Monthly Archives: July 2007

Two Meanings of ‘Overcoming Bias’ – For One: Focus is Fundamental. For Second: ?

‘Overcoming Bias’ has two meanings.

First: Right Now, as in ‘You have a mistaken belief, caused by a cognitive bias you don’t know you have, and I will cause you to correct that belief by pointing out the cognitive bias which caused it.’

Almost always, these claims are disguised injunctions to change your Focus

Usually to Expand your Focus:

  • Availability Bias – Expand your Focus to include information besides the striking and vivid information that is carrying you away;
  • Confirmation Bias – Expand your  Focus to include information that lessens  the force of the information (you cherish) that confirms your existing belief;
  • Disconfirmation Bias – Expand your Focus to include information that heightens the force of information (you despise)  that is inconsistent with your existing belief;
  • Fundamental Attribution Error –Expand focus to see Situations as possible causes of others’ behavior, besides the Personality characteristics you are using now;
  • Status Quo Bias – Expand to see alternatives besides the status quo
  • De`formation Professionelle – Expand beyond the conventions of your own profession:
  • Illusion of Control – Expand to see that you may not be able to influence the outcomes of interest;

And maybe 15 others (of 67), but who’s counting?

Rarely an injunction to Narrow your Focus:
Information Bias – Narrow your Focus to seek only information that can affect action.

Second meaning of ‘Overcoming Bias’: In the Future, as in ‘How can I avoid being influenced by my own (not yet known to me ) biases in the future?’
        The only effective way I have found is to invite criticism of my ideas by others – present my ideas in seminars, send them to journals for blind reviewers, bring up with colleagues at lunch, on blogs, etc — because I am blind to the biases that I have, by definition:  if I were not blind to them I wouldn’t ‘have’ them. Of course, this only works if I am free of the Bias Blind Spot Bias. (Some biases I can prevent by avoiding the occasion of bias, as by not gambling to forestall the probability biases.)

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“Only Losers Overcome Bias”

Imagine you are teenager who is told:

Stop being such a loser bookworm nerd.  Popular kids are into cars, clothes, sports, and celebrities, so if you want to be liked that’s what you should get into, and only read nerdy books once in a while.  After all, if you had zero interest in cars and clothes, you couldn’t go anywhere and you’d freeze to death.  Quadriplegics aren’t popular, and they don’t play football or drive cars, so that proves it.   

You would hardly think this an airtight argument.  You aren’t proposing zero interest in cars and clothes.  Maybe paying more attention to cars and clothes only makes sense for people with certain preferences and abilities; maybe your being a nerdy bookworm is best for someone like you.  Perhaps your nerdish tendencies give you unappreciated advantages in the long run.

Tyler Cowen, in Discover Your Inner Economist, out this week, offers a similarly weak argument against overcoming bias.  In his chapter on "The Dangerous and Necessary Art of Self-Deception," Tyler notes that self-deceived people tend to stay motivated to achieve more, tend to be happier with their spouses, and that depressed people are less self-deceived.  He says you’d be crazy to eliminate all bias, or to know all the time what everyone really thinks of you.  So he concludes that you really don’t want to work to overcome bias in general; you just want to sometimes "overcome it selectively for specific problems." 

The teenager’s reasons to be nerdy can also be our reasons to overcoming bias.   We have no realistic prospect of eliminating all bias, so that option isn’t on the table.  And unbiased depressed folks seem no more relevant than nerdy quadriplegics.  Our unpopular inclination to try to overcome bias more than in rare special cases suggests that we have unusual preferences or abilities for which this choice makes more sense.  And overcoming biases may give unappreciated long term benefits.  Of course we might be mistaken about this, but the mere fact that the popular kids aren’t doing what we do is hardly much evidence that we should stop. 

Lest you fear I have misrepresented Tyler, here are specific quotes:

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Bayesian Judo

You can have some fun with people whose anticipations get out of sync with what they believe they believe.

