Bias: the problem of misperception

As thinking being, even very smart ones, we are still subject to a variety of brain potholes ready to turn us off course. These are cognitive biases, that is, ways of thinking that fall into ruts which make it hard to see the truth. A bias could be described as an inclination towards a particular view. Well known biases are bigotry and chauvinism. While these are to be avoided, there are many to be considered.

Confirmation Bias is the tendency to believe a statement which supports your world view. For instance, an article explaining some technical reason why your favorite team is more likely to win than some other might be taken as well written and obviously correct when in actuality, it leaves out many important details which might paint a different picture, details which you might see as missing if the article were written to favor the other team.

A bias to antiquity would lead one to believe that an older thing is better than a newer thing. This can be fed by experiences which would seem to confirm this idea, such as the wisdom of an older person, or a tool made to a higher standard which is an older style. Obviously, it’s the higher standard, and not the age which makes it a better tool. Equally, a bias to newness leads one to favor newer things on the basis that they are perhaps built with modern materials or improved techniques. These biases have something in common: they place value on a secondary state which appears to collect desirable features, rather than putting the value on the features themselves.

This is, in itself, a deep bias, to what you know. In order for one to deal with fast moving circumstances, one develops rules of thumb, which compress the evaluation phase of change. This ability is actually quite important, in that fast evaluation might literally save your life, if danger is immanent. As well, they make life a bit easier, since they allow you to make reasonable decisions in a timely manner. For instance, it’s reasonable to get the same spaghetti sauce you always get if you are still enjoying it. Your shopping would take a great deal more time if you had to attempt to research your potential choices every time you needed more food.

The problem lies with inadequate data, and unexplored situations. Biases keep us from noticing important changes. Maybe the spaghetti sauce has added an ingredient which is bad for you. Perhaps that magazine you eschewed years ago has a new staff, and a new outlook. Even worse is when you view a situation, and decide that your old tools will help, but your cognitive bias hides the mismatch, and task is attempted with the wrong tool, causing grief. To fight against these problems, we must do two things:

  1. Learn about cognitive biases: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases
  2. Decide, for each situation, when the appropriate time is for a reexamination of the situation.
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