Be biased to be happy

Robin writes "Optimism bias is clearly not an unnoticed accident – people want to be so biased."

In poker, there is a joke which goes "Have you ever noticed that when you win, it’s all skill, and when you lose, it was bad luck?"  It’s funny because this method of protecting one’s own ego is universal enough to strike a deep chord, yet any good player knows how wrong it is.  In the short-term, poker is mostly luck, and it takes a great deal of experience to even partially disentangle the effects of one’s own strategy from the vicissitudes of fortune.  (Hint: a crucial first step is to always think in terms of opponent hand distributions, not specific hands.)

While in poker, this way of thinking will hold a player back from accurately evaluating and improving their game, the evidence from positive psychology is that it helps you be a winner in life.  From Half Full, a blog about the science of raising happy kids:

According to Seligman and other researchers, how optimistic or pessimistic we are amounts to how we explain life’s events, be they good or bad. There are three basic dimensions to an explanation: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization.   The OPTIMISTIC way of understanding why something GOOD happened would explain:

The cause of what just happened as Permanent (so it will reoccur);
And Pervasive (it will affect many other circumstances, too);
And Personal (I made it happen).

On the other hand, the PESSIMISTIC way of explaining why something GOOD just happened would illustrate that:

The cause of what just happened is Temporary (something short-lived caused it – probably won’t happen again);
And Specific (affecting only this situation);
And Impersonal (I didn’t have anything to do with what happened, other people or the circumstances did).

The reverse is also true when something bad happens. A kid trips on the sidewalk and skins her knee, dirtying her new dress. The pessimist thinks: “I’m so clumsy – I’m always tripping everywhere, and now I look stupid.” The cause of her fall is (1) permanent—she sees it as a personality trait, and therefore it is both (2) pervasive and (3) personal. On the other hand, the optimist thinks: “Dang!  Someone oughtta fix that crack in the sidewalk!” She’s thinking that a flaw in the sidewalk, not her own inherent clumsiness, caused her to trip. That crack is (1) temporary; (2) specific to that moment; and (3) impersonal—she had nothing to do with it.

There is plenty of evidence that those with the optimistic mindset are happier, healthier, and more successful, but of course we have to be careful because the causality runs both ways.  (If life has been good to you, you will tend to expect more of the same).  But (while I don’t have cites on hand), I’ve seen some research on interventions to improve optimism, and on predicting later success based on earlier optimism (controlling for other obvious factors of success), which suggest that at least some of the causality runs from optimism to happiness.

It seems a bit sad to me that our egos need such nurturing, and as a rationalist I worry that optimistic bias (like any false view of the world) will sometimes lead us to make worse decisions which will increase suffering.  But to the degree that we’re stuck with the biased minds we have, the evidence seems to be that it’s better to be optimistic than pessimistic.

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  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Let’s turn up the rhetoric a notch and see how it feels. What if the arrogant are happier? What if racists and sexists and all the ists who inaccurately feel superior to others are happier because of this feeling? What if employers and publishers feel happier rejecting qualified candidates who didn’t go to the same elite schools as they did?

  • http://metaandmeta.typepad.com Anonymous

    “No victor believes in chance.” (Nietzsche)

  • http://metaandmeta.typepad.com Q the Enchanter

    “What if the arrogant are happier?”

    Well, we are. You got a problem with that?

  • Caledonian

    Happiness is not the point.

  • Rasmus Forsberg

    That doesn’t seem fundamentally different from not acknowledging that our lives are fleeting and unimportant, á la the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But maybe that’s what you were saying to begin with.

  • Sister Y

    This seems to be the flip side of the phenomenon in psychology known as “depressive realism” (which Robin Hanson has posted about before) – that depressed individuals are more accurate than non-depressed individuals in making judgments about future events. Thinking about this next to Robin Hanson’s recent post of Brownlee’s material on the invention of osteoporosis, this information might make us less certain about medicalizing depression and treating it as a cognitive distortion and a mental illness.

  • Caledonian

    Look, people do not want to be accurate. They don’t want to be justified. They want to feel certain, they want to believe – and looking for justification, which requires the suspension of belief and the admission of doubt, is the perfect opposite of what they want. They do not resort to it unless forced to.

    I don’t know why you people not only concern yourselves with giving people what they want, but are surprised when people fail to care about accuracy and truth.

    Follow the quick and easy path, and it will lead you ever downward into stagnation.

  • http://seasteading.org/ Patri Friedman

    Robin – it seems to me that you are changing the rhetoric qualitatively, not just turning it up, by focusing on biases that lead people to treat other people poorly. The effect of other people’s mindset on one’s quality of life is huge, for example, see the book “The No Asshole Rule” for an exploration of this. But while arrogance and racism make other people less happy and productive, enthusiastic optimism (in my experience as an enthusiastic optimist) seems to affect other people positively.

