far too harshly. But besides these changing fashions of sentiment, do we actually know?

Assuming you, like most modern people, accepted the soft trend, and you think the lenient judgements we tend to give to ourselves are correct and should also be extended to others, have you ever tried to consider the other leg of the dilemma, i.e. what if we judged others as harshly as usual but ourselves too, maybe that would be the most accurate?

The important thing to understand is that prediction and moral judgement are different things. Circumstances predict better than personalities people's behavior. But this simply means being as good as the average is still very bad, allowing our behavior to be made bad by bad circumstances, like the vast majority does, is still something deserving censure. So this line of thought only works if you accept the average, typical person is a bad person - that predicting non-avereage behavior does nothing for judgement.

comment by imuli · 2015-04-09T15:37:14.669Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are a significant number of people who judge themselves harshly. Too harshly. It's not fun and not productive, see Ozy's Post on Scrupulosity. It maybe would be helpful for the unscrupulous to judge themselves with a bit more rigor, but leniency has a lot to recommend it as viewed from over here.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-09T15:56:09.778Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the link. Yes, it is possible to inflict much self-pain on our perceived faults, but interestingly they tend to be different things than what others would judge us over. I get the most criticism for not listening to people, ignoring what I am told, while I beat up myself over mainly the lack of willpower.

comment by bbleeker · 2015-04-10T07:40:53.874Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

[...] what if we judged others as harshly as usual but ourselves too, maybe that would be the most accurate?

The problem is that we 'judge others', i.e., their personalities, on the basis of behavior that maybe was just a one-off.

[...]allowing our behavior to be made bad by bad circumstances, like the vast majority does, is still something deserving censure.

Yes, it is, and when I feel bad, I always try to not let it influence how I treat others. But the problem is that on the rare occasions when I fail, others judge me as a person on the basis of that one failure. I'm normally polite and friendly to everyone, but maybe one day I'm grumpy and impatient, because I have a bad headache and I am in a hurry to take my sick cat to the vet. Then when they meet me that day, people think I'm always like that. They don't see me as someone in a bad mood who has let it influence her behavior that one day (that would be correct), they think that it is the way I am, and that I always behave like that, and that's where they go wrong.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-10T07:47:39.485Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The problem is that we 'judge others', i.e., their personalities, on the basis of behavior that maybe was just a one-off.

But allowing ourselves one-offs is a personality problem, lack of really strong principles. Of course it is something average people do, so it is not predictive, but that simply means average morality is still not good enough, and we are not good enough to escape judgement if we have an average personality. Average personalities are far too unprincipled.

Then when they meet me that day, people think I'm always like that.

OK I get it, it is not the strength or weakness of personality, but the behavior trait generalized. Well, I don't know what to say to this, because I have a completely opposite experience! In the past when I was occasionally invited to parties and I was foolish enough to accept them, I was constantly asked why do you look so sad and grumpy, why don't you enjoy yourself, people assumed it is a temporary bad mood with a specific cause, and I struggled to explain it is not, that I am really always like that, that enjoying myself is simply not a normal behavior for me, unless I am seriously drunk or high. And it was very hard for them to understand that I have really a different personality than most people who easily switch into fun-having mood with a drink, music and company. I tried to explain I don't even like enjoyment and being smilely and fun-having much, as it feels shallow, to no avail.

comment by bbleeker · 2015-04-10T09:21:58.967Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

OK I get it, it is not the strength or weakness of personality, but the behavior trait generalized.

Yes, and because of that, the personality is judged too harshly as well. Because while a person who normally behaves well and occasionally acts like a jerk isn't as good as someone who behaves well all the time, he's still not nearly as bad as someone who acts like a jerk all the time.

comment by Dahlen · 2015-04-11T20:18:56.616Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

My real answer* to the question in the OP:

For myself, a bias that's probably related to narcissism -- a tendency to believe myself more impressive or effective or persuasive than I am reasonably likely to be, or to believe with unwarranted confidence that I would succeed where others have failed (in things I haven't yet endeavoured to master).

For others, the bias in which the truth value ascribed to a claim is dependent on the emotions it generates within us. Depending on whether the person is a biased cynic or a biased idealist, ascribed truth and positive affect could be directly or inversely correlated.


* My previous answer was partly true, partly a joke for its own sake, partly a comment on how the top biases people will come up with will be the most known ones, independently of the extent to which they harm our rationality.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-09T15:25:12.017Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Conjunction fallacy, especially the part adding detail makes a scenario more plausible but less probable

The reason is I enjoy screwing with people I love and respect. In this case, sci-fi writers. All your in-depth predictions of how life will be in 300 years are now invalid. Next move?

comment by estimator · 2015-04-10T19:20:18.130Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think of science fiction as of sampling from futures-space; so it doesn't have to be the most probable scenario, just somewhat plausible.

comment by Anomylous · 2015-04-11T01:29:38.275Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Some works of sci-fi, especially classic works like Orwell's 1984, aren't even in "futures-space" anymore; those exact scenarios are no longer possible. That doesn't decrease their value at all. Science fiction, to me, is less about sampling from futures-space than about asking "what if?" and then telling a story about it.

comment by Salemicus · 2015-04-09T14:48:10.584Z · score: -1 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Counterpoint: what cognitive bias would you most like to increase in magnitude?

