Cognitive Bias and Education as a Public Good

A strange but true exhortation from Dan Kahneman, the guy who, with Amos Tversky, basically invented the field of cognitive bias. After forty years of looking into the weird world of bias he says the only effective way to get around your own biases is to create a society of people skilled enough to correct you:

From the end of Thinking, Fast and Slow:

What can be done about biases? How can we improve judgments and decisions, both our own and those of the institutions that we serve and that serve us? The short answer is that little can be achieved without a considerable investment of effort. As I know from experience, System 1 is not readily educable. Except for some effects that I attribute mostly to age, my intuitive thinking is just as prone to overconfidence, extreme predictions, and the planning fallacy as it was before I made a study of these issues. I have improved only in my ability to recognize situations in which errors are likely: “This number will be an anchor…,” “The decision could change if the problem is reframed…” And I have made much more progress in recognizing the errors of others than my own.

The way to block errors that originate in System 1 is simple in principle: recognize the signs that you are in a cognitive minefield, slow down, and ask for reinforcement from System 2. This is how you will proceed when you next encounter the Müller-Lyer illusion. When you see lines with fins pointing in different directions, you will recognize the situation as one in which you should not trust your impressions of length. Unfortunately, this sensible procedure is least likely to be applied when it is needed most. We would all like to have a warning bell that rings loudly whenever we are about to make a serious error, but no such bell is available, and cognitive illusions are generally more difficult to recognize than perceptual illusions. The voice of reason may be much fainter than the loud and clear voice of an erroneous intuition, and questioning your intuitions is unpleasant when you face the stress of a big decision. More doubt is the last thing you want when you are in trouble. The upshot is that it is much easier to identify a minefield when you observe others wandering into it than when you are about to do so. Observers are less cognitively busy and more open to information than actors. That was my reason for writing a book that is oriented to critics and gossipers rather than to decision makers.

Emphasis mine.

I think this is a pretty interesting way of thinking about education as a public good. Think of training in critical thinking or quantitative reasoning like CPR training — the person you are most likely to help with it is not yourself but somebody else. The most important role may be that of the informed observer, because, as Kahneman observes, what keeps us on track best is not our own abilities, but a culture of critical thought.

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