    Inasmuch as it leads to cognitive biases that cause bad decisions, it has a downside. But if happiness matters, optimism has a major upside too – and one with positive externalities. Perhaps we should be subsidizing optimism!

  • http://michaelkenny.blogspot.com mike kenny

    i guess my take would be that the point of overcoming bias ultimately seems to be purely to make you happier or diminish your suffering. if overcoming bias doesn’t do this, it seems pointless to me–what is the reason for overcoming bias other than this? can you give me an example?

    i’d imagine movements in societies towards or away from racism tended to be spurred by realities in which people maneuvered for more happiness or less suffering for themselves. a scapegoat can be useful for some in some cases, but in others, picking on someone different than you can cause you to lose something of value (a good business contract say).

    one question that leaps to mind–should you dig for the truth if you think it likely that the truth will not make you happier? i’m inclined to think that no one does this, but those that say they do really just believe they’d be happier digging for the truth than the alternative and wrap this preference in altruistic language, because such a move is encouraged by evolutionary pressures.

  • Z. M. Davis

    “[…] what is the reason for overcoming bias other than this? can [sic] you give me an example?”

    How about a moral duty to seek truth, built directly into one’s utility function? Happiness does not equal utility.

    “i’m [sic] inclined to think that no one does this, but those that say they do […]”

    The fact that they say they do constitutes evidence that they do. Until we have a superMRI machine that can literally read people’s thoughts, self-report is going to be a major source of evidence about people’s psychology. If your pet theory blithely disregards self-report, maybe it’s time to rethink the theory.

  • Sister Y

    Patri, sorry to comment twice on the same topic – but when you state that “enthusiastic optimism (in my experience as an enthusiastic optimist) seems to affect other people positively,” that sounds like the optimistic bias in action. Of course, you’re probably right about your observations of your experiences. But I think optimistic people naturally tend to discount the degree to which optimism causes great suffering. The man-made famines of the Great Leap Forward that killed 40-80 million people were a direct result of optimistic bias (by Mao and others). GWB optimistically led the United States into the occupation of Iraq. Parents optimistically bear children who live miserable lives. Faith healers optimistically advise patients that they needn’t seek real medical treatment. Even real doctors optimistically administer medical therapies with may have very little value compared to their cost (in dollars and in suffering). The architects of the Enron debacle seem to have been driven by optimism.

    I don’t think it’s stating the case strongly enough to say that the optimistic bias “will sometimes lead us to make worse decisions which will increase suffering.” It’s important to keep the bias’ effects in mind when evaluating whether the bias is a good thing.

    Thanks for the post!

  • http://michaelkenny.blogspot.com mike kenny

    ‘”[…] what is the reason for overcoming bias other than this? can [sic] you give me an example?”

    ‘How about a moral duty to seek truth, built directly into one’s utility function? Happiness does not equal utility.’

    could you give an example, even a hypothetical one? i’m just trying to picture a scenario in which someone honestly believed he would be happier if he did x rather than y, and then did y instead. an extreme case would be someone who can choose to go to heaven or hell, understands the two choices perfectly, and chooses hell.

    ‘”i’m [sic] inclined to think that no one does this, but those that say they do […]”

    ‘The fact that they say they do constitutes evidence that they do.’

    i agree.

    ‘Until we have a superMRI machine that can literally read people’s thoughts, self-report is going to be a major source of evidence about people’s psychology.’

    i agree.

    ‘If your pet theory blithely disregards self-report,’

    whoa, who said that? self-reports aren’t the only evidence, and self-reports themselves can contradict themselves.

    ”maybe it’s time to rethink the theory.”

    believe me, i’m not saying you’re wrong, i’m just saying i don’t get the view. maybe i will in time.

  • Shakespeare’s Fool

    “. . . an extreme case would be someone who can choose to go to heaven or hell, understands the two choices perfectly, and chooses hell.”

    As Shakespeare said in his 129th sonnet:

    “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
    Is lust in action; . . .

    All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
    To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.”

    And: James 2:19 (King James version)
    Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.

    And as Milton had Satan say, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”

    John

  • Z. M. Davis

    “could you give an example, even a hypothetical one? i’m just trying to picture a scenario in which someone honestly believed he would be happier if he did x rather than y, and then did y instead.”

    I think this happens almost any time someone has a particular answer to a question of fact that they desperately want to be true, but makes a deliberate effort to seek out the answer that is actually true, whatever it may end up being.

