“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:

Delusion is one secret to a good marriage.  .. The couples who stay together are the delusional ones who look back on their pasts with rose-colored glasses.  … Happily married couples also tend to believe that they have more in common with their partners than they really do. …

How many of use would enjoy hearing a two-hour debate – Oxford style with formal rules – on the relative prominence of our virtues and flaws? … If we wish to go through life as happy, productive people, those are exactly the kinds of doubts that need to be blocked from our conscious minds.  …

Suppose we were offered the option of surgery, or a pill, to correct our self-deception.  … Don’t take that pill. … The depressed, even though their thought processes are often quite rational, tend to have more accurate views about their real standing in the world. … It is a moot point whether depression causes a lack of self-deception or whether a lack of self-deception causes depression.  Probably cause and effect run in both directions.  In any case we really do need our self-deception. 

People who feel good about themselves, whether or not the facts merit this judgment, tend to achieve more. … self-deception may be an evolved defense mechanism against worries, distractions, and a loss of focus.  … Imagine walking around, knowing every minute what other people were thinking about us.  Most of us would find this unbearable rather quickly.  … 

They key to doing well is to keep our self-deception as a general buffer, but to overcome it selectively for specific problems.  … As a general principle, trying to puncture people’s delusions does not always make them better off.  Often we switch into other, less easy-to-refute but more harmful delusions. 
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  • Tobbic

    I associate notion of being popular with school time (high school/ college/earlier). At that time an interest in cars, clothes etc. instead of books would give you higher probability of getting laid & having a lot of friends because on most of those people of you share a class with are genuinely not interested on nerdy subjects (the longer you stay in school the more nerdy your classmates get). So given you want these things & you don’t go to some exceptionally nerdy school it seems rational to trade a bit of intellectual integrity/interesting geeky stuff for more sex & friends. This seems to be a form of collective self-deception where at least some of the nerds out there conform to cars&clothes community and hide their colours raising the cost of not conforming to other nerds.

    Later people’s interests change from getting more sex & having friends in the class (by this time they’ve come across enough nerds to diminish the marginal utility of a new thug friend near zero) to finding a best possible mate to produce offspring. This means (given that intelligence is a positive trait) that geeky & nerdy stuff becomes attractive as a way of signalling your fitness. Thus, the conformist deceiver nerds among the car&clothes community return back to the nerd community.

    Also is it rational to overcome bias in one’s area of expertise and remain biased regarding the rest of issues (in the same way as experts are rational with issues of in their field of expertise and can be remarkably irrational with other issues)?

  • Eric Hansen

    Depressed people do not tend to have more accurate views of themselves. They tend to have biased negative views of themselves. Arron Beck from the University of Pennsylvania, and the creator of the technique of cognitive therapy addressed this in a Charlie Rose interview. His technique makes people identify their negative views and test those views with something like the scientific method, thus removing illusion and showing an unbiased view of reality to the patient.

    The Charlie Rose interview is here:
    tune into the time 11:07

  • Eric, Tyler acknowledges as the main exception to depressed accuracy that the depressed are inaccurate about their reasons for their depression.

  • I really hope he’s saying that bias is any easy shortcut — like teaching the “Rule of 72” to someone who doesn’t understand exponential growth.

    Bias might also be a local maximum, since as we reduce bias, we’ll violate social rules. The marginal utility of a little more self-awareness could be negative for a while, even if the total utility of complete self-awareness is extremely high. An unsympathetic analogy would be to giving up a drug habit.

    What I suspect is that Cowen had to address the issue, but didn’t really want to deal with it, so he appealed to the consensus of his readers (I’ve ntoiced this in economic history — nobody ever footnotes an assertion about the New Deal shortening the Great Depression, even though the New Deal was the first such reaction to a financial crisis, and the depression that followed was the longest and severest in US history).

  • David J. Balan

    It sounds like you’re arguing here that overcoming bias is something like learning a martial art; whether or not you should do it depends mostly on whether it suits you, but it might also come in handy someday. But isn’t the point of this blog that OB is a positive virtue that *everyone* should seek to acquire?

  • How many of use would enjoy hearing a two-hour debate – Oxford style with formal rules – on the relative prominence of our virtues and flaws?

