The following is a talk I gave at ACR-GNY
If you could sum up the literature on cognitive biases, human irrationality, and popular books that outline all the way in which we screw up, it would go something like this: we only require a small amount of information, usually just a single fact, to confidently form seemingly objective, but almost entirely subjective and inaccurate, worldviews. Ironically, the less information we have about a topic, the more confident we are about it.
The feeling of certainty might be our default setting. We spend most of our mental life confirming our opinions and not questioning them, even when those opinions involve complex issues. We believe we understand the details of the world, even though our folk theories are usually incomplete. The sad reason rationality exists might not be to seek truth, but to argue and persuade. Our frontal lobes may have evolved to be lawyers, not judges.
Rene Descartes is considered the father of modern philosophy for a number of reasons. He valued reason and skepticism, and by writing his magnum opus Discourse on the Method in the first person, he shifted the focus from God to the individual. And when Descartes turned inward and contemplated the implications of our ability to think about thinking, he triggered a number of metaphysical brainteasers: Are we living in a simulation? Is what we call “reality” a dream world? Years later, these questions became the basis for the 1999 thriller The Matrix.
I’d like to outline a different kind of matrix – not a metaphysical illusion but an epistemological delusion. In this world you believe that you are a genius living amongst idiots. You rarely feel wrong, and when you realize you are, you rationalize. This reality, of course, is your default setting, and I term it the epistemic matrix. It applies to everyone, and that’s the problem. It gives us the illusion of infallibility – the idea that we occupy a special place in the universe.
If everyone is effectively delusional about what they think they know – and I hope to make that clear – the question is if you can break out of the epistemic matrix. To do so – to take the blue pill, so to speak, – I invite you to learn some cognitive psychology.
First, I’ll talk about three experiments that highlight our almost unlimited ability to be ignorant of our ignorance.
Second, I will move outside the head to talk about how context influences behavior, and the mistakes we make when we judge others
Third, I’ll talk about how simply learning about biases does not eliminate them.
And finally, I’ll suggest how we might break out of the epistemic matrix. I hope that in this last section I may provide some valuable advice for you to walk away with.
One of the first empirical accounts of a cognitive bias comes from a landmark paper published in 1954. Here’s the background. Years earlier, in November 1951, Dartmouth and Princeton played an especially vicious football game. After the game, a reporter for The Daily Princetonian wrote that, “Both teams were guilty but the blame must be laid primarily on Dartmouth’s doorstep.” Dartmouth’s student newspaper fired back, suggesting that an injury to one of Princeton’s star players was, “no more serious than is experienced almost any day in any football practice.”
Weeks later, two psychologists invited Princeton and Dartmouth students to watch the film of the game and answer a series of questions about it. They found, predictably, lopsided responses. Princeton students counted twice as many penalties committed by Dartmouth players. And the Dartmouth students only noticed half as many penalties committed by Dartmouth players.
This finding influenced decades of research examining our tendency to look for what confirms our beliefs and to ignore everything else, or what the psychologist Peter Wason termed Confirmation Bias.
Another revealing study, published in 1990, comes from Elizabeth Newton. In it, Newton assigned participants to one of two roles: “tappers” or “listeners.” The job of the tappers was straightforward: they received a list of 25 well-known songs (e.g., Happy Birthday and The Star-Spangled Banner), picked one, and tapped it out to a listener by tapping on a table. The listener’s job was also straightforward: guess the song.
The listeners struggled. 120 songs were tapped and they only guessed 3 correctly – that’s 2.5 percent. Here’s the revealing part. The tappers estimated that the listeners would guess the songs correctly 50 percent of the time. In other words, the tappers thought 1 of 2 songs would get through, while in reality they only succeeded 1 of 40 times.
Finally, let me tell you about a particularly clever study conducted years ago. Imagine that an experiment hands you a list of every devices – a piano key, a sewing machine, a zipper – and asks you to indicate how much you understand how each item works. Next you are tasked with writing a detailed step-by-step causal description of four items from the list. The question is: Could you?
In a series of 12 experiments, the experimenters discovered that when participants tried to explain how an everyday device worked they realized that they had no idea what they were talking about – even though they indicated to the contrary at the beginning of the experiment. Although it seems like we know how something like a zipper works – we use it everyday, after all – when we stop to think about the details we realize our ignorance. The two psychologists behind this study termed this the illusion of explanatory depth.
What does this research tell us? At least three things, and they nicely illustrate the idea of the epistemic matrix. 1) Even if two people are exposed to the same information – such as the Princeton and Dartmouth students – it’s possible for them to arrive at different conclusions. 2) We self-project what we know onto others, as the tappers illustrated. And 3) we’re overconfident with respect to what we know, or what we think we know.
Next, let’s take a less cerebral perspective and talk about context. Another essential feature of the epistemic matrix is the idea that when we explain social behavior, we overestimate personality and underestimate context. Psychologists term this the fundamental attribution error. I like to describe it as the naïve belief that we are geniuses living in a world of idiots. Or, as Scott Adams of Dilbert fame says, “We rarely recognize our own idiocies, yet we can clearly identify the idiocies of others.”
For example, let’s say your waiting at a stoplight. The light turns green and you accelerate. Out of nowhere, a driver speeds through the red light and you slam on your breaks. He is reckless, perhaps drunk, you conclude – there is something about his disposition that put you in danger. Right? Of course, it’s also possible that he was on his way to the hospital because his wife was in labor. It’s unlikely, but it’s possible.