I was once at a dinner party, trying to explain to a man what I did for a living, when he said: "I don’t believe Artificial Intelligence is possible because only God can make a soul."

At this point I must have been divinely inspired, because I instantly responded: "You mean if I can make an Artificial Intelligence, it proves your religion is false?"

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Self-Interest, Intent & Deceit

Anders Sandberg’s post last week prompted a debate on the role of intent in explaining behaviour.  Anders would give significant weight to conscious stated goals, while some commenters preferred the economic methodology of ignoring stated goals and assuming behaviour is ultimately based on self-interest.

Perhaps evolutionary psychology can help reconcile these positions.  The evolutionary methodology, like the economic methodology, takes self-interest to be the ultimate motivation.  But, as Richard Alexander and Robert Trivers have pointed out, being deceived is disadvantageous, which implies that there will be selection to be good at spotting deception, which implies that there will be selection in favour of self-deception.  In short, the best way to lie convincingly is to believe your own lie.  For that reason, there is often likely to be a mismatch between stated and actual (ultimate) motivations; people are likely to posit noble objectives in the pursuit of their own self-interest. 

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Colorful Characters

Novelists often use characters to voice controversial views they are reluctant to say publicly themselves.  In Tyler Cowen’s Discover Your Inner Economist, out this week, I seem to be similarly featured as a colorful character who can voice views Tyler is reluctant to embrace directly in a popular book:

Nowhere is signaling more important that in the family.  Whereas direct cash incentives work only so well in families, signals are crucial in building family trust and cooperation.  …  If I do not want to buy a warranty, my wife considers it irresponsible.  …

My colleague, economist Robin Hanson, argues that many protective activities are really about "showing that you care."  What would we think of the parent who did not do "everything possible" to protect his or her children?  What kind of man would tell his wife that he weighted costs and benefits before spending on an additional biopsy for her cancer?  …

The more our families feel we are violating our commitments to care, the harder the reception that economic advice will receive.  … Think of "the economics of the family" as The Truth That Dare Not Speak Its Name.  If you are the economically informed member of your family, or perhaps even an economist, don’t flaunt it.  …

And anyone who studies signaling behavior for long enough will be repulsed by social hypocrisy and will be tempted to become some kind of intellectual radical, maybe a revolutionary, maybe a more peaceful eccentric, and this has happened to Robin.  When it comes to showing that he cares, Robin wonders why it isn’t enough that he cares.

Actually, I’m pretty sure Tyler wonders all these things as well.  Now I’m a big Tyler fan, and I’ve been painted as a colorful character before, for example at Fortune and The Register, and it does beat obscurity. 

But I will grump about a pattern I’ve noticed: people don’t seem very interested in getting the details right about colorful characters; they’d rather exaggerate.  People don’t mind saying Fred wore a purple suit to the meeting, even if it was really closer to a light pink violet, if the point was just that Fred’s suit was weird. 

I don’t just have strange opinions just to be strange, however; the details matter to me.  So I feel the need to make more (long) corrections.  I doubt Tyler will consider these will be news; for his purposes these details weren’t worth walking down the hall to clarify.

Added: See Tyler on Robin on Tyler on Robin.

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Belief in Belief

Followup to: Making Beliefs Pay Rent (in Anticipated Experiences)

Carl Sagan once told a parable of a man who comes to us and claims: "There is a dragon in my garage." Fascinating! We reply that we wish to see this dragon – let us set out at once for the garage! "But wait," the claimant says to us, "it is an invisible dragon."

Now as Sagan points out, this doesn’t make the hypothesis unfalsifiable. Perhaps we go to the claimant’s garage, and although we see no dragon, we hear heavy breathing from no visible source; footprints mysteriously appear on the ground; and instruments show that something in the garage is consuming oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide.

