I had a fascinating chat with Mark Earls yesterday in the vague sun of Holborn. Towards the end of our broad conversation we got onto the subject of Behavioural Economics, and Mark’s frustration that the entire field seems to be dominated by a meme that describes our human ability to shortcut processing (effectively Kahneman’s System 1) as a series of cognitive flaws, bugs in our brain computer. Mark’s view (and I realise now, mine too) is that our cognitive biases should be regarded as our strengths, not our weaknesses.

It’s a classic example of Nehemiah Jordan‘s observation that we should never compare humans to machines, because in doing do machines will always triumph. Humans do things that machines cannot, and will never, be able to do. By making the comparison we reduce ourselves to the limitations of the things machines can do, and so we always lose out.

The conceit of the “biases as bugs” worldview is centred around the idea that there is a knowable, “right” answer for every question. This is poppycock.

Many years ago as an undergraduate I majored in Sociology. Despite it’s reputation as a soft subject, it was actually rather hard to do well in because there was no way in which one could ever score 100%. There was never a perfectly right answer. As a result, I chose computing as my minor – an easy subject, to my view, because I could use the nice simple Bayesian world of computer logic to bump up my scores. I could deliver perfectly right answers.

But the idea of perfect answers to challenging problems is an alluring one. It seems easier than finding strategies that enable us to deal with consistent ambiguity. It’s an idea that appears people are putting a lot of effort into producing products for, like this one. Another example of how we might be forcing ourselves towards the Singularity of Stupidity.

One thought on “Cognitive strengths, not bias bugs

  1. Excellent point, Matt. Kahneman’s System 1 is characterised as lazy and erroneous thinking but in fact it an incredibly efficient way to use our brains. Timothy Gallway refers to Self 1 and Self 2 in his “Inner Game” sports coaching books and positions Self 1, the automatic actions, as a virtue, the means to achieve excellence (which is why sports people aim to ‘get in the zone’). The key is to have awareness of what state we are in and to remain curious about our environment. Also, I suggest, to question why we have reached out big decisions.

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