“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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