Memorizing Lists of Cognitive Biases Won't Help

From the Twitters, by me.

What’s the cognitive bias that explains why someone would think having a list of 200 cognitive biases bookmarked would make them any better at thinking?

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Screenshot of tweet encouraging people to read a list of 200 biases to be a better thinker.

(It literally says it’s “to help you remember” 200+ biases. Two hundred! LOL, critical thinking boosters are hilarious)

 I should be clear — biases are a great way to look at certain issues *after* the fact, and it’s good to know that you’re biased. Our own methods look pretty deeply at certain types of bias and try to design methods that route around them, or use them to advantage.

But if you want to change your own behavior, memorizing long lists of biases isn’t going to help you. If anything it’s likely to just become another weapon in your motivated reasoning arsenal. You can literally read the list of biases to see why reading the list won’t work. 

The alternate approach, ala Simon/Gigerenzer, is to see “biases” not as failings but as useful rules of thumb that are inapplicable in certain circumstances, and push people towards rules of thumb that better suit the environment. 

As an example, salience bias — paying more attention to things that are prominent or emotionally striking — is a pretty useful behavior in most circumstances, particularly in personal life or local events. 

It falls apart partly because in larger domains – city, state, country – there’s more emotional and striking events than you can count, which means you can be easily manipulated through selection, and because larger problems often are not tied to the most emotional events. 

Does that mean we should throw away our emotional reaction as a guide altogether? Ignore things that are more prominent? Not use emotion as any indication of what to pay attention to?

Not at all. Instead we need to think carefully about how to make sure the emotion and our methods/environment work *together*. 

Reading that list of biases may start with “I will not be fooled,” but it probably ends with some dude telling you family separation at the border isn’t a problem because “it’s really the salience effect at work”. 

TL;DR: biases aren’t wholly bad, and the flip side of a bias is a useful heuristic. Instead of thinking about biases and eliminating them, think about applying the right heuristics to the right sorts of problems, and organizing your environment in such a way that the heuristics don’t get hacked.

The Stigmergic Myth of Social Media, or Why Thinking About Radicalization Without Thinking About Radicalizers Doesn't Work.

One of the founding myths of internet culture, and particularly web culture, is the principle of stigmergy.

This will sound weird, but stigmergy is about ant behavior. Basically, ants do various things to try to accomplish objectives (e.g. get food to nest) but rather than a command and control structure to coordinate they use pheromones, or something like pheromones. (My new goal is to write shorter, quicker blog posts this year, and that means not spiraling into my usually obsession with precision. So let’s just say something like pheromones. Maybe actually pheromones. You get the point.)

So, for example, ants wander all over, and they are leaving maybe one scent, but they go and find the Pringle crumbs and as they come back with the food they leave another scent. A little scent trail. And then other ants looking for Pringles stumble over that scent trail and they follow it to the Pringle crumbs. And then all those ants leave a scent as they come back with their Pringle crumbs, and what happens over time is the most productive paths have the best and strongest smell.

If you think this smells very E. O. Wilson, it is. But it’s not just E. O. Wilson. This stuff was everywhere in the 1990s. Take “desire paths”, which was a metaphor I first heard when I landed in the middle of the dot com explosion. The story goes some university somewhere doesn’t build paths when they first put up the buildings. Instead, they wait for the first snow, and see where the tracks between the buildings come out. And where the tracks fall they put the paths. Another one talked about the worness of objects as an indicator. And in my first meeting with a MediaLab grad in 1999 (who’d been hired as a consultant for the educational software company I worked for) he described to me his major project: Patina, a web site whose pages showed visible signs of wear they more they were read.

This stuff was everywhere in the 1990s, and when Web 2.0 came around it was the founding mythology. I swear, unless you were around then, you have no idea how this cluster of metaphors formed the thinking of Silicon Valley. You really don’t.

And like a lot of mythologies, there’s a lot of truth to it. When I say myth, I don’t mean it’s wrong. It’s a good way to think about a lot of things. I have built (and will continue to build) a lot of projects around these principles.

But it’s also a real hindrance when we talk about disinfo and bad actors. Because the general idea in the Stigmergic Myth is that uncoordinated individual action is capable of expressing a representative collective consciousness. And in that case all we have to do is set up a system of signals that truly capture that collective or consensus intent.

But none of the founding myths — ants and Pringles, Swedish college desire paths, or even Galton’s ox weighing — deal with opposing, foundational interests. And opposing interests change everything. There isn’t a collective will or consciousness to express.

Faced with this issue, Web 2.0 doubled down. The real issue was the signals were getting hacked. And that’s absolutely true. There was a lot of counterfeit pheromone about, and getting rid of that was crucial. Don’t discount that.

But the underlying reality was never addressed. In areas where cooperation and equality prevails, the Stigmergic Myth is useful. But in areas of conflict and inequality, it can be a real hindrance to understanding what is going on. It can be far less less an expression of collective will or desire than other less distributed approaches, and while fixing the signals and the system is crucial, it’s worth asking if the underlying myth is holding our understanding back.

A New Year's Eve Activity (and a New Year's Day Wish)

I made a short video showing a New Year’s Eve Activity around SIFT, and getting serious for a minute with a New Year’s Day wish.

I don’t know how many people know this about me, but I actually study misinfo/disinfo pretty deeply, outside of my short videos on how to do quick checks. If anything, I probably spend too much time keeping up with the latest social science, cognitive theory, network analysis, etc. on the issue.

But scholarship and civic action are different. Action to me is like Weber’s politics, the slow drilling of hard boards, taking passion and perspective. You figure out where you can make a meaningful difference. You find where the cold hard reality of where we are intersects with a public’s desire to make things better. And then you drill.

It’s been three long exhausting years since I put out Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers, and over a decade since I got into civic digital literacies. I’m still learning, still adapting. And still drilling.

Happy New Year, everyone. And thanks to everyone that has helped me on this weird, weird, journey.