Overcoming bias – what is it good for?

One sign that science is not all bogus is that it enables us to do things, like go the moon. What practical things does debiassing enable us to do, other than refraining from buying lottery tickets?

In this context, it is not so helpful to adduce controversial philosophical or futuristic conclusions, such as that one should sign up for cryonics, reallocate all one’s charity to combat existential risk, or focus one’s work on creating Friendly AI. For presumably it would be as easy to delude oneself that these conclusions are correct as it is to delude oneself that one has been successful in overcoming bias and that one has thereby become an importantly better epistemic agent.

Consistent long-term success in active stock market speculation would be an impressive proof. But to require that would be to set the standard too high. Presumably, markets already suffer much less from bias than many other contexts, so even if one cannot beat the market one might nevertheless have gained some important ability.

But in what sphere of application does success at overcoming bias yield uncontroversial practical benefits?

Might it be that the only clear benefits of overcoming bias are "benefits" that most people don’t seek? Perhaps in contexts where people actually care about the outcome, and where bias significantly affects the outcome, they are already pretty unbiased? If so, it would seem that overcoming bias is more of a moral enterprise than anything else. Only if you happen to adopt a new and unusual goal will you benefit from putting work into overcoming biases (namely, those biases that previously were irrelevant but  now stand in the way of your effectively pursuing the new goal).

So one reason for asking (non-rhetorically) what overcoming bias is good for is to find ways of testing how successful we have been in increasing our epistemic effectiveness. Another reason is that if we knew in what domains being more skilled in unbiased thinking provides the greatest performance enhancements, we could shift our work more into such domains. For example, are there some kinds of academic work where being savvy about biases yields unusually large advantages? Is there an easy way to make money from being less biased?

If this new tool is really as great as we might like to think, then where are its profitable uses?

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  • http://profile.typekey.com/mpianalto/ Matthew Pianalto

    If overcoming bias is a “moral” enterprise (and in some contexts surely it is), is “profit” the right way to frame your ultimate question? For then the question, “Why should I overcome bias?” sounds as bizarre as the question, “Why should I be moral?” (To think that the only answer to the latter question is, “Because there’s something in it for you,” is to be caught up in a fundamentally egoistic picture of morality, to think that morality is supposed to pay.)

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    I’d guess most of the benefits from overcoming bias are collective, not individual, benefits. So it should be of most interest either to altruists, or to people whose job it is to identify and propose collective improvements. This may include economists and other policy advisers to some extent. I touch on related issues in my Institutions as Levers post.

    I see individual benefits for speculative traders, for those who want to signal their unflinching intellect, and for for academics who want to better understand topics, such as social science, where humans are especially biased.

  • Carl Shulman

    Overcoming biases in assessing the happiness that will ensue from money, leisure, time with friends, children, can help us reallocate our efforts and increase our average level of well-being.

    Awareness of hyperbolic discounting and overconfidence can help us increase our savings rates and buy the market portfolio when we do not have sufficient reason to expect above-average returns. The potential gains here dwarf those from avoiding occasional lottery ticket purchases.

    Tournament promotion and compensation systems (the race to tenure, ‘up-or-out’ business promotion patterns) can evoke the same poor thinking as lotteries, leading to sub-optimal choices for those who overestimate their odds of success.

    Awareness of mating-related biases can help us avoid predictably self-destructive pairings. Keeping an eye out for conjunction fallacies can help adjust one’s expectations.

    Awareness of the endowment effect can help save on maintenance and storage costs for useless property.

    We can reduce our risks of death from various causes by taking availability bias into account and relying on quantitative risk data, e.g. recognizing that air travel is on average safer than car travel.

    Awareness of mental accounting can help us to value our time more consistently across situations, e.g. resisting the lure of ‘free stuff’ where the opportunity cost of the time required to claim the prize exceeds its value. Awareness of sunk costs can help us to resist throwing good money after bad in investments and consumption.

    More accurate self-assessments, especially with respect to willpower, can help us evaluate pre-commitment devices for exercise or diet management. This may mean giving up the gym membership which is barely used as one persistently procrastinates in utilizing it, or realizing that one needs to establish a group to exert mutual social pressure to exercise.

