What Evidence Ease of Imagination?

Will Wilkinson responds to Ross Douthat:

In this landscape, it’s easy to imagine the middle-class anxiety that the political scientist Jacob Hacker termed “office-park populism” defining the domestic debate over the next 20 years, and easy to imagine a Democratic majority that capitalizes on the opportunity.

The phrase “easy to imagine” has all the virtues of theft over honest toil. It is “easy to imagine” that the Kaiser won the Great War and that I’m writing in German (and a pith helmet). Likewise, it is easy to imagine Jacob Hacker’s nowlargelydiscredited thesis of income volatility and  our current cyclical financial worries defining domestic politics in a generation, but why would we bother to imagine it? Let’s imagine instead the centrality of the coming “robot gap” in American politics.

Do we over or underestimate the probability of scenarios that are "easy to imagine"?

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  • Roy Haddad

    I learned about this one in Psychology 101.

    Availability bias:

    The availability heuristic is a rule of thumb, heuristic, or cognitive bias, where people base their prediction of the frequency of an event or the proportion within a population based on how easily an example can be brought to mind.

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

    Roy, a heuristic is not necessarily a bias. I was asking if there is a bias here.

  • http://www.satisfice.com/blog James Bach

    The availability bias, yes, and also other biases touch on this, such as representativeness bias (“an effect probably looks like its cause”), post hoc ergo propter hoc (“this must be happening because that other thing which happened right before it”), prominence bias (something that grabs our attention or touches our emotions is given more weight as evidence), and assimilation bias (“that new evidence just confirms what I already believe, especially if I kind of squint and hold it sideways…”).

    Also, the Occam’s Razor heuristic seems like an example of easy to imagine.

    To be easy to imagine is to be matchable to a model already held in our minds. It’s not easy for some people to imagine that I could pour water into a glass, turn the glass over, and nothing pours out. But when I show them how Aquagel works (it turns water to a wax-like gel in a few seconds), suddenly it becomes easy to imagine.

    — James

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    “easy to imagine” is up there with verbal tropes like “Clearly” and “obviously” -I think we’d be better off without them, like we would be without an appendix.

    “I think”, “I suspect”, “I intuit” are more honest, because they’re closer to how Eliezer suggests we use “magic” as a placeholder. Those acknowledge that bias could be playing a large role, whereas I think “easy to imagine”, etc. obfuscate that.

  • Roy Haddad

    It’s a bias as well, because this heuristic is what many people use in place of better processes for judging likelihood (especially while in the grip of fear). Aren’t many biases just over-applied heuristics?

  • Tom Breton

    Perhaps the ease of imagination heuristic is being relegated to the trash heap too soon.

    It certainly has its flaws, and is a rich source of bias and false belief.
    On the other hand, it is a powerful mental tool for exploring ideas, especially ideas that interact with that hard-to-capture context that we call reality. It is powerful for anticipating problems and opportunities inherent in an idea which might not be superficially apparent.

    We shouldn’t be too quick to discard such a powerful and useful tool.

    To use it well, it seems to me we must keep in mind these things, and perhaps others that don’t occur to me at the moment:

    • Argument from not being able to imagine something is argument by failed search, with all the qualifying conditions that imposes.
    • Argument from ease of imagination, whether absolute or relative ease, is subject to biases from the sources that feed our imagination, particularly the more vivid sources. For example, do we find it easier to imagine something because we saw something similar from a fictional source, such as TV? Or a source that selects what it presents, such as TV news? If so, our confidence should be no higher than our confidence in the unbiasedness of that. Usually this is a fatal limitation. If we can’t identify the relevant sources, we should be especially careful.
  • themusicgod1

    As a self-described ‘creative’ person I put my money where my mouth is, in a sense, and created a subreddit ( http://www.reddit.com/r/brandnewideas ) for people with new ideas to post them. Granted there’s very few people who use it but I am one of them and since I have started the subreddit I’ve had a sum total of 4-5 unique ideas that I would consider ‘new’ in any meaningful sense, in about 2 months. This is nowhere near the level of creativity that I expected to see, and I don’t think that it’s a matter of not recording good ideas. Granted I’m just one data point(and thesubreddit is but 4-5) but still.

    Now that’s just my own project but it does stand to reason that imagination is a useful thing, and if it is useful, then we should have a website, or a project or some institution, somewhere, to specialize in it. Perhaps that already happens to some extent(the existence of hollywood). I would encourage people who think they can imagine easily to do so and record their work but I would fear that the act of recording might feed back and make it difficult to be imaginative, or cut into the time spent imagining things.

    While my example was of idea generation instead of perception which is ‘easy to imagine’ people could come up with…it’s still the same basic general idea. Thinking is hard work, using an oracle-like shortcut to thinking (oracle O(t) who comes up with the idea “the germans will win WW1” at time t) can be helpful but sometimes you need to actually build the oracle in order for it to actually be a useful concept.