Overcoming bias in others

by homunq1 min read12th Aug 201115 comments

11

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Say that you are observing someone in a position of power. You have good reason to believe that this person is falling prey to a known cognitive bias, and that this will tend to affect you negatively. You also can tell that the person is more than intelligent enough to understand their mistake, if they were motivated to do so. You have an opportunity to say one thing to the person - around 500 words of argument. They will initially perceive you as a low-status member of their own tribe. The power differential is extreme enough that, after they have attended this one thing, they will never pay any attention to you again. What can you do to best disrupt their bias?

This is clearly a setup where the odds are against you. Still, what kind of strategies would give you the best odds? I've deliberately made the situation vague, so as to emphasize abstract strategies. If certain strategies would work best against certain biases or personality types, feel free to state it in your answer.

I'm making this a post of its own because I find here much more discussion of how to overcome or subvert your own biases, somewhat less of how to recruit rationalists, and almost none of how to try to overcome a specific bias in another person without necessarily converting them into a committed rationalist overall.

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No way to disrupt a bias that quickly. Moreover, s/he will never read 500 words from "a low-status member of their own tribe". Here is one classic strategy that gives you a fighting chance.

You have about 30 seconds of attention (hence the elevator pitch metaphor) to present your verbal or written argument. You cannot hope to disrupt their bias in 30 seconds, so you shoot for something else: more attention, maybe some face time. Again, forget about disrupting biases for the moment. You have to become a sales person for an instant and make a difficult sale with the odds stacked heavily against you.

Now your task is reduced to the standard elevator pitch formula:

  • a hook (a one-liner that grabs attention),
  • a simple but passionate statement of potential benefits to your audience of one,
  • a concise and catchy summary followed by a request/offer/promise that is too intriguing to refuse outright.

The details and variations are all over the net and in a bunch of popular TV shows.

From personal experience: busy high-level executives don't read past the subject line of your email, unless they are hooked (i.e. if you are a low-level underling, they don't normally click to open your email), so your hook absolutely must be in the subject line.

Now, suppose you win some face time (your status is temporarily elevated to that of a person worth spending 5 min on). What do you do then? Stay tuned for the next installment of... Changing Minds!

P.S. I have intentionally structured this comment using the elevator pitch format. The first 20-30 characters of this message is all that appears on the right in the RECENT COMMENTS section, so I tried to plant my hook there. Whether I have succeeded or not, we will see shortly -- feedback is most welcome!

The second paragraph hooked me much better than the first paragraph did. I have a strong bias to ignore hooks without any interesting bait on them, though :)

Agreed - I was mildly interested with the first line, much more interested with the second paragraph. I'd condense it to:

No way do you have 500 words. You have about 30 seconds. Forget about disrupting biases for a moment - you are a salesperson making a difficult sale with the odds stacked heavily against you. Your goal is to obtain more attention and face time.

(Long winded communication is a problem of mine, which I should be doing more to correct)

Some changes to tighten it up a bit. Wiggle words aren't good hooks, and they rarely add useful information content:

You don't get 500 words. You get 30 seconds. Forget about disrupting biases - you are a salesperson making a difficult sale with the odds stacked heavily against you. Your goal is to obtain more attention and face time.

Also re-arranged the flow somewhat in the third and fourth sentences, but I think that's iffier:

You don't get 500 words. You get 30 seconds. Forget about disrupting biases - your goal is to obtain more attention and face time. You are a salesperson making a difficult sale with the odds stacked heavily against you.

Very interesting. Thanks for the comments! I apologize to homunq for unintentionally hijacking the post.

You cannot hope to disrupt their bias in 30 seconds, so you shoot for something else...

Double tap to the center of mass?

Practically certain to counterproductive, unless you're talking about your own center of mass and combining it with further strategies, in which case it's only virtually certain to be counterproductive.

You may have been joking, but apparently homunq is open to your idea, according to his reply.

You're thinking business. It's politics. Thus, crazier-looking strategies — say, an associated hunger strike; not a suggestion, just an example — are allowable and justified, but you still only get 500 words. In particular, you do not care about any loss of status if you fail. Also, low-probability impacts — anything > one in a thousand chance — are still worth it.

As for "they'll never read 500 words", assume that that problem is resolved. You have elevator time or at least a guarantee that they will read through your pitch.

Even thinking about this just seems wrong to me. That just will not work. Perhaps we could consider what the least futile 500 words could be. Or the 500 words that are least likely to result in a drastic backfire.

Perhaps consider saying 500 words about the political leader's bias to the powerful figure's greatest rival. That has the greatest chance of inducing change. With other unintended consequences to be expected. :)

Luke: Is the dark side stronger?

Yoda: No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.

Quicker you say, master Yoda? Very well then! A 500 word limit sounds designed for the dark arts.

OK, go for it. What dark arts can you use from a position of vastly lower status? That of course includes any which would give a temporary massive inflation to your perceived status.

That seems even more context dependent than regular persuasion, hopelessly so for trying to generalize.

Fair enough. So just imagine a specific example, however arbitrary, so we get the idea.

I don't have an enlightening answer, but I love the question. Is there a particular "specific bias" you want to target?