The Bias within the Bias

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Recall this pivotal scene from the 1997 movie, Men in Black. James Edwards (Will Smith, or Agent J) arrives at the headquarters of MiB – a secret agency that protects Earth from extraterrestrial threats – to compete with “the best of the best” for a position. Edwards, a confident and cocky NYPD officer, completes various tests including a simulation where he shoots an ostensibly innocent schoolgirl. When asked why, Edwards explains that compared to the freakish aliens, the girl posed the biggest threat. He passes the test: potentially dangerous aliens are always disguised as real humans. Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) offers him a position at MiB and the remaining candidates’ memories are erased. They return to normal life without ever realizing that the aliens were a ruse – a device for Agent K to detect how sagacious the candidates really were.


This wily test of intelligence and mindfulness is defined by two characteristics. The first is that most people fail it; the second is a subtle trick intentionally implemented to catch careless thinking (the schoolgirl for example). Narratives in literature and film that incorporate this test go something like this: scores have tried and failed because they overlooked the trick – even though they confidently believed they did not – until one day a hero catches it and passes the test (Edwards). Game of Thrones readers may recall the moment Syrio became the first sword of Braavos. Unlike others before him, when the Sealord asked Syrio about an ordinary cat, Syrio answered truthfully instead of sucking up. (The ending of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade also comes to mind, but this does not fit the narrative for a critical reason. Those who failed did not live under the mistaken belief that they succeeded – they were beheaded.)

Here’s my worry. The same thing occurs when lay audiences read books about thinking errors. They understand the errors, but don’t notice the trick – that simply learning about them is not enough. Too often, readers finish popular books on decision making with the false conviction that they will decide better. They are the equivalent of Edwards’ competition – the so-called best of the best who miss the ruse.

The overlooked reason is that there are two components to each bias. The first is the phenomenon itself. Confirmation bias, for example, is your 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 – a “meta bias” inherent in all biases that blinds you from your errors.

Written By: Samuel McNerney
continue to source article at blogs.scientificamerican.com

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  1. because we’re self-affirming spin-doctors, when we introspect, we only identify reasons for our infallibility.

    Speak for your self ! Joking aside, I find it very easy to argue with myself. (I will never really know how other people think but) I find it fairly easy to split my personality to see more than one persective, and so be self critical. Can others do this?

    • In reply to #2 by old-toy-boy:

      Hi old-toy-boy,

      I find it very easy to argue with myself. (I will never really know how other people think but) I find it fairly easy to split my personality to see more than one persective, and so be self critical. Can others do this?

      Yes.

      I also worry, a lot, about whether my thinking is true. My biggest problem is that I tend to do this worrying in retrospect. If one has had a less than satisfactory education (I am a sufferer) one’s instincts / intuitions are poorly aligned to mindfulness (psychology) and to applying a neutral position.

      The article is a good one, as far as it goes.

      Like you though, I see a weakness in the piece’s one-size-fits-all premise of a universal character.

      Also, the story cuts off just as it’s getting interesting:

      As Nietzsche hinted in Twilight of the Idols, “We want to have a reason for feeling as we do… it never suffices us simply to establish the mere fact that we feel as we do.”

      Why is it so important that we shackle reason and emotion together?

      I am aware of this error in my own thinking more than most. Again, it seems to be down to poorly trained intuition. Or maybe one of my thinking biases is my low self esteem and the resulting low level of confidence in my own perspectives – a possible root cause of my depressive episodes?

      Peace.

  2. How many people have extensively learned about cognitive biases throughout their education? I learned mostly through the internet. I liken this to people who take one psychology course and think that the completely understand human behavior. A little bit of information just like a little bit of skill, can be dangerous. We are much better at spotting other people’s problems rather than tending to our own garden. We all want to look good in the eyes of others and one way to do this is to fool ourselves first.

  3. Why is it so important that we shackle reason and emotion together?

    I think ultimately we would like a whole life. To separate the two seems to create situations in which we are disconnected to our experiences. If we are so busy analyzing and going off into our own world somehow the impact of our awareness seems as if it is put into a box or somewhere else other that what is happening to us – when it is happening to us. (IMO) I think much of this has to do with some of us being wired to interact with the world in ways that stop and reflect or put ourselves at a distance from a situation to see the dynamics of what is going on. Some people truly are able to act and interact spontaneously, but if we dig into the situation, even they are missing some aspect of what is currently going on.
    >
    I am aware of this error in my own thinking more than most. Again, it seems to be down to poorly trained intuition. Or maybe one of my thinking biases is my low self esteem and the resulting low level of confidence in my own perspectives – a possible root cause of my depressive episodes?

