Wednesday, May 14, 2008

living with cognitive bias

There are few things scarier to an individual than losing the capacity to think. Alzheimer's disease is heart-breaking, as individuals' capacity to mentally engage the world drowns in increasing levels of bewildering uncertainty.

Yet few are concerned with exploring how their own brain works, and how it can be made to work better in hope of inching a few steps closer to the shore of understanding.

I haven't been particularly interested. I knew the cliches about your brain being a muscle, and agreed that even if given all the information in the world, some people just lack in mental chops. I came to equate brainpower with natural ability and hard work. I paid no regard to form -- or working "smart"-- yet anyone who has swam in a pool knows you can have all the ability in the world and splash like crazy, but your achievement depends on your understanding of how you swim.

The natural reaction is panic, an instinct as ill-suited for water as quicksand. This predisposition -- evidence of a more broad cognitive bias -- sabotages one's efforts to swim, and indeed survive.

How these cognitive biases can submarine our thinking, specifically with regards to man's efforts to help others, is the subject of this post.

The story of how I came to focus on cognitive biases may very well be case study #1920812 in their effects. After years of study (in young-people time), I began to recognize a pattern in thinking and policy that failed to heed any liberal/conservative distinction. I tried to isolate the causal variables of this mischievous pattern on the macro level, but failed. The logical disconnects (to use a term I once hated, but alas...) were everywhere.

Not the usual kind either; it wasn't the deliberate misrepresentation of facts or outright lying. It was sincere, complex, intellectual, but also, irrational. In attempting to identify the disease, I managed only to flail wildly at the symptoms, confusing one of my few readers to the point of distraction.

My dad mentioned heuristics and on exploring the topic, I came across cognitive bias. I was aware of the term, but it didn't mean much to me. On reflection, I noted that Bryan Caplan's book, "The Myth of the Rational Voter," dealt with the notion of cognitive biases. Caplan identified four biases, "anti-market, anti-foreign, pessimism, and make-work," which he contended drove individuals to vote irrationally in a systematic (and thereby destructive) manner. Caplan is interested in cognitive bias as an independent and detrimental factor in public choice.

I won't explore these biases directly, as they aren't exactly what I'm interested in. I will explore the role of cognitive biases in "doing good" (I am open to suggestion for a change in scope, however).

Cognitive biases make a boring nemesis for the do-gooder (and by extension, have seen relatively little academic treatment.) It is far more exciting to perceive of the do-gooder as an clever underdog, held back by the selfish and greedy who will one day be undone and the the do-gooder will be free to do the good deed. I will look into how the do-gooder can be his own worst enemy, and how understanding revelant cognitive biases can empower the do-gooder to do "better."

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