What if Everybody Overcame Bias?

Many of the bad things that people do to other people, and most of the worst ones, are done explicitly in the service of some form of organized irrationality; mostly religion but also secular irrationalities like Stalinism and Maoism (please no debates on how religious Hitler or Stalin or Mao were). It seems clear that even a moderately successful overcoming of bias would get rid of these, and that would be great.

What interests me here though is this. Aside from all the bad deeds that are caused by irrationality, people also seem to feel the need to come up with irrational justifications (he had it coming anyway; he would have done it to me if he had the chance; he’s a Jew) for bad acts that fundamentally are perfectly rational. The impulse to take someone else’s food or mate or to kill a rival is evolutionarily antecedent to cognition itself, and must therefore be antecedent to bias; getting rid of bias won’t get rid of these impulses. So the question then is how deep is this need for an irrational cover story? Is it so deep that if people can no longer believe the stories, they will no longer allow themselves to commit the bad acts? Is it so shallow that people will just not care and plow on ahead as before? Will there be some perverse effect where people become more clear-eyed about when there are profits to be made by rational bad acts and commit more of them?

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  • Those are great questions, David. I think the bottom line is that if people became unbiased they would simply do what is optimal, and that’s that. If they veered too far towards “evil” acts then that would be another form of bias and error, so properly unbiased people wouldn’t do that.

    Whether unbiased people would act better or worse in terms of conventional morality is a great question to ponder. I suspect it would be something of a wash – as Robin says, our actions are harder to change than our beliefs, so we would probably be as humane and inhumane as before, just more honest about it. Or perhaps we would change even less, and instead of self-deception we would substitute calculated lies, so in a sense we would be less honest than before.

  • Are there people we can identify around us who are more honest than average? If so, what do those people do differently?

  • Two kinds of honesty: honesty with yourself, and honesty with others. You could imagine someone who had only the second kind, and accurately reported their own self-deceptions. That might not be too difficult or costly.

    People with both kinds of honesty would be more rare, and it’s interesting to speculate on what they’d be like. It seems that they would be perceived as relatively cynical and impolite, not accepting the little fictions that are said to make life smoother. At the same time, they would not be cynical for the sake of cynicism. In fact they might actually be more forgiving of human flaws, and unjudgmental, since they would see these same failings within themselves and within everyone.

    I can imagine two kinds of people whom this might fit. One would be extremely holy, Mother Theresa types, who do good but have no illusions. Their continual exposure to the dregs of humanity would make the truths of human nature more apparent, and for at least some of these people I think they would see that they are fundamentally no different. Their bluntness and impolitic nature would be excused by the manifest good they do, so they can get away with it.

    Another class would be the down and out, the homeless, perhaps some terminally ill: those who have nothing to lose, who have suffered and who have seen their own illusions and deceptions stripped away in the harsh conditions of their lives. They don’t care about being polite, they have no interest in fooling themselves. They see things as they are and say what they think, and if other people don’t like that, so be it.

  • A third class might be retired. Nobody can fire them.