    Knowing yourself is a life long task that you will never fully achieve. As soon as you figure something out about yourself, your surroundings change, your body changes, situations change… As a lifelong introvert, reflective, ruminator, I have come to realize that my habits, more than my “thoughts” about myself determine my life. Strangely, this is opposite of what I learned through “spiritual” paths that told me “thoughts in kind produce like in kind” “what goes into a mind comes out in a life” and the first few lines of the Dhammapada. In essence, this is true but thought is bunched into one package deal. (or attributed as coming from ONE SOURCE.) The difference is that there is a distinction between your thoughts and your perceptions along with your “reptilian brain” instincts, etc. Also what you let into your brain – knowledge, opinion, perception, observation, stimuli, etc. are all distinctive and need to be addressed separately as well as interactively. You can make a thought/decision that you will change your habits and then go about coming up with new actions. These actions can then lead to new perceptions – ideas about yourself. The type of brain activity that just told my hand to brush away the hair from my face and the type of brain activity that tells me that my hair looks a mess are two different types of “thoughts.”( I have also stuck and electrode from a massage devise on my arm and made my hand move involuntarily.) I also know that if I force myself to exercise every day, this action eventually changes my perception. I really would like to hear more research about the different types of thought we have and how we can make it work better for ourselves. (Ever hear that speaking aloud forces jumbled up thoughts to focus?)I think when some people get depressed (as I frequently do) we need to find another route around our thought processes by first being aware that they are occurring and then deciding to take a different action or approach. We can decide to see things through a different perspective, but then we need to find a way to cement and make this change permanent.

    If we are not striving for at least objective awareness, you can be certain that your views will absolutely color and interpret what you see to the shade of glasses you are wearing.

    As for recognizing cognitive biases in other people. Maybe we should stick to the rule…unless it is harming someone…let it go.

  4. To be frank, I think the problem has less to do with a lack of mindfulness and more to do with some minds being near-impossible to persuade in the first place. People try too hard to look impressive or smart or confident. I’m practically paranoid about biases in my own thinking, and I still catch myself trying too hard in some situations or excusing my own transgressions to make myself look OK.

    To me, it’s not much different in experience to knowing too much chocolate is bad and still scofffing the selection box anyway. It’s a problem of habit, and will probably require the same techniques to break it, up to and including acknowledging that some people are naturally more susceptible to it than others are. For instance, I have a policy of admitting up front to any indulgence if questioned about it, and I acknowledge that a large part of the problem is simply daily boredom. On occasion, this has given me some success and subsequent hope for the long term.

    It’s possible this is just personal idiosyncrasy, but this article doesn’t ring true to me. It says that:

    Popular literature on judgment and decision-making does not emphasize the second component enough, potentially inhibiting readers from fully understanding the source of their irrationalities. Although we intuitively believe that we correct for biases after being exposed to them, it is impossible to truly accomplish this until we consider how the bias blind spot – the bias within the bias – distorts thinking. The ironic implication is that these books are perhaps part of the problem. The common sendoff, “now that you know about these biases, perhaps you’ll decide better,” instills a false confidence – it’s the trick we’re all failing to notice.

    My first encounter with popular science accounts of cognitive biases practically stressed how people would use their experiences to more accurately predict others’ behaviour but never seemed to apply it themselves – a demonstration not just of cognitive bias but of the meta-bias he spoke of. That contradicts McNerney’s claim that no one notes the meta-bias, and it doesn’t sit well with the notion that people who read such literature don’t feel self-conscious about it afterwards. Other literature, such as Deceit and Self-Deception, The Invisible Gorilla, and Thinking Fast and Slow address the reader a fair few times as well, making it clear that they are not immune either.

    Next, I don’t think “mindfulness” is really the right word to use. Merely observing dispassionately does not necessarily make one realize that one is indulging in meta-bias. In fact, McNerney did a fair amount prior to recommending mindfulness to address the meta-bias: he told us about it and its real-world incidence, which is mostly no different from what the other writers were doing already. Indeed, he probably would have done more good by suggesting that one practice trying to spot biases in one’s own thinking, with the aim of improving oneself, than by indulging in a “relaxation versus straining” metaphor, which just seems calculated to feed into lazy people’s meta-bias all over again.

  5. In reply to #10 by QuestioningKat:

    Hi Kat,

    Thank you for your thoughts.

    Here is a better story on the same subject.

    To separate [reason and emotion] seems to create situations in which we are disconnected [from] our experiences.

    I don’t see that. It seems to me that our brains function in just two basic ‘modes’ (for want of a better expression): Now and Reflection. We are evolved to live our lives in places where danger lurks in every corner – where Nature ensures we are switched to Now Mode at any time we’re in a new situation. Reflection is for two other situations: Figuring out a problem when we have security and time available, and reviewing past decisions.

    If we are so busy analyzing and going off into our own world somehow the impact of our awareness seems as if it is put into a box or somewhere else other that what is happening to us – when it is happening to us.

