The Movie “Click”

One way to discourage bias is via social disapproval of standard biases.   That is, if when A argues with B, A can show that B’s claim fits a standard bias scenario, then observers could believe A more and respect B less, encouraging B to avoid such claims.   For example if B claims that he is in the top 5% of drivers, and A points out that most people overestimate their driving ability,  observers might believe B less.

There are several problems with this approach.   One such problem is that scearnios widely accepted as identifying bias may do no such thing. 

Which brings me to the recent movie "Click," whose moral is similar to "It’s A Wonderful Life," and "A Christmas Carol," and the song "Cats in the Cradle."  These all suggest that successful men tend to emphasize work too much over family and friends, and will live to regret it.   "No one on their deathbed ever wished they had spent more time in the office," the saying goes.

Is this bias real?   I wish someone would actually survey people at their deathbeds about their regrets, but until then I have my doubts.   Successful men have surely considered this advice before rejecting it, and deathbed regrets could just reflect a conflict between the interests of younger and older selves.   It sounds too much like lobbying from friends and family, and its advocates seem a bit too smug and uncritical to be believed.   That all said though, I really don’t know.

What seems clearer is that if people can reasonably doubt whether widely described biases are real, it will be a lot harder to use social disapproval to discourage real biases. 

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: ,
Trackback URL:
  • conchis

    Well, this sort of bias would tend to be supported by the argument that we adapt relatively quickly to higher levels of income, but that we don’t anticipate the fact that we will do so. I’m afraid I don’t have references to hand, but there’s a sizeable (if not entirely dispositive) literature finding support for these two contentions.

  • conchis

    I should have added that this argument also requires that we don’t adapt to time spent with family etc., a claim which also, as I understand it, tends to find empirical support.

  • Conchis says there is empirical support that we are biased toward income over family because we adapt faster to income changes. Can anyone find a cite? I recall recent happiness research finding that time spent with children was among our least happy times, certainly less happy than work.

  • Even if some widely quoted biases turn out to be false, there are others that can be better documented and supported, like Robin’s example about good drivers. If that one came to be better known then it could be an effective social tool to remind people about this bias.

    Maybe we need a pithy slogan and an organized campaign to get the word out. Extinguish Overconfidence! Embrace Uncertainty! Turns out you’re not ‘special’ after all!

    Hopefully the local wordsmiths will have some better ideas…

  • Guy Kahane

    “No one on their deathbed ever wished they had spent more time in the office,” the saying goes.

    This looks like an empirical claim. But surely it’s meant to have normative force. It’s supposed to *matter* that people will have such regrets on their deathbed. But if such a normative claim what is presupposed, then it’s not clear that the saying is best interpreted as an ungrounded empirical claim. Perhaps it’s just a way of stating the normative one. And as Robin makes clear, his complaint isn’t just that we don’t know what certain people regret on their deathbed. He would doubt the normative view even if the empirical claim turned out to be true.

    Let me say something about the implicit normative claim. It’s best to think of regret as the prudential analogue of guilt. We ought to regret prudential mistakes just as we ought to feel guilt about our moral errors. Why the deathbed? If the ultimate aim of prudence is well-being over a whole life time, then, as an idealisation, rational regret at one’s deathbed is an appropriate criterion for a imprudent life. (As Solon put it long ago, we shouldn’t judge a man happy before he dies; for Montaigne’s reflections on this, see

    Now if this is on the right lines, then it’s only what sensible people regret on their deathbed that matters, something no simple survey could determine. And if Robin’s doubts are ultimately about the normative, not the empirical claim, then we enter the very difficult territory of determining whether people have a *normative* bias.

    (Perhaps, though, not so difficult if the normative claim is itself a further empirical claim in disguise. If the balance between work and family is supposed to matter only because, say, of its effects on subjective well-being, then we may have objective measure to determine that quite independently of deathbed surveys. And I seem to recall, in fact, that there is some interesting evidence on the relation between strong family ties and subjective well-being…)

  • Hal, yes some biases are better supported than others. But the pithy slogan approach does not address the key problem, which is that people with other agendas can pollute the pool of perceived biases. What we need is a way to emphasize the real biases over the others. Yes we can come up with pithier slogans for the real biases, but those with other agendas can come up with pithier slogans for the other ones too. We don’t appear to have a comparative advantage in that contest.