    I winced at that, which may imply a lode of useful yet unconfronted evidence I should attend to! Does Tyler have any other suggestions of rational activities I wouldn’t enjoy, so I can go out and do them?

    This is just more evidence that we live in an overly spiritualized society, in which everyone has to be happy all the time, and the only admissible purpose of any activity (including charity/philanthropy) is to promote your own, personal spiritual growth. Nothing in the world is as fearsome as unhappiness – not because it feels so unbearably horrible as that, but because it would mean you were spiritually defective.

    “Altruistic behavior: An act done without any intent for personal gain in any form. Altruism requires that there is no want for material, physical, spiritual, or egoistic gain.”
    — Glossary of Zen

  • Eliezer: Good thinking, and bad PR: “Overcoming Bias: Dare to be as sad as you deserve.”

  • michael vassar

    Who is to host the debate? Who are the debaters?

    Maybe Marcello vs. Michael Wilson?

  • Isn’t there some theorem somewhere which says that a simple expected utility maximizer (non-self-reflective) cannot possibly derive a larger expected utility from mistaken beliefs than correct beliefs?

  • Biomed Tim

    “It is a moot point whether depression causes a lack of self-deception or whether a lack of self-deception causes depression. Probably cause and effect run in both directions. In any case we really do need our self-deception.”

    Why is it a moot point? Conjecturing that “cause and effect run in both ways” does not suffice to establish that “we really do need our self-deception.” Consider the following:

    1. If you’re depressed, then you overcome bias.
    2. If you overcome bias, then you become depressed.

    There’s big difference between whether both of these statements are true, or only one of them is true.

    Likewise, the implied causal relationship between interest in “cars, clothes, sports, and celebrities” and popularity is debatable.

  • If you believe that you’d be happier overcoming bias than not in the cases Tyler suggests, the questions for yourself might be “Why am I different from the average person? Why am I special? Would I have good reason to doubt someone making the claim I am making?”

    On the other hand, there may be great reasons to believe you are special and can gain greater happiness overcoming particular biases than not.

    It seems to me the project of overcoming biases is aimed at getting a clearer understanding of the world so we can manipulate the world for our ends, which presumably are ultimately ends that stimulate happiness in some way.

    Perhaps the best approach would be to develop a systematic way of deciding whether overcoming a particlar bias would serve your long term interests or not. If overcoming a bias causes depression and no compensating benefits, perhaps it’s best to leave the bias alone as much as possible. If you believe overcoming a bias will lead to depression but also insight about life, which will benefit thousands of people, and you’ll experience the gratification of helping others and gaining fame, you might reasonably overcome the bias. The long-term benefits would outweigh the short-term costs.

  • Perhaps the best approach would be to develop a systematic way of deciding whether overcoming a particlar bias would serve your long term interests or not.

    Then you’ll get depressed because you’ve turned yourself into a happiness-obsessed, selfish bastard with no long-term purpose beyond feeding your own “spiritual” satisfaction. There would also be no possibility of acquiring the dark forbidden powers of those who sell their soul into the service of truth.

  • “It seems to me the project of overcoming biases is aimed at getting a clearer understanding of the world so we can manipulate the world for our ends, which presumably are ultimately ends that stimulate happiness in some way.”

    We might be struggling between defining ‘happiness’ as ‘fulfillment’ or ‘pleasure’. I think you’re using the pleasure definition — we want to know more, so we can know how to feel better. I suspect that most OB readers and writers prefer a ‘fulfillment’ definition — we should overcome bias because we are (at some Platonic level) thinkers, and bias impedes our thought.

  • Eliezer writes:

    ‘Then you’ll get depressed because you’ve turned yourself into a happiness-obsessed, selfish bastard with no long-term purpose beyond feeding your own “spiritual” satisfaction.’

    Hm. I suppose if obsessing over happiness makes you less happy, then it’s inadvisable to obsess about it, if I think happiness, in some broad sense, should be the aim of life. I suppose you’d try to find out what is your best guess at what is a good amoutn of thinking that you should do on the subject of your happiness.

    I don’t think selfishness in the everyday sense is really likely to lead to as much happiness as alternatives, at least in general. That’s just a guess though. In the example I give, a person actually derives pleasure from helping others.

