How paranoid should I be? The limits of ‘overcoming bias’.

If the project of ‘overcoming bias’ is rational correction of the biases of spontaneous human cognition, it may hit a limit when it comes to ‘theory of mind’ inferences such as evaluating the dispositions, motivations and intentions of other humans. For instance, trying to answer the question – how paranoid should I be?

We cannot know for sure whether other people intend to harm us, given that such intentions are concealed. If we are too-paranoid we will miss-out on potentially valuable alliances and waste resources on pointless precautions; yet if we are not-paranoid-enough then we will be harmed or even killed (especially in the tribal ancestral human environment, when the brain evolved).

Such social evaluations are the very basis of human intelligence, according to the Machiavellian Intelligence theory that humans evolved big brains to deal with the vast complexities of human social living.

There is a category of psychiatric patients who suffer ‘delusional disorder’ who have (so it seems to everyone else) made incorrect inferences about the dispositions, motivations and intentions of others. They falsely believe such things as that they are pursued by hostile gangs (persecutory delusions), that their wives are being unfaithful (delusions of jealousy), or that famous men are secretly in love with them (erotomania).

Aside from this encapsulated false belief, and its behavioural consequences, patients with delusional disorder are cognitively entirely normal. Yet these beliefs typically cannot be shaken by rational discussion, since they are based on theory of mind inferences; and anyway, from the patient’s perspective, who is to say that the attempting-persuader is not part of the conspiracy to deceive, or themselves deceived?   

I suggest that the same psychological mechanism underlies political affiliations, religious or other metaphysical beliefs, and such phenomena as nationalism and racism. These beliefs are hard to shake, not because they are irrational, so much as that they are non-rational – based on theory of mind inferences concerning the motivations, dispositions and intentions of others.

Which is why the overcoming bias strategy is not much specific help here. Indeed, in trying to weaken specific theory of mind beliefs, rational OB-like strategies such as cognitive therapy may simply be weakening self-confidence and fluency in _all_ types of theory of mind inferences – which would probably be socially maladaptive.

Insofar as the implicit OB aspiration is to learn a habit of applying rational filters to what are intrinsically ‘theory of mind’ inferences involving evaluations of other peoples’ motivations, dispositions and intentions; this would – unintentionally – lead to social incompetence. 


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