I would go for the just world fallacy, as I think it is a broadly accurate and useful heuristic that is unfairly maligned.

comment by irrational_crank · 2015-04-09T19:55:49.823Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure whether I would want the level of belief in the just world to increase. According to the same ever-so-reliable wikipedia article, belief in it is associated with belief in "blaming the victim" (e.g people blaming rape victims, or stigmatizing those with diseases, especially AIDS) which is clearly wrong most of the time. It's a comforting idea, and might in theory provoke more moral behavior if people apply it to themselves, but equality of opportunity must be achieved first otherwise it will just result in more irrational and unfair judgement about others.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-10T07:42:12.420Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The problem is it is hard to tell what amount of victim-blaming is objectively correct or incorrect. It is easy to construct the opposite, the unjust world fallacy, where what people do have totally no effect on their outcomes, they are pawns in the hands of Lady Luck. Then you need to determine where on this scale, from completely just to completely unjust, does a problem cluster lie and it is not straightforward.

In some cases, victim blaming is clearly wrong, in some other cases, failing to do that is clearly wrong, and there are a lot of cases in between. It is not intuitively clear to my why would be the AIDS stigma completely unjust, I was pounded into me from the age of 13 to never leave the house without carrying condoms, to me not using them is the equivalent of not using seat belts.

comment by RowanE · 2015-04-10T12:39:16.683Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

So, because the circumstances of your upbringing made you much safer from AIDS, you think blaming those with AIDS for their own problems is justified? And this is your example of why the just world fallacy might actually be a useful and accurate heuristic?

comment by Salemicus · 2015-04-10T13:21:26.834Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Blame" is a moral word, and hence contentious. Let's instead use words like "causation", "knowledge," and "foreseeability."

Consider someone who got AIDS via needle-sharing. Clearly, they took actions (sharing a needle) that caused the harm in a "but-for" sense. They knew (or can be deemed to have known ) that sharing needles risks spreading blood-borne pathogens, of which AIDS is one. The harm was clearly foreseeable. So it's quite correct to say that they caused themself to get AIDS. Indeed, if the addict had injected someone else in their sleep, which caused the injectee to get AIDS, no-one would be saying that the addict didn't cause the injectee's illness. Similar analysis applies for unprotected sex.

Now, whether you want to consider that "blameworthy" is complicated. Maybe you don't think that blame is a meaningful concept, or that the "true blame" lies with the person's genetics that predisposed them to addiction, or with their upbringing, or with drug dealers, or society generally, or whatever else. And sure, all of those other factors may well have contributed too. Which one is truly "blameworthy" is not, to me, an interesting debate.

So, if I meet someone with AIDS, I assume they probably did something avoidable and risky that caused themselves to get AIDS. On rare occasions this heuristic may be false, but in general it is a very accurate heuristic. You can call this "victim-blaming" if you like, but I don't see any a priori reason that people can never be the authors of their own misfortune.

comment by RowanE · 2015-04-10T21:35:02.260Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, clearly the question of whether someone got the necessary education about the dangers of AIDS stops being a problem when you're willing to just assume they know everything they should need to know. This might be a reasonable assumption in the first world, if you also assume the vast majority of people with AIDS actually did get it from risky activities instead of just things like being born to a parent who was HIV-positive, I'm not sure what the actual statistics are on that.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-10T13:02:15.785Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

No, the circumstances of my upbringing made me do things that make me safer, they did not directly, but only indirectly, through changing my behavior, caused the relative safety.

If you wouldn't blame people for things they do, e.g. for safety precautions they have not built a habit for, then what would be the use of blame at all? You wouldn't blame people for driving 200 km/h without a seatbelt at night blind drunk, because they had a bad upbringing where it was seen kinda normal? You gotta draw the line somewhere, and I think a sensible place to draw the blame-line is "if you would have done X and Y your outcome would be different"

Let's not even start the free will debate, as it is entirely pointless, even if from some absolute viewpoint every behavior is externally conditioned, choice is still useful, predictive term in human interactions, because we don't use the absolute angle, and blame just means "could have easily chosen otherwise".

Finally, this does not demonstrate the just world heuristic is useful, it would be easy to point out there is nothing particularly just about people in 1940 could fuck everything that moves without condom and not get AIDS and in 1980 it was much harder, rather it demonstrates how the behaviors it causes are not necessarily incorrect or immoral.

comment by RowanE · 2015-04-10T21:04:54.755Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What about someone raised in a bizarre alternate universe where tradition, culture and religious belief dictate that those who go faster than 30km/h while sober or in bindings have their souls eaten by demons, so everyone has to drive blind drunk without a seatbelt? It seems obvious to me that the scale on which a line has to be drawn somewhere is the extent to which you consider external factors affecting the decision when assigning blame, in which case your "sensible place" is the furthest extreme on the blame end of the scale.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-04-14T05:10:29.756Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

What about someone raised in a bizarre alternate universe where tradition, culture and religious belief dictate that those who go faster than 30km/h while sober or in bindings have their souls eaten by demons, so everyone has to drive blind drunk without a seatbelt?

How could such a world possibly exist for more then a couple of years without people noticing that there is a problem?

comment by RowanE · 2015-04-14T13:43:06.732Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm quite confident it wouldn't, hence "bizarre", but I don't think that matters to the questions I'm actually trying to address with the hypothetical. I just used a drunk driver because that's what DeVliegendeHollander used.

comment by VoiceOfRa · 2015-04-16T03:10:25.448Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The point is that traditions, especially long established traditions, generally do in fact contain good advice.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-04-16T17:28:42.585Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The point is that traditions, especially long established traditions, generally do in fact contain good advice.

I think the point is weaker: long established traditions do not contain self-destructive advice and contain good advice for the times in which they were created. If the circumstances have changed sufficiently, the advice of ancient traditions could, in fact, be bad.

comment by RowanE · 2015-04-17T08:57:01.666Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

That tendency exists, and is part of why I'm confident the thing I described as a bizarre alternate universe wouldn't really happen, but it seems as true-but-irrelevant as the simple fact that such a tradition probably wouldn't develop.