Abstract/Distant Future Bias

The latest Science has a psych article saying we think of distant stuff more abstractly, and vice versa.  "The brain is hierarchically organized with higher points in the cortical hierarchy representing increasingly more abstract aspects of stimuli"; activating a region makes nearby activations more likely.  This has stunning implications for our biases about the future. 

All of these bring each other more to mind: here, now, me, us; trend-deviating likely real local events; concrete, context-dependent, unstructured, detailed, goal-irrelevant incidental features; feasible safe acts; secondary local concerns; socially close folks with unstable traits. 

Conversely, all these bring each other more to mind: there, then, them; trend-following unlikely hypothetical global events; abstract, schematic, context-freer, core, coarse, goal-related features; desirable risk-taking acts, central global symbolic concerns, confident predictions, polarized evaluations, socially distant people with stable traits. 

Since these things mostly just cannot go together in reality, this must bias our thinking both about now and about distant futures.  When "in the moment," we focus on ourselves and in-our-face details, feel "one with" what we see and close to quirky folks nearby, see much as uncertain, and safely act to achieve momentary desires given what seems the most likely current situation.  Kinda like smoking weed.

Regarding distant futures, however, we’ll be too confident, focus too much on unlikely global events, rely too much on trends, theories, and loose abstractions, while neglecting details and variation.  We’ll assume the main events take place far away (e.g., space), and uniformly across large regions.  We’ll focus on untrustworthy consistently-behaving globally-organized social-others.  And we’ll neglect feasibility, taking chances to achieve core grand symbolic values, rather than ordinary muddled values.  Sound familiar?

More bluntly, we seem primed to confidently see history as an inevitable march toward a theory-predicted global conflict with an alien united them determined to oppose our core symbolic values, making infeasible overly-risky overconfident plans to oppose them.  We seem primed to neglect the value and prospect of trillions of quirky future creatures not fundamentally that different from us, focused on their simple day-to-day pleasures, mostly getting along peacefully in vastly-varied uncoordinated and hard-to-predict local cultures and life-styles. 

Of course being biased to see things a certain way doesn’t mean they aren’t that way.  But it should sure give us pause.  Selected quotes for those who want to dig deeper:

In sum, different dimensions of psychological distance – spatial, temporal, social, and hypotheticality – correspond to different ways in which objects or events can be removed from the self, and farther removed objects are construed at a higher (more abstract) level. Three hypotheses follow from this analysis. (i) As the various dimensions map onto a more fundamental sense of psychological distance, they should be interrelated. (ii) All of the distances should similarly affect and be affected by the level of construal. People would think more abstractly about distant than about near objects, and more abstract construals would lead them to think of more distant objects. (iii) The various distances would have similar effects on prediction, evaluation, and action. …

[On] a task that required abstraction of coherent images from fragmented or noisy visual input … performance improved … when they anticipated working on the actual task in the more distant future … when participants thought the actual task was less likely to take place and when social distance was enhanced by priming of high social status. … Participants who thought of a more distant event created fewer, broader groups of objects. … Participants tended to describe more distant future activities (e.g., studying) in high-level terms (e.g., "doing well in school") rather than in low-level terms (e.g., "reading a textbook"). … Compared with in-groups, out-groups are described in more abstract terms and believed to possess more global and stable traits … Participants drew stronger inferences about others’ personality from behaviors that took place in spatially distal, as compared with spatially proximal locations. … Behavior that is expected to occur in the more distant future is more likely to be explained in dispositional rather than in situational terms …

Thinking about an activity in high level, "why," terms rather than low level, "how," terms led participants to think of the activity as taking place in more distant points in time. … Students were more confident that an experiment would yield theory-confirming results when they expected the experiment to take place in a more distant point in time. … Spatial distance enhanced the tendency to predict on the basis of the global trend rather than on the basis of local deviation. … As temporal distance from an activity (e.g., attending a guest lecture) increased, the attractiveness of the activity depended more on its desirability (e.g.,how interesting the lecture was) and less on its feasibility (e.g., how convenient the timing of the lecture was). … People take greater risks (i.e., favoring bets with a low probability of winning a high amount over those that offer a high probability to win a small amount) in decisions about temporally more distant bets. 

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  • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    We seem primed to neglect the value and prospect of trillions of quirky future creatures not fundamentally that different from us, focused on their simple day-to-day pleasures, mostly getting along peacefully in vastly-varied uncoordinated and hard-to-predict local cultures and life-styles.

