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List of cognitive biases (wikipedia.org)
36 points by eru on Sept 23, 2008 | hide | past | favorite | 25 comments

It looks like some people have the idea that biases are inherently bad, and they see this collection of bias patterns as a list of flaws that would not stain the judgment of the ideal human being.

This is not true. Unless your ideal human being is omniscient.

In many cases it makes sense to set up a framework where we try to minimize these things, such as a scientific observation or experiment. We minimize bias as best we can in such cases because we're trying to learn something that exists outside of the realm of human experience, or that at least is universal to all humans. However, the motivations behind all such experiments are hopelessly mired in dubious assumptions, heuristics, and guesses (like hypotheses). I say 'hopelessly' but I would use a more positive term, since bias is ultimately what drives human action.

This is why it is important to recognize when and what biases are appropriate in what contexts. Here's a quote from this very article:

"Cognitive biases are instances of evolved mental behaviour. Some are presumably adaptive, for example, because they lead to more effective actions or enable faster decisions. Others presumably result from a lack of appropriate mental mechanisms, or from the misapplication of a mechanism that is adaptive under different circumstances."

Being free from bias doesn't make you smart, it makes you paralyzed. What makes you smart is your ability to use these adaptive thought processes in a way that enables you to accomplish your ends.

Seen in this way, it is impossible to blame world hunger, etc. on people's cognitive biases. Maybe you can blame it on capable selfish people combined with inappropriate biases among the general population?

Articles like these are like a cognitive maturity test.

If you understand that biases empower action, and the logical fallacies many times revolve around language, then these categories are nice-to-have illustrations, or patterns (for you geeks) of conversations.

Like all pattern systems, however, their use is more illustrative than practical. And of course, people sit around patting themselves on the back about how they've mastered the system, meanwhile having the same biases and logical flaws as the rest of humanity.

That's not smart, that's blind.

Base rate fallacy — ignoring available statistical data in favor of particulars.

I really had problems in the past trying to don't say bad words to the incredible amount of people that suffer from this "bias".

Things like "don't eat too much meat, statistically it may hurt your healt". Reply: "My grandmother used to eat tons of meat and dead at 90".

Maybe you should reconsider. Sampling over people around you is a lot more accurate metric than global statistics.

First you have data sample that is relevant to people just like you. That means that you do not have to compensate for other factors as you're affected in the same way.

Second you do not have to trust other people for properly gathering, processing, and presenting the data.

All well and good, but your sample is usually very small and you as a human being can't handle confounding factors very well. Add on the fact that you are also prone to selection bias...

That's the point! Selection bias compensates for all your confounding factors. You're in the same bin as your friends. Same factors, same outcomes.

For example how many of your friends (or friends of friends if your sample is too small) are dead in auto accidents is a lot better predictor for your fate than any global country statistics you can find.

Er rather, I meant a different selection bias. The one where you selectively remember friends that fit your hypothesis.

Also, the thing with quite a few statistics is that the risk is say 1/1000, and I honestly have closer to 50 people who I interact with in a month.

I've always found one missing - being put into an agreeable state of mind with truthisms. For example:

Babies are cute, violence is bad, <something>, and furthermore, kittens are cuddly.

Makes <something> seem more likely to be true. Is there a name for it?

A friend of mine calls it "building agreement". He uses it in a rather different context.

Him: I like moby.

Cute girl in record store looking at a Moby CD: Yeah, he's way cool. I saw him in concert recently.


Him: I also like puppies, especially when you scratch their tummy, and their leg shakes.

Girl: Oh, I love puppies too! And kitties!


Him: So, I gotta run, but it was real nice to meet you. Oh, before I leave, remind me your phone number so we can hang out sometime?

My god. Reading through that list, it's amazing when anyone (including myself) ever manages to get anything done, or that society works as well as it does.

Yeah, I guess I'm a glass half full kinda guy.

This list is precisely how we get things done - by building trusting relationships, ignoring data most likely to be distracting, and focusing on stuff that can hurt us.

