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Our cognitive biases and us

  1. Jan 25, 2012 #1
    Suppose for a moment, that we knew all of our cognitive biases and that we could always control them and avoid them.

    The question is, should we do it?

    For example, it has been shown that overconfidence is an advantageous trait for a competitive environment:


    therefore it is not so clear that we may want to get rid of all of them! I always thought that it's better to be as rational and objective as possible in life (and in competition) but now I'm not sure...

    Any ideas?
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  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 25, 2012 #2


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    Hey Constantinos and welcome to the forums.

    One question that you might want to ask yourself is if everybody knew all of this information then would they decide to act on it?

    For example you could try and tell people with weight issues that they are not eating healthy and people with drug dependence that drugs are ruining their life but will that change their behaviour?

    It's one thing to have awareness in the way you are describing about ones-self and it is another issue entirely for people to do something about it.
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  4. Jan 26, 2012 #3
    Thanks! Although I've been around for a while :P

    That's what I'm asking really.

    I guess not. But these people have a (physical or psychological) dependence on the substances they abuse. But if you ask them whether they *should* change their behavior is independent from whether they *can*. Probably the addict would answer yes and no respectively

    Of course! No doubt about that. But in order to do something about a situation, first you have to be aware of it.

    Perhaps a better question would be, whether we should recognize our cognitive biases as problems or not.

    And I'm mostly referring to things like remembering only the things that suit us, or forgetting hurtful situations or overconfidence. Not so much on dependence.
  5. Jan 26, 2012 #4


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    For overconfidence, the easiest way to cure that is throw someone in the deep-end or challenge them in any way.

    Many people that have an aura of confidence aren't really confident. If you put them in a situation where they can bs their way out of it, then you will see some serious ****. Also I don't advocate making a mockery of someone in this state, but just reminding them that the world is hard, life is hard, and that if you think can take the heat then tone down a bit, keep a clear head and start cooking.

    Also if a person was able to handle every single challenge that was thrown to them from everyone, then they probably deserve a little confidence.

    I think some traits like arrogance can be seperated from confidence. I would like the world to be confident without the traits like arrogance and the view that they can do whatever the hell they want to. Also I would like real confidence and not false confidence. Real confidence means that people are not willing to say that they don't know what they are talking about! That is real confidence: having the guts to tell people that you actually don't know something!

    The thing is that people with this mindsight are the ones that go out and learn and get experience. The ones that really have no idea don't learn and just put on a facade and that is a very important thing to be aware of. Remember that a leader is not someone that tells everyone what to do the whole time: leaders have to follow as well when they are out of their depth.

    As for hurtful situations or painful situations again I have a different take.

    People need pain. This goes hand in hand with the confidence issue. If they have no pain or no worries some people think they are bulletproof and can do whatever the hell they want. Pain teaches us many lessons in many ways: it gives us empathy for one.

    Also pain usually builds character. People that have ostracized and ridiculed who come out with a good moral compass and a clear head are going to be way more prepared for lifes challenges than the people that do not. We are dealt with experiences and it is in our collective interest to try and make sense of them in a variety of ways. We can use any experience both good and bad to learn lessons and teach other people and this is what many people do.

    Also pain can be a good way to gain empathy if you treat the experience in the right context. It also helps some people become better people themselves since they know how pain feels and they don't wish others to feel the same way.

    As for the things that suit us part, people will always believe what they want to. You can't tell people what to believe. If someone thinks the sky is orange, the world is a cube and pigs fly then that is their right to do so.

    All you can do is engage in debate with other people, but don't do it because you want to prove to the world how right you really are. Many people still do that and have missed the point completely resulting in god knows how much tragedy and backwardness. If you want to inform people, debate and discuss something that is fine but everyone no matter how backward or troubled they are has the right to think what they think as long as they don't violate basic human rights.

    A lot of people that want to change themselves will ultimately do so. Theres a great saying that Gerald Celente says that goes along the lines of "When the student is ready, the teacher appears" and I agree wholeheartedly with this. You can help people that are ready and people do this every day, but don't think that you know best for everyone else.
  6. Jan 26, 2012 #5


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    People are not completely rational, so being rational actually requires taking into account that irrationality and responding to it on its own terms.

    For example, if a friend/girlfriend starts to cry because they lost an object they had an emotional attachment to, trying to explain that it was just an object and they should be rational about it and not cry is the wrong approach. That's you trying to make them be rational and a rational person should know that you can't turn an irrational situation into a rational one. So the rational response really is to embrace the irrationality of the situation and comfort the person.