  • Guy, yes, people with strong family ties are happier, but so are people with successful careers; the question is where to put more effort on the margin. And of course some people might care more about success beyond its contribution to happiness, and so be reasonably willing to sacrifice some happiness for more success.

    I’m not clear why you look to draw our attention to whether these are “empirical,” “objective,” or “normative” claims. Yes it is harder to find support (evidence or analysis) regarding some kinds of claims, and various particular evidence support some claims more than others. But all of these kinds of claims can be in error, and so there can be biases about them. Bias is just avoidable systematic error.

  • “But all of these kinds of claims can be in error, and so there can be biases about them.”

    Well, from the vantage of a particular moral framework, normative claims can be biased. But since there’s widespread variance in people’s moral belief systems on normative issues involving work-family balance, there’s little hope of being able to intersubjectively determine bias in normative claims, since there’s no agreed-upon standard against which to measure bias in normative claims.

  • Guy Kahane

    Robin, I was trying to translate some of your claims to my own conceptual framework, where they do make a genuine difference. I’m very happy to talk about normative error, and this means that there can certainly be normative biases (a primary use of the term ‘bias’ is of course to refer to such cases). But normative and empirical biases would be supported by VERY different kinds of evidence. And the notion of error involved might be very different, and possibly much weaker, on certain accounts of normative, evaluative, and some empirical claims (e.g. historical ones). It’s common to mix these up, and to support a given kind of claim with the wrong kind of relevant evidence. And when a disagreement is at the level of ‘brute’ normative intuitions (‘deep human relations are simply more valuable than professional achievement’), it will often be extremely hard to impossible to establish that one side is suffering from a bias.

    To focus on this particular example, thinking about it from a normative perspective raises, I think, very different questions from questions about the statistics of regret. For instance, our relation to our family involves special moral duties and concerns. And whether it was acceptable (or worthwhile) to neglect these duties/concerns for the sake of professional success may depend on whether one is, in fact, ultimately successful, and in what way (this question being the immediate topic of Bernard Williams’s ‘Moral Luck’).

  • My, wasn’t I unclear. Let me try again:

    Well, from the vantage point of a particular moral framework, humans can have biases regarding particular normative claims. But since there’s widespread variance in people’s moral belief systems on normative issues, especially when you consider detailed and complicated issues like work-family balance, there’s little hope of being able to intersubjectively determine bias in claims of that type, since there’s no agreed-upon standard against which to measure bias in them. So Guy’s distinction is relevant and worth consideration.

  • Guy, there are a great many useful distinctions, and I’ll grant that empirical vs. normative is one of them. But we should not introduce every distinction into every conversation where it might apply; we should focus on differences we expect to make a difference there. So I grant that the distinction you highlight would be relevant if we wanted to estimate the kinds of evidence used to support a claim, and how easy it might be to establish the existence of a particular bias. That all said, how does this difference make a difference here?

  • Chris (pdf23ds), you seem to be saying there is no way to argue effectively for any moral claim, and hence no way to argue that any moral claim is an error, and hence no way to argue that a bias exists, and so we should just not talk about morals at all. This seems a bit extreme to me.

  • ChrisA

    It’s interesting to ask why is this particular deathbed regret (I spent too much time in the office) is so widely known and quoted, rather than, say, the opposite or any other deathbed regret (I should have played more tennis for instance). I would guess it is because the actual, real bias is so very often in the other direction, i.e. people very frequently tend to have a bias towards spending time in the office rather than with their family (otherwise it would not be quoted so much). As Robin suggests perhaps this meme survives so well because it is useful for the non-working spouse to redress the balance between work and family. It might also be a comfort to people with non interesting jobs. So, before accepting whether widely described bias are true, perhaps we need to ask whether the person quoting the bias has an interest in it being true. In the drivers example, we should only believe B less if A has no interest in the bias he is quoting.

  • Chris, we can believe B less if A has an interest in the bias he is quoting, as long as the fact of that interest does not make not longer believe the bias exists.

  • Pingback: Overcoming Bias : Deathbed Regret Is Far()

  • Pingback: Deathbed Regrets, and Other Links | John Goodman's Health Policy Blog |

  • Recently in another post you critized deathside regrets and stated they weren’t reliable. 5 years ago in this post you say

    “I wish someone would actually survey people at their deathbeds about their regrets, but until then I have my doubts.”

    Do you regret these words, or the recent ones, or am I missing something else?