But now suppose that we say to the claimant, "Okay, we’ll visit the garage and see if we can hear heavy breathing," and the claimant quickly says no, it’s an inaudible dragon. We propose to measure carbon dioxide in the air, and the claimant says the dragon does not breathe. We propose to toss a bag of flour into the air to see if it outlines an invisible dragon, and the claimant immediately says, "The dragon is permeable to flour."

Carl Sagan used this parable to illustrate the classic moral that poor hypotheses need to do fast footwork to avoid falsification. But I tell this parable to make a different point: The claimant must have an accurate model of the situation somewhere in his mind, because he can anticipate, in advance, exactly which experimental results he’ll need to excuse.

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Phone-Shy UFOs

From Tyler Cowen’s Discover Your Inner Economist, out this week:

Small changes in incentives can make a big difference in our beliefs.  For instance, UFO sightings are down dramatically in the last decade.  Perhaps science-fiction movies are not as compelling as they used to be, but I think another factor is at work: cell phones and cell-phone cameras. 
“The spaceship was in a no-call dead zone?  And you didn’t snap a picture?”
“I’m sorry honey.  The immobilized my fingers with their secret ray guns.”
The story is suddenly a little harder to swallow.  Most of all, it is harder to fool one’s self, not just one’s spouse and friends.  Researchers who have studied reported episodes of alien abduction have concluded that most of the believers are fully sincere.

Just one of many ways that a more transparent society can be a more honest society.

Added: Tyler’s claim seems to be wrong!  UFO reports were up until 2000 in Yukon, up until 2002 in Canada, and up by over a factor of six in the US from 1995 to 2005 (this last estimate I made using via a quick calculation from the Mufon database).  Of course it is possible that the internet has made it easier to turn UFO sightings into reports. 

More added: See Tyler’s comments below. 

Also: Here are monthly reports ’90-07, from Natl. UFO Reporting Center (founded ’74):


So there has been a slight falloff in the last few years, but this overall trend doesn’t seem to track cell phone usage very well.   

More: A chart of Canadian monthly reports, ’89-05, by a different organization (founded ’89), looks similar to the above chart, though 1/6 the magnitude and noisier.  Does anyone have a graph of cell phone usage for comparison?

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Making Beliefs Pay Rent (in Anticipated Experiences)

Thus begins the ancient parable:

If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? One says, "Yes it does, for it makes vibrations in the air." Another says, "No it does not, for there is no auditory processing in any brain."

Suppose that, after the tree falls, the two walk into the forest together. Will one expect to see the tree fallen to the right, and the other expect to see the tree fallen to the left? Suppose that before the tree falls, the two leave a sound recorder next to the tree. Would one, playing back the recorder, expect to hear something different from the other? Suppose they attach an electroencephalograph to any brain in the world; would one expect to see a different trace than the other? Though the two argue, one saying "No," and the other saying "Yes," they do not anticipate any different experiences.  The two think they have different models of the world, but they have no difference with respect to what they expect will happen to them.

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T.S. Eliot Quote

Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm– but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.   T. S. Eliot, The Cocktail Party, (1974), p. 111   

Well put.  Found here. 

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Not Every Negative Judgment Is A Bias

A recent article, "Weight bias may harm obese children," summarizes a July 2007 Psychological Bulletin article:

When the study participants were asked to rank the children in the order of whom they would like to be friends with, they ranked the overweight child last.  … Some studies found that a sizable number of teachers harbor negative views of overweight students, seeing them as "untidy," for example, or less likely to succeed than their thinner peers. Other research found that overweight children often report teasing from family members, including parents.

The article repeatedly uses the word "bias" to describe these negative judgments, but it doesn’t bother to show why these effects are in fact biases.  Unless you want to claim that no one should ever be teased or prefer some as friends over others, or that teachers should never estimate student tidiness or success, the question is: what is the evidence that judgments made about fat kids are in fact too negative on average?  Without such evidence, these negative judgments should not be called "biases." 

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