Am I wrong?

April 13, 2007

Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist, won a Noble Prize in Economics for his work detailing common human errors in cognition. That is, he lists the various ways in which humans are remarkably stupid. Most of the comments concerning my previous tongue-in-cheek post about transmission rates for AIDS reveal the startling limitations in how people think. Many people dismissed the numbers immediately because it didn’t agree with their preconceptions. This is a very important cognitive error called confirmation bias, which may have pushed America in to the Iraq war. The Bush administration would swallow information about WMDs uncritically, but they would deny any contradictory information. This problem is also discussed in How Doctors Think. This bias becomes more pronounced when the person is forced to defend their position. People hate to admit they are wrong. Therefore, they will twist the facts to win the argument. Again, you can see this in any debate, especially the Iraq war. It’s better to abort an argument once you realize the other person has stepped into one of these cognitive errors. They don’t care about the right answer anymore, they only want to win.

I obsess over these cognitive errors. I’m constantly wondering, am I wrong? Did I make a stupid mistake? To combat this I follow a few steps when thinking about important topics. First, if I feel like my position is completely right, then I make a determined effort at playing Devil’s advocate against my position to shake out errors. Smug self-confidence makes me nervous. Second, I think in terms of probabilities rather than certainties (Robert Rubin says the same thing in his book). You can’t know if something will happen, but you can give it a rough probability (odds of rain tomorrow are 1/4). You assign a guesstimate to every step in your argument, multiply them together and get a final probability. If I were smarter I’d use Bayes’ Rule to think in terms of conditional probabilities. Third, think about falsifiability, i.e. what new info would force you to reconsider your position? For example, if Bush were told there were no WMDs in Iraq, would he still have attacked? Finally, make an effort to gather more info, especially opposing points of views. By acknowledging and carefully managing our human tendency to make these common cognitive errors, we can make better – though not always correct – decisions.


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