    Specific examples: Smith believes, and is happy believing, that the world was created in six days by a loving God, but has recently come across some alarmingly persuasive arguments for the theory of evolution. Smith could push the arguments out of mind, and go on being a happy theist, or she could seriously investigate the matter and risk being persuaded and thereafter having to cope with the the unimaginable horror of a world without God.

    Or: Jones believes, and is happy believing, that within the next thirty years, a recursively self-improving artificial intelligence will solve all the world’s problems, but has recently come across some alarmingly persuasive arguments that …

    &c. Substitute your own pet issue, the cherished belief you’re not sure you could bear being false.

    I’m sorry if the tone of my last comment got a little curmudgeonly. It’s just that I really don’t think happiness can be the end of the overcoming bias project. Of course accurate beliefs probably help in forming plans that help in creating happiness, but you shouldn’t be surprised if in the process of forming accurate beliefs, some sacred beliefs get painfully quashed. It’s probably the fundamental metalesson I’ve learned in my growth as a rationalist and particularly from Eliezer’s writings (cf.Avoiding Your Belief’s Real Weak Points,” “Fake Justification,” &c.): the truth really does hurt.

    Take it from me.

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

    “enthusiastic optimism (in my experience as an enthusiastic optimist) seems to affect other people positively” -hee hee, that sounds like something that an enthusiastic optimist would say. I am by nature an enthusiastic optimist too. But I’ve had enough relationships with people who aren’t orientated that way to know the quoted statement may be a bit naive. Although not specifically about “enthusiastic optimism”, I think this excellent piece on introverts points towards an alternate take on the effect enthusiastic optimists (who often conflate with extroverts) can have on other people.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200303/rauch

  • Caledonian

    You optimists need to seek out a depressive and ask him or her about the true value of optimism.

    Strange how that’s never occurred to you…

  • http://dl4.jottit.com/contact Richard Hollerith

    Sister Y: all I know about you comes from a few of your comments to this blog, but I am impressed. If you’re single and heterosexual and live in Northern California, how about you and I have coffee together some day or trade a few emails or such?

  • Sister Y

    Richard Hollerith, that’s very nice of you, but I’m afraid I fail on two counts! (My boyfriend does meta-ethics; his claim to fame is having taught W.V.O. Quine the lyrics to Warren G and Nate Dogg’s “Regulate.”) I must say that it’s open-minded of a life-extension-ist singularitarian to make overtures to an antinatalist doomer, though. Perhaps there is hope for us all.

  • http://dl4.jottit.com/contact Richard Hollerith

    I have to set the record straight: I’m not a life-extension-ist, cryonics enthusiast, or transhumanist.

    I do believe an explosion of engineered intelligence will occur and try to influence the nature of that explosion by participating in the public discourse.

    I have various working hypotheses about love relationships, and one of them is that although sharing a common moral framework is important, what I just said about myself is irrelevant enough to the quality of a match as to be not worth thinking about when deciding whom to date. I would be interested in your thinking on this hypothesis.

  • http://friendfeed.com/meryn Meryn Stol

    You might want to read up on Bandura’s work on self-efficacy beliefs.
    In the case, you could say that both optimism and pessimism would be justified. When both stances can be justified, I’d choose the one which not only feels the best, but also gives the best results, e.g. high self-efficacy beliefs.

    I haven’t read it yet, but Mindset by Carol Dweck seems also nice.

    I don’t need to be either optimistic or pessimistic about things I don’t belief I can control (see also control-beliefs), I just take them for what they are.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/halfinney/ Hal Finney

    As far as motivations for Overcoming Bias, one way I look at it is that once informed about the prevalence of human bias, for some of us it is difficult to ignore this information. We then seek to overcome bias not in the hope that it will make us happier, but because our previous state of happiness was spoiled by discovering that it was based on false pretenses.

    Robin has suggested occasionally that it might be possible to know about bias and to compensate for it internally, but to continue to act similarly to how people do who are biased, when those behaviors are advantageous. These would be calculated actions rather than spontaneous, but perhaps would produce the same benefits. So if being optimistic makes you a risk-taker, and if risk-taking confers advantages, then even someone who had a more objective perspective could take similar risks even knowing that rewards were a long-shot.

  • http://www.stafforini.com Pablo Stafforini

    Let’s turn up the rhetoric a notch and see how it feels. What if the arrogant are happier? What if racists and sexists and all the ists who inaccurately feel superior to others are happier because of this feeling?

    Bigots appear to be on average happier that just about any other group of people, at least accordingly to this review of recent popular books on happiness. (The review is appallingly bad, but it is bad because it is superficial, not because it is inaccurate.)