Why learn about cognitive bias?

Some thoughts that occurred to me today on why it’s good to be studying cognitive biases:

  • Making better decisions. Consider the decisions you make in life at your most reflective- not the decisions made when you’re rushed, intoxicated or otherwise distracted. It’s easy for us to convince ourselves that these decisions are the best we can do with the information at the time. That’s not always the case. Economists and statisticians have worked out rational procedures for decision-making, and psychologists have studied how human beings actually make decisions, and there is often a gap between the two. Bias research is all about that gap.
  • Consumer protection. Advertisers and other persuaders take advantage of the natural fallibilty of our mental processes (Cialdini). Being aware of those biases, we can be better prepared to defend our own interests against manipulation.
  • Becoming a better inquirer. Whenever you investigate the truth, whether as a scientist, journalist, doctor or in any other context, the reliability of your conclusions can be undermined by a variety of biases (e.g. memory biases, Illusory Correlation, Stereotype effects, Overconfidence). People who work in these fields have a duty to improve their methods to prevent this.
  • Transforming politics. Thaler and Sunstein’s influential book Nudge applies bias theory to the political sphere, and has been enthusiastically adopted by some politicians. The implications may fundamentally change the role of government in citizens’ lives. An understanding of bias research helps you to understand that debate.
  • Understanding a specific area. There are several topics, fascinating in their own right, which you can understand better when you’re familiar with bias research. Here are a few that come to mind:
    • Military incompetence: why have generals in some of the most famous battles actively resisted information that would have helped them avoid disaster? (Dixon)
    • Investment psychology: why does the cycle of bubbles and crashes happen? (Taleb)
    • Superstition: how do people get themselves into wacky belief systems? (Vyse)
    • The justice system: how do people get arrested, convicted and locked up for a crime when there’s no evidence against them? (Tavris and Aronson)
    • Conjuring: how can a magician do something physically possible but have it seen by the audience as physically impossible? (Wiseman)
  • Seeing a big picture. There are plenty of ideologies (political or religious belief systems) that diagnose the human condition and say how we can improve ourselves. Cognitive psychology itself isn’t an -ism. Like other scientific theories, it tries to describe things as they are rather than how they should be. However, this research pieces together a distinctive picture of human nature which often conflicts with these other systems. The advantage of this theory is that, unlike all the others, it’s supported by reliable experimental effects.
  • Understanding ourselves. Self-knowledge is a lot harder to come by than it normally appears: the way we arrive at a decision or opinion is often hidden from us (this is called the Introspection Illusion). Bias research won’t make you instantly self-aware, but it’s much better than consulting a horoscope. For that matter, if you want to understand why people believe in astrology, you’re better off starting with bias research.
  • Bringing about world peace(?) Conflict between people – from disagreements in Internet discussion to armed conflict – is generally more acrimonious than it needs to be. This is partly down to bias (Babcock & Loewenstein). Each party may go into the conflict with unrealistic expectations of success. Each party may have an overconfident view that their perspective is correct and the other’s is wrong. Each may view themselves as more deserving than the other of the superior position. If we have any hope of maturing beyond these destructive conflicts, it would help to understand how they happen, and for that we need bias research.
  1. #1 by michaelwebster on January 29, 2009 - 2:29 am

    This is an interesting list.

    I would add the following.

    1. You learn why more good quality information may result in worse decisions, Cialdini and Arnonson.

    2. You learn why some good decisions use rules which must fail or be incomplete, Gigerenzer.

    Notwithstanding this, people should still read Thomas Schelling on strategic choice and Alvin Roth on Market Design.

  2. #2 by Martin Poulter on January 29, 2009 - 5:05 pm

    Thanks for the comment and recommendations, Michael. My list probably conveys too much of a “bias is bad” message and needs the addition of Gigerenzer (of for that matter Tversky and Kahneman’s) defence of heuristics. I’m not familiar with Roth’s work, so will seek it out.

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