    Eliezer writes:

    “There would also be no possibility of acquiring the dark forbidden powers of those who sell their soul into the service of truth.”

    I acknowledge that overcoming bias in some cases could be beneficial. The question is how much do we invest in investigating some realms. If most people who overcome x bias are depressed and derive no useful insight from overcoming x bias, is there reason to believe that you will derive some benefit where they have failed to?

    I’m also not convinced that abstaining from overcoming a bias in one realm affects all your endeavors to seek truth. Couldn’t I be a good scientist and a husband-in-denial at the same time?

    In any event, look forward to your reply, since I’ve found your writing thought-provoking (particularly your discussion of Bayesian probability).

  • mobile

    Sometimes actions that lead us toward truth are aligned with actions that lead us toward happiness. Sometimes they are opposed. Truth and happiness are different values, and it’s not clear (to me and Tyler, anyway) that one of these values alone should guide our choices.

  • Michael Sullivan

    The problem with applying this correlation of depression:clarity to the question of whether to overcome as much bias as possible is that the correlation is not measuring *utility*, but something different that happens to correlate with utility. and not only that, we’re only getting a yes/no answer. While I will stipulate that depressed people are on the whole probably less happy than non-depressed people — I would bet that *some* non-depressed people are far happier than others, and some non-depressed people may well be *less* happy than some depressed people. Maybe people with largely unexamined biases and thought processes are somewhere in the middle, and people who examine their lives and attempt to overcome their biases sometimes become depressed, but even more often gain a lot.

    I’m also seeing a picture being painted of people as basically requiring more status than they actually have to be happy. But why can’t we move the goalposts? Is this status requirement somehow hard-wired? I’ve changed my desires based on contemplation before — why wouldn’t it work to an extent with status? In fact, I believe it *does* work with status. I’ve changed my goals in that regard over time. In fact, I consider getting a better understanding of what the “good life” really is to have been one of the more important elements of my education.

  • Floccina

    Overcoming bias as a male teenager can be rewarding buy the a used Mercedes Benz that looks good most girls will not recognize that it is old and even if you paid more than for a better Honda or Toyota you signal ability to provide. Once you understand the bias you can play the game better. Buy good clothes just know the costs and benefits and then decide how much to spend. If you are happily married get the Toyota and dress on the cheap unless your job requires it.

    BTW My partner just opted out of his wife’s jobs’ health insurance policy buying a high deductible policy for himself and saving money. He did not take his wife and kids off the other policy because the signal would be bad.

    In talking about signaling we came up with service idea for Amazon. Men sign up for this service that at a random interval sends a signaling gift (flowers, candy, etc.) to their wives. It would of course give them a heads up before sending the gift.

    Perhaps there is room in the market for a company that send 2 insurance bills an Ultra high insurance for a man to show his wife and the real bill. It would have a high deductible paid out of an HAS.

    If I changed my writing above to make it gender neutral I think that would show bias. Women do not need to signal good provider. They need to look as young fit and pretty as they can.

  • Couldn’t I be a good scientist and a husband-in-denial at the same time?

    You could certainly be an adequate technician and a husband-in-denial at the same time.

    You could possibly achieve your full potential as a scientist and also in denial about your relationship, providing that you weren’t doing it on purpose – that you weren’t deliberately tolerating a falsehood, openly choosing not to know.

    If you deliberately turn against truth, you become an official member of the Dark Side, relinquish the Way, and lose your Art.

    The choice to know truth is not an ultra-advanced super-Bayesian technique of rationality. It’s kindergarten-level. If you haven’t gotten that far, you’re not going to get past kindergarten.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    It’s frustating to me that no one on this blog seems to acknowledge the difference between actually believing something and performing belief in something. It is quite possible to situationally perform an interest in “cars, clothes, sports, and celebrities” to maximize on popularity in high school, while privately be focused on reducing all of one’s biases for self-interest maximizing ends.

    For example, why do you think I post on this blog (hopefully) anonymously? Although I acknowledge that some people (perhaps you, Robin) have a comparative economic/social advantage at publicly performing an interest in reducing bias, I think almost everyone actually has an interest in at least privately being interested in reducing their own biases. I don’t see another way (beside neuroanatomical hardware) to be able to determine in which selective situations one should reduce one’s own bias.