We make this mistake all the time: in line for groceries, in the subway, at the check out counter at the airport. The classic example from psychological literature comes from a 1967 study conducted by Edward Jones and Victor Harris. They asked participants to assess if a person was pro or anti-Castro based on an essay that person wrote. There were two groups. In one, the researchers told participants that the essayists chose to write the pro or anti-Castro essay. In the second group, researchers told participants that a coin flip determined the position the essayists took. Predictably, the participants in the first group rated the essayists as having more positive or negative feelings towards Castro – this makes sense. After all, they willfully their position. However, participants in the second group showed the same effect. They still rated essayists who wrote positively about Castro as having a positive view of Castro, or vice versa, – even though a coin flips determine their position they took for the essay.
Sam Sommers, Tufts Professor of Psychology and author of Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World sums up the fundamental attribution error like this:
We assume that the behavior we observe of another person at a particular point in time provides an accurate glimpse of the “true product” within. The waiter who screwed up our order? We label him incompetent. The colleague who won’t return our e-mails? She’s inconsiderate. The actor who delivers the knockout soliloquy? He’s articulate.
The takeaway from Sommers’ book is that cooperation is difficult when we don’t consider how context influences behavior, and over emphasize the notion that within everybody is a fixed self, unchanged from each moment to the next. Until you recognize the power of context, conflict will flourish.
With this in mind, let’s return to the question: How do we escape the epistemic matrix? I’d like to make a critical point here: Awareness is not the answer, and it may actually make things worse.
Consider a 2002 paper by Emily Pronin, a Professor of Psychology at Princeton, and her two colleagues, Daniel Lin and Lee Ross. Their experiment was straightforward. The psychologists gave participants three surveys that explained how people see the existence of biases much more in others than themselves. After the participants read the surveys they received a follow-up questionnaire asking them to rate how susceptible they were to biases. Here’s the question: would knowing that most people falsely discount how susceptible they are to biases influence the participants to see the existence of biases in themselves more clearly?
Pronin and her colleagues found that after learning about how commonplace biases are the participants actually reported that were more immune from them. The researchers concluded the following:
The results of our three studies suggest that knowledge of particular biases in human judgment and inference, and the ability to recognize the impact of those biases on others, neither prevents one from succumbing nor makes one aware of having done so.
Here’s where things get meta. How did you interpret this piece of research? Did you conclude that the participants were foolish? Or did you conclude that you would have committed the same error?
The problem with thinking errors is that learning about them gives us the false conviction that our judgment is better. The overlooked reason is that there are two components to every bias. The first is the bias itself. Confirmation bias, for example, is our tendency to seek out confirmation information while ignoring everything else. The second is the belief that everyone else is susceptible to thinking errors, but not you. This itself is a bias – bias blind spot, as Pronin and her colleagues termed it – that blinds you from your errors. We intuitively believe that we correct for biases after being exposed to them, but this is normally an illusion arising from the bias blind spot.
If awareness does not help, what does?
In his famed 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace tells the following parable. Two young fish are swimming along when an older fish approaches and asks: good morning boys, how’s the water? Later on, one fish turns to the other and says: “What the hell is water.”
Wallace’s point is that, “the most obvious and important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.” This may sound like a banal platitude, Wallace observes, but in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, being mindful of banal platitudes and spending energy to distill their significance is essential for well-being.
This is my solution for breaking out of the epistemic matrix – mindfulness.
What is it?
In contrast to introspection, which usually only affirms beliefs and increases overconfidence, mindfulness involves observing without questioning. If the takeaway from research on cognitive biases is not simply that thinking errors exist but the belief that we are immune from them, then the virtues of mindfulness is pausing to observe our errors in a non-evaluative way. We spend a lot of energy protecting our egos instead of considering our faults. Mindfulness may help reverse this.
Here is a more academic sounding definition from Erika Carlson.
Mindfulness has been broadly defined as nonevaluative, non- elaborative attention to and awareness of one’s current experience, or “nonjudgmental observation of the ongoing stream of internal and external stimuli as they arise”. One of the most widely used operational definitions of mindfulness highlights two core components: attention to one’s current experience and nonevaluative observation of that experience.
Psychological experimentation of the last few decades suggests a number benefits linked to mindfulness: increased concentration, reduced stress and, critically, healthier social relationships. However, current research has not agreed on a cohesive definition of mindfulness, and it’s unclear what direction the casual arrow points. At the same time, future research looks promising, especially for conflict resolution.
In conclusion, although I painted a rather pessimistic picture of human rationality, I’d like to clarify that we are capable of critical self-analysis – we can reflect and avoid harmful thinking errors. Reason is one of our “better angels,” as Steven Pinker notes, and it has nudged us towards cooperation and away from violence.
However, in order to use reason to our advantage – in order to cooperate and erase the belief that we are geniuses living in a world of idiots – we must also stop trying to “correct” or “eradicate” thinking errors. They’re here to stay, as they are likely an innate feature of cognition. Rather, we should use our front lobes to be more mindful. That means pausing to realize that the mind filters the world selectively, and in the process it effectively creates a new world that blinds us from the truth: that we are average people living in a world of average people, and that we’d be better when we recognized this.