    Isn’t this an example of trying to reverse stupidity? If there’s a bias to conclude A composed of A1-A9, you can’t conclude that the future is the conjunction ~A1&~A2&~A3…

  • http://profile.typekey.com/aroneus/ Aron

    It seems to me that if what you predict about the deep future takes much more than a haiku, you’ve already lost.

    The future will come,
    And it will fool us again.
    Like it did last time.

  • Tim Tyler

    To put it more directly, we seem primed to confidently see history as an inevitable march toward a theory-predicted global conflict with an alien united them determined to oppose our core symbolic values, making infeasible overly-risky overconfident plans to oppose them.

    We get that from the movies. Conflict with aliens and/or robots makes for good drama.

    We seem primed to neglect the value and prospect of trillions of quirky future creatures not fundamentally that different from us, focused on their simple day-to-day pleasures, mostly getting along peacefully in vastly-varied uncoordinated and hard-to-predict local cultures and life-styles.

    We don’t get that from the movies. The movies seem to think the far future will be full of unmodified biological humans much like us. It means they can hire real actors, and viewers can identify with them. Even when the movies try to portray superintelligence, we get things like the borg cubes – so they can still hire the human actors, and viewers can still react to them. They seem to do this no matter how utterly ridiculous the whole idea is.

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

    To sharpen my comment above, what we want to say is:

    “We seem primed to neglect the value and prospect of futures containing at least one of the following elements: Trillions of beings, quirky beings, beings not fundamentally that different from us, beings focused on simple day-to-day pleasures, beings mostly getting along peacefully, beings in vastly varied and uncoordinated cultures and lifestyles…”

    Yes, I know it’s less poetic, but it really does paint a substantially different picture of the future.

  • Bo

    Would having to bet reduce this bias?

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

    Eliezer, this cognitive bias does not seem to saturate after one invocation. They didn’t mention data directly testing this point, but it really does seem that all else equal we have an inborn tendency to add more compatible elements to a scenario, regardless of how many other of these elements are already in it.

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    More bluntly, we seem primed to confidently see history as an inevitable march toward a theory-predicted global conflict with an alien united them determined to oppose our core symbolic values, making infeasible overly-risky overconfident plans to oppose them.

    Can you rewrite this, separate the clauses, and clarify who is doing what?

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    “alien united them” is a noun phrase with 2 adjectives, and we are the ones making overconfident plans, I take it.

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

    Phil, yes, you’ve read that right.

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

    I estimate this post to be the most dense with useful info on identifying our biases I’ve ever written. It seems most readers don’t agree.

  • Douglas Knight

    I agree with that summary, but it’s not obvious that a new method of identifying biases is so useful. We already list more biases than we know what to do with. Maybe it will be easier to tackle these as a class than individually?

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

    I agree, Robin. It’s extremely useful. You’re getting to the meaty nut of where some of our biases are arising from -a neuroanatomy of cognitive bias. And since we’re aware of these biases in the first place due to abstract thinking, and we derive our practical applications from awareness of these biases due to thinking about the non-immediate future, this area of research has the potential to be at least a little recursively self-improving. When you wrote “sound familiar?” I thought you were going to go in a self-critical direction. It might be good to review old writings on anticipating and counteracting global catastrophic risk (including unfriendly AI) with abstract/non-immediate future bias in mind.

  • Unknown

    Robin, I agree with that estimate.

  • http://transhumangoodness.blogspot.com Roko

    “More bluntly, we seem primed to confidently see history as an inevitable march toward a theory-predicted global conflict with an alien united them determined to oppose our core symbolic values, making infeasible overly-risky overconfident plans to oppose them.

    And we’ll neglect feasibility, taking chances to achieve core grand symbolic values, rather than ordinary muddled values. Sound familiar?”

    – Would you say that this sums up the singularitarian and transhumanist movements?

    Robin, I agree that this is an important insight into biases.

    I am beginning to think about how this kind of bias might affect my thinking in my personal and academic life; for example it worries me that you predict that scientific progress is set to be dominated by very narrowly focused, highly specialized research. I have always liked the idea of cross-disciplinary research, and this seems to imply that I am pursuing an implausible end. I have also always been attracted to the prospect of fame and success through academia, “at some point” in the distant future, whereas in my immediate actions I have become somewhat lazy and risk-averse. Unfortunately for me, I seem to have become a victim of this near/far = feasible-safe/desirable risk-taking bias. “I’m going to become a famous scientist through radical interdisciplinary research in 10 years time, but right now I can’t be bothered to finish my presentation/report/read that paper…”

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

    Roko, if by “interdisciplinary” you mean you will work decades to connect two familiar disciples that have neglected each other, you have a chance. If you mean you won’t focus at all, and just pop from subject to subject as it strikes your fancy, yes that is hopeless.