    Acknowledgement of the possible distinction between performing a belief in something and actually believing it would go a long way towards moving this blog forward, in my opinion. This said as someone who was popular in high school and privately didn’t give a damn about cars, clothes, or sports. I think it’s quite rational to be interested in celebrities though: A list celebrity is a scarce good, and I think successful celebrities are more likely to be rational self-interest optimizers: hence, probably have less internal bias in decision-making.

  • This has been brought up already, but I wanted to elaborate. Leaving off of what I think are other flaws in Tyler’s reasoning, how would one become more self-deceived?

    Also, I have doubts as to a universal agreement on the semantics involved here. A person that has learned to let certain aspects of life slide off their back so that they may enjoy life despite its disappointments would likely be labeled as “self-deceived” by many.

    There’s a considerable amount of study on survivors and the survivor mentality, and much of it involves people simply refusing to accept their fate. Now, of course, that can easily devolve into genuine self-deception, but everyone who has looked life square in the face and decided to be happy anyway is not self-deceptive.

    Nor are depressed people more in tune with reality. They are for the most part simply neurotic. Their sensitivities exaggerated until the simple social gaffe is laced with personal malice, et cetera. That others don’t pick up on the gaffe is seen as being dense or insensitive, but many others do see the same things in life, but choose to let it go.

    As far as the self-deceived go, there certainly are plenty of them out there. I had the distinct blessing to be both athletically and intellectually gifted, and was always much happier being my “nerdy” self than my “cool” self. (Considering the usual company here, I’m assuming I can say such a thing without sounding pretentious.)

    The typically “cool” person that would fit into the mold of the self-deceived are never really all that self-deceived; they’re shallow. The things that get other people down don’t affect them because the river just doesn’t run that deep. Which brings me back full circle to my original point, how does one intentionally self-deceive?

  • I think successful celebrities are more likely to be rational self-interest optimizers: hence, probably have less internal bias in decision-making.

    If they could stay out of rehab and/or jail more frequently, and if their relationships were not constantly in chaos, I might believe that. . .

    Compare with – say – Fortune 500 executives, dotcom internet millionaires, bond traders, etc. . .

  • Carl Shulman

    Matthew C,

    “If they could stay out of rehab and/or jail more frequently, and if their relationships were not constantly in chaos, I might believe that. . .”

    While I think HA does systematically overestimate the rationality of celebrities and wealthy individuals (many relevant abilities, such as a good singing voice, height, and social charisma are poorly correlated with rationality, so we should expect their rationality to be less exceptional than their celebrity on average), particularly given his survival-focused account of self-interested rationality, it’s worth noting that many celebrity blowups are manufactured for profit. Historically, movie studios matched up their stars to create buzz, and today individual celebrities and their publicists do the same.

    WRT jail time, check for availability bias. Paris Hilton aside, it’s quite rare for major celebrities able to afford top-notch legal representation to be imprisoned, and they enjoy the benefits of flouting the law many times for each instance in which they are brought to account.

    Rehab? Does a period in rather luxurious rehab outweigh the social and happiness benefits of a hedonistic lifestyle?

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    Carl, I don’t have a firm estimate of the rationality of celebrities (meaning the degree to which they’re rationally interest-optimizing). But I acknowledge that just because celebrities and their audiences (us) may be similarly vested in a popular perception that the celebrity is dumb or irrational, or just achieved their success due to singing voice and (rationality-denuded) social charisma, it doesn’t mean that it is in fact true.

    I reserve analytical space for a model where the celebrity is nontransparently, consciously, self-interest maximizing. It seems strange to me that one would advocate reserving no analytical space for such a model of individuals who effectively acquire or maintain a disprorportionate share of a scarce, valued social good. It would be like reserving no space for an analytical model of top earning poker players as positively deviantly good bluffers and social manipulators.

