Overcoming Bias

The title of this post is ironic.  What is science/truth/knowledge if not picking one story over another, in other words, the creation of bias?  Hopefully the bias we create is useful and allows us to predict and create a future that is better (in some agreed upon sense) than the past.

To get to “better” we have to be able to change our minds when we get stuck on locally maximal peaks.  That’s why I love this post on the Rationally Speaking blog called How to Want to Change Your Mind.  The techniques are simple, but profound, and harder to put into practice than they seem.  Here they are in summary:

  • Divorce your belief from your self
  • Think of disagreements as collaborative, not adversarial
  • Visualize being wrong
  • Take the long view
  • Congratulate yourself on being objective, not on being right
  • If you can’t overcome your competitive instinct, re-direct it

To these, I will add some of my own:

  • Truly Listen – I am told that I am a good listener, but I am dismayed by how infrequently I truly listen, without judgment, and with compassion, to what people are saying.  Are you truly listening?
  • Resist the urge to interrupt – How can I be listening as deeply as possible if I’m spending some of my mental energy looking for an opening to interject?  If I have something to say in response, surely it can wait until a few seconds after you stop talking.
  • Ask how other person could be RIGHT – The habit of the scientist is to ask how things can be wrong; this is the hegemony of falsifiability.  Computers are the world champions of falsification (ask Kasparov).  This frees us humans up to do the creative part.  Isn’t that more fun than crunching symbols?
  • Ask why the other person believes what they do – If the answer is “they’re an idiot” then try again.  That’s not very creative.  Nor is it likely true.
  • Notice emotional reactions – Our mind-bodies know when something we hear resonates with our current biases or is in discord; the effect is emotion.  A negative emotion is a particularly good clue that there’s something interesting to explore…
  • Notice language – Empirically I’ve noticed that I use the second person (“you’re wrong”) when my argument doesn’t speak for itself.  When I’m confident about what I’m saying, I have no trouble using first person (“I think”, “I feel”), or use simple statement of fact without making it personal at all.
  • New models, no judgment –  There’s no harm in trying on new clothes, even if you decide to return them later.  What is harmful is trying on new pants and judging them without trying on the rest of the outfit first.  Hey, maybe you’ll be the belle of the ball if you give the new duds a chance…
  • Embrace Paradox – Paradox and dualisms are your clue that you’re outfit doesn’t match.  Do you really think that “light sometimes behaving like a particle and sometimes like a wave” is the end of the story?

Hat tip: Eric Brooks

  • kevindick

    I’d like to see some empirical evidence that this works. Surely some psychologist has tried some of these techniques in an experiment? I wonder what the outcome was on (a) finding the “truth” and (b) satisfaction with the process.

    These aren’t self-evidently superior. I for one find adversarial disagreement to be very productive as long as it’s respectful. When I feel threatened, I know I should assign more credence to the other person’s point of view. In fact, such an adversarial process was how my mind changed on Global Warming.

  • Rafe Furst

    Right, we are all different in our psychology so we will have different techniques that will work for us (and not work).

    The ones from the Rationally Speaking blog work for him. They all resonate with me except the last one: contrary to how it may appear, I am not so competitive.

    The list that I added are all ones that work for me personally.

    By having a comprehensive list (wiki?) anyone will be able find a set that helps them at any point in their life/career/research.

    FWIW, what you say about feeling threatened was what I was referring to in “Notice emotional reactions”.

    Also, FWIW, adversarial disagreement (respectful or not) is not my most productive way of interacting. I’m not sure exactly why yet.

  • kevindick

    It still think the “rational” approach would be to measure what “works” means in this context. Factoring this by personal psychology is fine with me.

    For example, given a Myers-Briggs type, it would be nice to know what sort of rationality practices typically produce the most learning, cooperation, happiness, etc. There’s a lot of commonality in personal psychologies.

    BTW, I know why adversarial works for me. In combat sports, you rely on your training partners to ruthlessly identify your weaknesses so that you can fix them. I guess I see respectfully arguing as working with a training partner. When you eat a couple of physical or rhetorical jabs, you know there’s a hole you better plug. But I’m probably a bit of a freak in this regard.

    • Alex Golubev

      Rafe, Kevin,
      It seems to me that Science 2.0 is an attempt to create a systemic approach to the hypothesis forming (as opposed to “testing”) space of discovery. I think they key part is “ask how other person could be RIGHT – The habit of the scientist is to ask how things can be wrong”. What is a systemic approach to asking how something else can be right? I think this has to do with language and overloading old terms from the last post, but what systemic ways do you know of and can you/we find?

  • Eric Brooks

    I would also describe myself as getting much befefit out of adversarial disagreement. However, if I were to expand on the original authors point I would say this doesn’t negate the theory that removal of your opinion from your being (depersonalizing it) isn’t necessarily superior. In a two person debate there is barely more than one person to inspect the reasoning at any one time. When we depersonalize our opinion we come closer to having two individuals who might now challenge that opinion. Likely, we also make our ‘opponent’ less adversarial and likely more rational in their thught process as well.

    I just hope it turns out to be as much fun:)

  • John L

    “What is science if not picking one story over another?”

    The stories of science represent an objective bias (globally accepted metrics and falsifications) whereas the stories of religion and philosophy represent subjective biases, and are fragmented into hundreds, if not thousands, of competitive ideological metrics.

    I really like this guy’s thinking and personally try to live in this “liminal” state of beginner’s / student’s mind, where everything I know could be wrong.

    On the other hand, I can’t abandon my collection of “universal certainties” gained over a lifetime of experience. But these are pretty simple, and are almost always mirrored in common law and common decency.

    I’m afraid, however, that the individuals and communities who most need to learn and embrace these anti-bias tools are the ones least likely to.

    Rafe, see you at DC10. Looks like I’ll be the 2nd oldest guy there :-)

  • Alex Golubev

    I bet this selection can offer some insights – Analytical Anarchism (via MR):


  • When does a bias or heuristic give you the right answer fast, and more accurately than deliberate reason?

    Why should we discard these heuristics?