    Awareness of biases exploited by advertisers can help us to avoid unwise purchases, e.g. not shopping for groceries hungry (or without a prewritten shopping list) or only consulting with unattractive salespeople when making major expenditures.

  • Ian Stuart

    Matthew said:
    “Why should I be moral?” (To think that the only answer to the latter question is, “Because there’s something in it for you,” is to be caught up in a fundamentally egoistic picture of morality, to think that morality is supposed to pay.)


    If morality turns out to be a net negative endeavor, if there is in fact nothing in it for me, then I don’t believe that asking “Why should I be moral?” is a silly question. It may just be one more bias to address.
    Perhaps the “Me” in “What’s in it for me?” needs to be read as ‘humanity’, or ‘sentient beings’, but if there is nothing in it for ‘us’ then why do we practice it? It must be the ‘right’ thing to do for some (hopefully positive) reason.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    For me, “overcoming bias” is good for trying to actually progress in answering important questions, rather than just going round and round in the same old arguments. And that means a lot for me.

    It’s also making me better at academia, and worse at business. I can live with that.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    “It’s also making me better at academia, and worse at business. I can live with that.”

    This shouldn’t be happening. Please amplify.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    This shouldn’t be happening. Please amplify.

    Not talking about investing here, but actual business/management decisions. I’ve never been deeply involved myself, but my father and most of our family friends are, and I’ve seen them at work, as well as my own bosses.

    The main quality that seems required by a business manager is to make very rapid decisions in the certainty that they are correct. The decision has to be good, or at least passable; but the ability to make them fast is essential, and the belief that they’re correct is even more so. “Acting on your instincts” is what is needed; the market separates the good instincts from the bad, but doesn’t much improve the instincts of those that survive.

    Now that I’ve realised the caveats and uncertainties that go behind even firm scientific statements, I can’t summon up the self-confident certainty that would be needed in the business world.

    Academia is different, because accuracy is prized over speed – you have to be right, not “the first to be semi-right”.

  • michael vassar

    I think that part of what Stuart is talking about is almost certainly the fact that to get investment for your enterprise it is necessary to claim absolute confidence in its success. Similar claims may be important in communicating up and/or down a hierarchy. At worst, he could lie, but regular lies would probably increase the level of stress associated with the endeavor. Overcoming Bias may reduce stress-alleviating doublethink.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Vassar, your explanation would make sense – honesty-related fallout is a predictable consequence of debiasing when combined with ethics or poor deceptive ability. But, Stuart, is Vassar right, or do you have something else in mind when you talk about needing to be certain that business decisions are correct?

  • Patri Friedman

    But in what sphere of application does success at overcoming bias yield uncontroversial practical benefits?

    That’s easy. Winning at poker.

    To be less glib, I think of bias as what gets in the way of me accurately estimating the truth and predicting/understanding the world. And knowing truth and understanding the world should generally help me reach my goals, whatever they are.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    But, Stuart, is Vassar right, or do you have something else in mind when you talk about needing to be certain that business decisions are correct?

    It’s partially that. But it’s also within the company as well – those who really believe that what they’re doing is the sexiest and most vital project the world has ever seen – they’re much more convincing to others, and much more motivated on their own project.

    And they get that for free, whereases to get those results artificially, a real effort is involved. Add to that the fact that in business the reward for success is huge and the penalty for failure relatively small, and then you get the situation that those who are more overconfident succeed more. And that far outweighs the negatives of overconfidence.

  • Erik

    Does anybody else find it perplexing that the example of the usefulness of science was “to go to the moon”? Manned missions into space seem to have given very little actual benefit to people in the US, other than maybe an inflated sense of national pride. Now I won’t discount the positive benefits of satelite technology and space exploration via mechanical instruments, but if someone were to do a serious cost-benefit analysis of the manned space program in the US since the 50’s, I have a strong feeling they’d find billions have been wasted on it. Think what useful technologies could have been developed more rapidly with that money. I bring this point up as there has been big talks and announcements by the US as well as India and China among others who are planning future manned missions to the moon, and shutter at the thought of how much money will be wasted on them.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/nickbostrom/ Nick Bostrom

    Erik, I gave “enabling us to go to the moon” not as an example of the usefulness of science but as an example of a sign that science is not all bogus (in contast, e.g., to pyramidology). “Building nuclear weapons” might have been an even better example of such a sign.