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Bias Is A Red Queen Game
It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. The Red Queen.
In my last post I said that as “you must allocate a very limited budget of rationality”, we “must choose where to focus our efforts to attend carefully to avoiding possible biases.” Some objected, seeing the task of overcoming bias as like lifting weights to build muscles. Scott Alexander compared it to developing habits of good posture and lucid dreaming:
If I can train myself to use proper aikido styles of movement even when I’m doing something stupid like opening a door, my body will become so used to them that they will be the style I default to when my mind is otherwise occupied. .. Lucid dreamers offer some techniques for realizing you’re in a dream, and suggest you practice them even when you are awake, especially when you are awake. The goal is to make them so natural that you could (and literally will) do them in your sleep. (more)
One might also compare with habits like brushing your teeth regularly, or checking that your fly isn’t unzipped. There are indeed many possible good habits, and some related to rationality. And I encourage you all to develop good habits.
What I object to is letting yourself think that you have sufficiently overcome bias by collecting a few good mental habits. My reason: the task of overcoming bias is a Red Queen game, i.e., one against a smart, capable, and determined rival, not a simple dumb obstacle.
There are few smart determined enemies trying to dirty your teeth, pull your fly down, mess your posture, weaken your muscles, or keep you unaware that you are dreaming. Nature sometimes happens to block your way in such cases, but because it isn’t trying hard to do so, it takes only modest effort to overcome such obstacles. And as these problems are relatively simple and easy, an effective strategy to deal with them doesn’t have to take much context into account.
For a contrast, consider the example of trying to invest to beat the stock market. In that case, it isn’t enough to just be reasonably smart and attentive, and avoid simple biases like not deciding when very emotional. When you speculate in stocks, you are betting against other speculators, and so can only expect to win if you are better than others. If you can’t reasonably expect to have better info and analysis than the average person on the other side of your trades, you shouldn’t bet at all, but instead just take the average stock return, by investing in index funds.
Trying to beat the stock market is a Red Queen game against a smart determined opponent who is quite plausibly more capable than you. Other examples of Red Queen games are poker, and most competitive contests like trying to win at sports, music, etc. The more competitive a contest, the more energy and attention you have to put in to have a chance at winning, and the more you have to expect to specialize to have a decent chance. You can’t just develop good general athletic habits to win at all sports, you have to pick the focus sport where you are going to try to win. And for all the non-focus sports, you might play them for fun sometimes, but you shouldn’t expect to win against the best.
Overcoming bias is also a Red Queen game. Your mind was built to be hypocritical, with more conscious parts of your mind sincerely believing that they are unbiased, and other less conscious parts systematically distorting those beliefs, in order to achieve the many functional benefits of hypocrisy. This capacity for hypocrisy evolved in the context of conscious minds being aware of bias in others, suspecting it in themselves, and often sincerely trying to overcome such bias. Unconscious minds evolved many effective strategies to thwart such attempts, and they usually handily win such conflicts.
Given this legacy, it is hard to see how your particular conscious mind has much of a chance at all. So if you are going to create a fighting chance, you will need to try very hard. And this trying hard should include focusing a lot, so you can realize gains from specialization. Just as you’d need to pay close attention and focus well to have much of a chance at beating the hedge funds and well-informed expert speculators who you compete with in stock markets.
In stock markets, the reference point for “good enough” is set by the option to just take the average via an index fund. If using your own judgement will do worse than an index fund, you might as well just take that fund. In overcoming bias, a reference point is set by the option to just accept the estimates of others who are also trying to overcome bias, but who focus on that particular topic.
Yes you might do better than you otherwise would have if you use a few good habits of rationality. But doing a bit better in a Red Queen game is like bringing a knife to a gunfight. If those good habits make you think “I’m a rationalist,” you might think too highly of yourself, and be reluctant to just take the simple option of relying on the estimates of others who try to overcome their biases and focus on those particular topics. After all, refusing to defer to others is one of our most common biases.
Remember that the processes inside you that bias your beliefs are many, varied, subtle, and complex. They express themselves in different ways on different topics. It is far from sufficient to learn a few simple generic tricks that avoid a few simple symptoms of bias. Your opponent is putting a lot more work into it than that, and you will need to do so as well if you are to have much of a chance. When you play a Red Queen game, go hard or go home.