And, by contrast, this is why computers are so slow at some decisions: no biases or heuristics, no input prioritization, etc.

yeah, to be fair it is rather amazing what humanity has accomplished with a brain meant for running from cats on the savanna. but the vast majority of modern comforts is due to a small group of entrepreneurs.

It would be hard I think to name a more irrational group of people than entrepreneurs.

May we be blessed with an abundance of the more altruistic among them.

combine with this http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_logical_fallacies

for a total picture of the magnitude of stupidity present in modern society. the more intimately familiar you become with reason the more disgusted you will be. don't say i didn't warn you.

When I read "modern society," the implication I read is that this is different from older society. But in this case, that's certainly not true. We've always been like this.

The more you learn about this, the more you should appreciate that we are not rational creatures. You don't need to get disgusted. Just accept what we are, and try to be rational and not emotional when it matters.

yet we are capable of rationality. accepting irrationality to me is accepting things like torture and all other needless suffering. it is not malice that most often leads to evil, but simply ignorance.

Somethings don't matter, and it's acceptable to be irrational about them. Others do matter. Figuring out the difference is not trivial.

a willingness to be irrational about a subject that "doesn't matter" will make you more willing to be irrational about subjects that do matter. it's not that easy to game the human brain and tell it to be rational about this but not about that. much easier to be rational about everything. and it often turns out that being rational about things that you didn't think mattered turn out to matter.

"Reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." - David Hume

Be careful in your quest to be rational about all things. The term "rational" has no solid foundation. Quite possibly believing yourself to be rational is at best extremely irrational.

Also keep in mind that the assumption that other people expect and reward what they consider to be rational behavior from you is not always true.

If you define "rational" to be cold logic that ignores human feelings and passions, then it is weakly defined and it is not going to make you friends (if you consider making friends to be a rational thing to do). Ultimately you could postulate that human feelings eventually boil down to cold logic, but unless you can calculate that in your head you're left with heuristics.

taking into account emotions (which are an antiquated reaction system based on choosing a course of action with incomplete information in a hunter-gatherer tribe setting) is an important part of reason. And the term rational has an extremely solid foundation: a set of self-consistent rules that allow you to accurately predict reality. If it doesn't predict reality, throw it out and go back to deductive experiments until you come up with something better. Rationalism is inductive. that's the whole point.

How stupid our old hunter-gatherer ancestors must have been! They chose their actions based on incomplete information! It's a good thing that kind of thing has become antiquated among our intellectual upper class.

A question for you: what's the use of predicting reality if you have no emotional investment in it? The mere act of trying to predict reality to further some end means you have an emotional objective. The universe can get along just fine without you, you know.

Also, how do you determine when your rules have accurately predicted reality? Can you measure your own confirmation bias or congruence bias? Can you be sure that you've rid yourself of your bias blind spot when you make the connection between your mental model and what you perceive as reality?

There are not turtles all the way down. At some level you enter the exciting, terrifying, wonderful, and dangerous world of raw human emotion. Emotions aren't antiquated. They are the turbulent foundation upon which rationality stands. I'm not saying that rationality is baseless or impossible. I'm just saying that you cannot set it apart as a motivational engine that supersedes human passion. I see it more as a system that helps you make effective use of your emotional energy.

Additionally, you can't set up your definition of rationality (a set of self-consistent rules that allow you to accurately predict reality) as a system that encourages morality (rejecting things like torture or other needless suffering, as you said above).

without emotions, you would have no use for rationality. why pursue a start-up or other endeavours? because you have drives to satisfy, because you want to be happy, because you have curiosity -- our emotions are what motivate us. reason is necessary to accomplish complex goals, but by itself it is powerless.

human will resides in emotion.

Being rational takes mental effort which is finite. Studies have shown that when we spend mental effort resisting something, we're more susceptible to the next thing that comes along. We simply don't have the luxury of being rational all the time. And if you think we can, then I submit you're underestimating just how irrational we are most of the time.

My take, I think, is that of a pragmatist. I accept that we're inherently irrational creatures, and try to use that knowledge to be rational when it matters.

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