    Now this is useful for me as a man and an engineer in dealing with women, but taken too far as to have no emotion at all and to fake emotion, that might make one a sociopath.
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  7. Jan 26, 2012 #6

    Ivan Seeking

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    When is confidence, overconfidence? Perhaps one factor is that no amount of objectivity can determine one's limits in all cases. When limits can only be determined by trial and error, only those who risk exceeding their known limits can discover new ones.

    Translation: Sometimes, you'll never know until you try.
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  8. Jan 26, 2012 #7


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    It's overconfidence when you're wrong. That's also the boundary between confidence and arrogance.
  9. Jan 26, 2012 #8
    Certain biases help us go through life more smoothly, and if I was aware of them all (biases I held) and had complete control over them, I would use the biases in certain situations and refrain from using biases in other situations that weren't as advantageous for the bias.
  10. Jan 27, 2012 #9
    A cyclone or hurricane is a popular Asian metaphor for the human psyche. Around the calm center of the storm fly all our beliefs in an endless cacophony as they crash into each other and sometimes even level everything in their path. If we clutch onto one we get drawn into the storm and completely disoriented. However, all we ever need do is let go and we'll find ourselves back in the calm center where we can easily watch all those beliefs and know them for what they are.

    Harmony neither acts nor reasons;
    Love acts, but without reason;
    Justice acts to serve reason;
    But habit acts to enforce reason.
    When the Way is lost, there remains harmony;
    When harmony is lost, there remains love;
    When love is lost, there remains justice;
    But when justice is lost, there remains habit.
    Habits are the end of compassion and honesty,
    The beginning of confusion;
    Lao Tzu
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  11. Jan 27, 2012 #10
    Good post! I can especially identify with the last things you said about people believing what they want to believe and what should be done about. Also when beginning a debate, one should also keep an open mind and be ready to change his mind. Trying to convince is not the only reason to enter a debate, changing your own mind is also one.

    Ultimately, it is difficult to change peoples minds by just talking to them. Their opinions are shaped by the many books/papers/magazines/ they have read and what other experiences they might have lived. That's too much information! A simple exchange of words is too little information to change what opinion one might already have. But it can initiate a change of mind. For example after I discuss with a religious person on whether god exists, I will go on to give him some of my arguments against it and he will give his arguments for it. I don't expect my or his mind to be changed by that. But hopefully it may make me start to doubt my opinion a bit and seek to read about the arguments of the opposite side, If not to change my opinion, to strengthen my current arguments. Hopefully he will do the same.

    It seems that your opinion is to hold some biases and "cure" others in a per-case basis and not to see it black and white. That's cool.
  12. Jan 27, 2012 #11
    Hmm maybe you're pointing out here something that I might be doing wrong! I have been in the situation you are describing before, and I did just that, I tried to tell her that it's just an object and people shouldn't be sad on losing objects. But you are saying the rational thing to do would be to comfort her.

    I'm not sure. You are right in that, if she was happy about scoring in an exam, I should show joy too (which I don't do), even if I know that it is just an exam, because feeling happy about it can be constructive for her (that feel may make her want to do so in other exams!). Anger can be constructive too sometimes. But how can pain over losing something be constructive? How can psychological pain or sadness be constructive in any situation? In such a case, it seems much more constructive to point out the irrationality of the situation so as to avoid it in the future, rather than be part of it. I just don't see how being sad can help in anything.

    Also you seem to advocate that you can't turn an irrational situation to a rational one. Why?

    Life without emotion? What would that person be living for then? I can't really conceive why one would keep on living without having some prospect of feeling at least some sort of pleasure and do so willingly.
  13. Jan 27, 2012 #12
    Well, you never know indeed! But if you have a 90% chance to fail, overconfidence is not the way to go!

    This reminds me of the entrepreneurial mindset in high-tech. People who are not confident in their new enterprise seem to fail 100% of the time. Always thinking that you will make it, even against impossible odds(which is a kind of overconfidence), is a requirement if you want to succeed. Chances are slim. In the end, some make it, and start believing that hard work and confidence is what brought them here and spread this belief around. In reality, they are just the statistical outliers. Where they succeeded, 9 others failed before them and they had the same mindset.
  14. Jan 27, 2012 #13
    That would be optimal I think! But it sounds tricky to achieve.