    One of the (parallel to Now and Reflection) advantages humans have over our nearest biological relatives is a sophisticated theory of other minds – She thinks that I think that she thinks (etc.). It’s good to talk.

    (IMO) I think much of this has to do with some of us being wired to interact with the world in ways that stop and reflect or put ourselves at a distance from a situation to see the dynamics of what is going on.

    It seems likely that we all have the ability to be the excellent observers, calculators and originators of pertinent questions that we see in the best thinkers – just as we all have the in-built capability to be World Class darts players. It’s a skill (particularly in Now mode) and we learn it best (like most things) when young. Our Now Mode thinking is heavily influenced by our intuitions. I am no expert but it does look like intuition has two major components – instinct and learned reflexes.

    I suspect that one of my weaknesses – and a source for my Now Mode bias – is learned reflexes that I cannot throw off.

    I have, in a sense, an even bigger problem in Reflective Mode. I can reason that I have made decisions based on less than reasoned premises – for example; in the absence of facts. But even recognising that bias within my own thinking I cannot persuade myself that I made a bad decision.

    I suspect that this too is evolved. A harsh environment does not repay resources frittered away on activities – even if they come up with the best possible result: Evolution teaches us that ‘good enough’ is job done.

    Some people truly are able to act and interact spontaneously, but if we dig into the situation, even they are missing some aspect of what is currently going on.

    Yes, some people possess better thinking skills – certainly better than me.

    As a lifelong introvert, reflective, ruminator, I have come to realize that my habits, more than my “thoughts” about myself determine my life.

    Using my model, above, I would characterise that as: In Now Mode my intuitions direct my decisions – and I know them to be sub-standard. In Reflective Mode I can see that I spend more time deciding things by intuition than through reflection – and I can see that I make bad intuitive decisions!

    … what goes into a mind comes out in a life and the first few lines of the Dhammapada. In essence, this is true but thought is bunched into one package deal. (or attributed as coming from ONE SOURCE.).

    I see no way round that – other than other minds. Even then, we seek like minds – the term ‘birds of a feather flock together’ comes to mind.

    The difference is that there is a distinction between your thoughts and your perceptions along with your “reptilian brain” instincts, etc. Also what you let into your brain – knowledge, opinion, perception, observation, stimuli, etc. are all distinctive and need to be addressed separately as well as interactively.

    Yes, but all inputs are filtered by what the OP terms biases. Attempting to be open-minded, it is easy to see, is a life-long endeavour.

    I really would like to hear more research about the different types of thought we have and how we can make it work better for ourselves … speaking aloud forces jumbled up thoughts to focus … I think when some people get depressed (as I frequently do) we need to find another route around our thought processes by first being aware that they are occurring and then deciding to take a different action or approach.

    Self help is available 24/7, but is it always the best help. Seeking assistance is both a humble, and humbling, experience. This, I would argue, is the real key to counteracting biases. We see it, also, in the Scientific Method. Recognising that even a group of scientists may fool themselves, peer review is a continuous process.

    We can decide to see things through a different perspective, but then we need to find a way to cement and make this change permanent.

    I’m not convinced that my mind (the only one for which I have observed evidence) really works like that. I decide to change a decision only based on enough inputs – and of enough value. Even if a Doctor tells me I’m sick, I may ask for a second opinion. Two Doctors tell me I’m sick, and I lie down.

    If we are not striving for at least objective awareness, you can be certain that your views will absolutely color and interpret what you see to the shade of glasses you are wearing.

    Agreed. There are those who have the wherewithal to question their own perceptions – no matter how old and well confirmed they appear to be – and admit to their own prejudices. There are even some of us who will add the ability to see that all knowledge is subjective.

    One thing the OP missed, and which is important in overcoming bias, is creativity. We can all do it though, again, there appears to be some skill involved. I was very much struck by Edward de Bono’s perspective on creativity which he called parallel thinking. His books have fallen out of favour in recent years, but his model remains easy to engage and use. Also, unlike other thinking, creativity seems to be a factor within Reflection – by which I mean it’s only engaged if we want to engage it.

    This brings us to incentive. Being evolved to equate good enough with job done means some of us have to try very hard to engage Reflection at all – let alone the really hard parts like creativity, many-faceted evidence, or the possibility of corrupt minds (own or other). I don’t seem to have this particular trait, which, as I understand it, could be equated with a phenotype.

    Many of these “one source” aspects are different for each of us – and probably fit on continua (most mental activity seem to fall into this category). We each, therefore, think differently. It therefore seems to me that, whether employing Now or Reflective, reason and emotion are separate. I can be sanguine about my prospects of employment, yet depressed by my knowledge that the economy is pretty bad. The emotion that wins out is an output that does not have to tally with the activities I perform.

    I’m probably not explaining it very well.

    Peace.

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