    HOWEVER, I do see the value of publicly performing a belief that such celebrities are as dumb as they “act”. Because if acting dumb has value to celebrities, it may have situational social value to an observer, too. So expect HA to non-anonymously espouse an opinion that celebrities are dumb, and bioscience Ph.D.’s working on their 3rd post-doc postion are really, really smart. At least when it’s in my apparent self-interest. 😉

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    P.S. Although when weighing the probative value of my analysis, you should keep in mind that I also reserve analytical space for the possibility that you are all turing machines interacting with me as part of a perplexity maximizing utility function. It might be more accurate to say that I reserve analytical space for the posibility that you are all NOT that.

  • Tobbic

    Ray G: Given intentions are conscious, self-deception is conscious and ppl are rational & unable to forget, intentional self-deception is not possible.

    To perform a belief it might be useful to believe it yourself. It seems to me there are mechanisms in human psyche (i belive that psyche is more than just a conscious mind) to enable for self-deception such as forgetting, selective perception, choosing not to think, etc. I’d say these are largely unconscious. So if you want to belive something very hard even though you know it’s not true (=self-deceive), i think it’s possible make that happen. An example might be defence mechanisms against traumas. Or capture-bonding (Stockholm syndrome). These are extreme examples, i’d think this happens in smaller scale in every day life.

  • michael vassar

    Anecdote Alert…
    I can’t refrain any longer from mentioning that in 6+ years of marriage I have consistently found an abnormally strong focus on rational truth-seeking and analysis to be more useful in marriage as it is anywhere except math/science/engineering. Maybe even close to engineering, which I don’t know well and which seems pretty messy in practice most of the time. I’m sure that self-deception can help to keep people reasonably content in basically bad relationships, but I don’t think that they are better off this way, at least if they are young. I see FAR more mediocre relationships that should end but don’t or that end far later than they should than good ones that do end. Other than outside sex partners I can’t think of anything that I would like which honesty in my marriage serves as a barrier to, and self deception seems like an extremely implausible approach on that one (though people can be pretty spectacularly self-deceiving).

    What I would say actually makes good marriage and good familial relationships most unlikely in the US is a distorted idea of equality. We aren’t biologically wired for equality and so long as we are playing status games we can’t achieve it for long or without discomfort, but lower relative status in a small social group which generally avoids playing status games is not very costly. Rationality solves the need to use status conflicts to resolve disagreements, but when it fails, defaulting to status or to intensity of preference (always a major criterion in human or primate social groups) works better than looking for mutually unsatisfactory compromises.

    OTOH, maybe people are usually just not smart enough or self-controlled enough for this proposal to work well and it requires that both parties be very smart and that one be at least fairly self-consciously rational as well (it’s pretty disastrous for the less dominant party when the more dominant one is highly unreasonable). The only couples that I have seen that have my unqualified approval meet this criterion, but one shouldn’t criticize society for not universalizing solutions dependent on scarce resources. Probably the only fairly high confidence unpopular and anecdotal advice I have for fairly typical people is, “if you have high socio-economic-status and intelligence, use more intoxicants, odds are that you can afford to, and you probably need to loosen up. If you have low socio-economic-status and intelligence use fewer intoxicants, you probably don’t need to loosen up so much and need the inhibitions you have. Becoming Mormon is probably a good idea instead. Also, live somewhere relatively inexpensive.”

  • David, we should distinguish a weak claim, that given our ends we are reasonable to join together here to overcome bias, from a strong claim, that everyone should do so. The weak claim can be true even if the strong claim is not.

    Eliezer, that is Tyler’s best suggestion.

    Tom, that is only true if you can change your beliefs without changing your observable behavior. That seems to be false for most humans.

    Ray, if you choose not to work at it, you can become not less self-deceived.

    Michael, many of us have been married a lot longer than you, and have seen contrary indications.

  • John

    But nerdy quadraplegics are cool! There aren’t a whole lot, but Stephen Hawking has more than enough celebrity power to make up for all the loser nerdy quadraplegics out there.

  • manuel noel

    Under my knowledge to overcame bias (any category) are just one way,not two or three or something like all roads give us to Roma.Mind and the concept of time are the core of the matter,past and future are concepts,the called present is the face of the impermanence,other concept,but,this in particular describe how the phenomena of live is,so,if somebody want to overcame bias,most be,through calm and insight,realize:all we have in this life,like ours,is be aware of this always fresh moment,so ,is impossible any partial thought,if some thought show up it will be impartial,healhty expression of our cognizant mind nature.