    First of all, you would risk being inconsistent with yourself. Also this inconsistency might be spotted by other people, then they wouldn't be able to trust your beliefs. Also, in trying to hide this inconsistency, you may be obliged to go against this method.

    For example, imagine getting very happy when you scored high in an exam. That pretty much suits you, because it might give you motivation to be better in the future.

    But the next time you fail, it would be in your best interest to just view it as a stupid exam and move on. That would create problems. First, people might think that since you were very happy before for achieving, you ought to be sad now for failing. Even if you aren't, and even if you don't show it, people will misunderstand you and treat you differently although they won't talk about it. Then, when you ask yourself what is it that you truly believe about the significance of one exam, then what would the answer be?

    It does seem possible to achieve what you are describing, but it certainly takes an intelligent individual to pull it off! One would need to think differently in so many levels, like what reality is, what to think it is, what to show other people and somehow manage not to be inconsistent about it!
  15. Jan 27, 2012 #14


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    For the first part, that's as good a definition as any, but I think the second is way off.

    Because of the fact that confidence affects performance, having a high level of confidence is beneficial. Arrogance is a separate issue, related only in that you can't be negative and arrogant. But I'd never call a terminal cancer patient arrogant for staying positive, for example.
  16. Jan 27, 2012 #15
    I think that confidence and the projected ability to do physical violence will get you further, in many situations, than rationality and objectivity. But, in order to make good decisions, rational and objective thinking is important. So, imho, it's important to be as rational and objective as possible, while at the same time maximizing, and effectively communicating, your ability to do violence.
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  17. Jan 27, 2012 #16


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    You're missing the point. The goal is to make the person feel less pain, right? So you should do whatever makes them feel less pain. If they can't be convinced that their pain is wrong, then comforting them will do a better job of reducing the pain -- and it also helps prevent blow-back, since trying to convince them their pain is wrong is an argument and starting an argument will make them re-direct some of that pain toward you.
    Ever been accused of trying to be an armchair psychologist? You don't want that either. You are very unlikely to be able to change the way another person's brain works, so it is best not to try.
    Sometimes maybe you can, but many times you can't. Knowing when you can and can't is difficult, but an important skill.

    Sometimes this can get you into a no-win situation, and so far I haven't figured out how to deal with that. For example, I recently replaced my girlfriend's license plate for her. She had started trying to do it herself, but she didn't have the right tool and was approaching it in a way that just plain couldn't possibly work (turning a bolt that had a nut behind it, so the nut just spun with the bolt). I saw the problem and tried to explain it to her, but she was more upset about me telling her her approach was wrong than she was happy that I fixed the problem for her (and I even offered that maybe her approach worked before: the bolts were not the original bolts). If you can figure out how to deal with that one, let me know!
  18. Jan 27, 2012 #17
    Wouldn't I have more control over my reactions? Biases lead to a certain type of reaction in case of 'x' event occurring, and with that being aware of on my part, wouldn't I have equal control over my reactions to situations? And wouldn't that lead me to behaving more consistent than inconsistent?

    So in the case of the exam, I get an A on exam 1, my reaction is usually one of non-reaction as I am not much of an emotional person, but we can assume I am jumping up for joy. Next exam, F (person asks what I received, I tell them), now my bias would be to say "dumb outline on the exam, poorly written questions", now that I know the bias of what I'd normally do in such a situation, if I react in a manner say, telling the person, "I need to study differently and better as I was overly confident because of the first exam", be more logical?

    I'd still have total control over the bias, but people will get why I jumped up for joy on the first exam and not the second. I wouldn't be necessarily sad rather more concerned with my approach, and wouldn't people find that I am more honest in that I attribute my own failures onto myself instead of placing the failure on my part onto another?
  19. Jan 27, 2012 #18


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    Some cognitive biases are important to our mental stability and functional society.
  20. Jan 27, 2012 #19
    Some biases seemingly help us as far as we know, but that doesn't mean that the specific biased used in the situation is optimal for that situation.
  21. Jan 27, 2012 #20
    I've found that this often results in a bit of cognative dissonance. For instance a very competitive friend of mine would lose at some game and simply decide, "I don't really care about that game anyway." He had other similar reactions for other situations. The one time I was able to beat him continuously at "his own game" he became very angry and pretty much challenged me to a fist fight. I believe his rationale was that it did not matter if I could beat him at a game so long as he could otherwise out do me in some other capacity.
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