  • Rosa

    “Far thinking” includes abstract goal-setting decisions in general. “Near thinking” includes the decision-making for actions for now. When near thinking goes on, lots of realities and even other goals, come into play, at the time and opportunity when the decision must be made.

    So in the far/near example of “lose weight”, each decision instance of eating, and each instance of not exercising, must win (in significant numbers of instances) in the context of consistency with every other goal which might influence decisions in the moment. Such as: seek cameraderie with other donut-eating colleagues, get to work on time, make an elderly relative feel appreciated, keep a domestic relationship tranquil. These are all goals which are not apparently in conflict with “lose weight” – in far thinking. A decision in the moment, though, might well contribute to the aggregated behaviour results of “don’t exercise more or eat less”.

    So rather than two minds, it’s one mind struggling to apply ALL of the sparse abstract models called by the component complexity of the specific reality at hand. I guess the models must be weighted.

  • http://ernst-juenger.blogspot.com Karl Fraser

    This relates, albeit tangentially, to something I wrote on my Ernst Jünger blog, “Living in no man´s land”.

    http://ernst-juenger.blogspot.com/2009/03/living-in-no-mans-land.html

    Karl Fraser

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  • http://www.transhumangoodness.blogspot.com Roko

    This post should be tagged near/far, as it is hard to find, and I believe it is the seminal post on the near mode/far mode dichotomy.

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  • Luke Parrish

    It strikes me that perhaps one reason cryonics does not sell so well is that survival (and medical treatment in general) is a near-mode concern whereas the advent of future technology required for reanimation or uploading is far-mode. Furthermore, it tends to attract “outliers” who think differently from normal about what is far versus near.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/jonaskoelker Jonas PinkiePie Kölker

    Looking at The Use of Knowledge in Society (www.econlib.org/library/Essays/hykKnw1.html) through the lens of the ideas presented here, I see one of Hayek’s points as being “when thinking in the large, don’t forget the aggregate significance of all the smalls”.

    (I think it’s somewhat similar to Rosa’s point, at http://www.overcomingbias.com/2008/11/abstractdistant.html#comment-518249497, but of course applied to a different aspect of life.)

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  • http://citizensfirstasnau.blogspot.com.au/ MJ

    It is truely amazing that an article on future bias actually is future bias.

    This argument appears to believe that ‘Critical Thinking’ actually works in ‘real’ life and therefore culturally derived bias can be overcome even though the nature of any percieved notion of ‘Critical Thinking’ is already determined be how culture determines it to be. It assumes logic can overcome ‘feeling’ even though it appears actions generated are in the end based on ‘feelings’ rather than logic.

    “Communities (cultures) tend to be guided less than individuals by conscience and a sense of responsibility. How much misery does this fact cause mankind! It is the source of wars and every kind of oppression, which fill the earth with pain, sighs and bitterness.” (Albert Einstein, 1934)

    Cultural Foundation Codex (genetic, (con) textual authority and exemplar (messianic) templates)=Ethics=Ideas= Motivation=Consistent Cultural/Adherent Behavioral Variance(‘spectrum’)=Cultural Action For and Against Other.

    Cultural ‘education’ (Cultural Foundation Codex) the core problem and solution.

    Therefore there will be until the relavent cultural codex are replaced humanity will rationally see:

    “history as an inevitable march toward a theory-predicted global conflict with an alien united them determined to oppose our core symbolic values, making infeasible overly-risky overconfident plans to include them in our societies on the basis of culturalist relativism – we are all human afterall surely we can get along.

    Do you understand what a genocide cultural foundation codex actually looks like – or even actually informs in time qand space despite the ever existent liberal/moderate?

    http://citizensfirstasnau.blogspot.com.au/2013/09/how-do-you-go-about-it.html

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    >When “in the moment,” we focus on ourselves and in-our-face details, feel “one with” what we see and close to quirky folks nearby, see much as uncertain, and safely act to achieve momentary desires given what seems the most likely current situation. Kinda like smoking weed.

    I think weed facilitates far mode. It takes you _out_ of the moment. That’s why someone who is high is sometimes called “spaced out.”

    Is this a difference in our experience of getting high or our conception of construal level?

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