What cognitive biases feel like from the inside

by chaosmage 1 min read3rd Jan 202013 comments


Building on the recent SSC post Why Doctors Think They’re The Best...

Why this is better than how we usually talk about biases

Communication in abstracts is very hard. (See: Illusion of Transparency: Why No One Understands You) Therefore, it often fails. (See: Explainers Shoot High. Aim Low!) It is hard to even notice communication has failed. (See: Double Illusion of Transparency) Therefore it is hard to appreciate how rarely communication in abstracts actually succeeds.

Rationalists have noticed this. (Example) Scott Alexander uses a lot of concrete examples and that should be a major reason why he’s our best communicator. Eliezer’s Sequences work partly because he uses examples and even fiction to illustrate. But when the rest of us talk about rationality we still mostly talk in abstracts.

For example, this recent video was praised by many for being comparatively approachable. And it does do many things right, such as emphasize and repeat that evidence alone should not generate probabilities, but should only ever update prior probabilities. But it still spends more than half of its runtime displaying mathematical notation that no more than 3% of the population can even read. For the vast majority of people, only the example it uses can possibly “stick”. Yet the video uses its single example as no more than a means for getting to the abstract explanation.

This is a mistake. I believe a video with three to five vivid examples of how to apply Bayes’ Theorem, preferably funny or sexy ones, would leave a much more lasting impression on most people.

Our highly demanding style of communication correctly predicts that LessWrongians are, on average, much smarter, much more STEM-educated and much younger than the general population. You have to be that way to even be able to drink the Kool Aid! This makes us homogeneous, which is probably a big part of what makes LW feel tribal, which is emotionally satisfying. But it leaves most of the world with their bad decisions. We need to be Raising the Sanity Waterline and we can’t do that by continuing to communicate largely in abstracts.

The tables above show one way to do better that does the following.

  • It aims low - merely to help people notice the flaws in their thinking. It will not, and does not need to, enable readers to write scientific papers on the subject.
  • It reduces biases into mismatches between Inside View and Outside View. It lists concrete observations from both views and juxtaposes them.
  • These observations are written in a way that is hopefully general enough for most people to find they match their own experiences.
  • It trusts readers to infer from these juxtaposed observations their own understanding of the phenomena. After all, generalizing over particulars is much easier than integrating generalizations and applying them to particulars. The understanding gained this way will be imprecise, but it has the advantage of actually arriving inside the reader’s mind.
  • It is nearly jargon free; it only names the biases for the benefit of that small minority who might want to learn more.

What do you think about this? Should we communicate more concretely? If so, should we do it in this way or what would you do differently?

Would you like to correct these tables? Would you like to propose more analogous observations or other biases?

Thanks to Simon, miniBill and others for helping with the draft of this post.