The wisdom of bromides

Apropos Robin’s recent remark that "’No one on their deathbed ever wished they had spent more time in the office,’ the saying goes." and his wondering whether we are really biased to spending too much time in the office.

This makes me wonder about the function of bromides. Consider:

"Look before you leap!"

"He who hesitates is lost!"

Both of these seem sensible, yet they may appear contradictory. Are we biased to be too rash, or too indecisive?

I think these little pearls of wisdom function differently. Compare:

"Beware of high blood pressure!"

"Beware of low blood pressure!"

Both of these express sensible advice, and it does not depend on there being an average tendency for blood pressure to be too high or too low.

Perhaps the function of a bromide is to draw attention to a common failure mode. Thus with blood pressure. Likewise with being too rash or too indecisive. Maybe lives frequently go wrong because we spend too much time in the office. This is consistent with lives also frequently going wrong because we don’t work hard enough.

There is no commonplace to the effect that eating the left wing of a chicken may cause foodpoisoning, and none for eating the right wing of a chicken. This is because it is usually not worth paying attention to which side of a chicken a wing comes from. But it is worth paying attention to whether your blood pressure is too high or too low;  whether you are too rash or too indecisive; and whether you might be working too hard or not hard enough.

Relevance to the topic of bias: Perhaps most biases are specific to individuals. On average, a population may be unbiased, but individuals are biased in one direction or another. There is wisdom in being aware of common biases (and errors) that individuals may have, even if on a population level these cancel out. 

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