Friday, June 22, 2012

Smart People (You and Me) are Stupid

A recent provocative article from the New Yorker begins:
Here’s a simple arithmetic question: A bat and ball cost a dollar and ten cents. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? The vast majority of people respond quickly and confidently, insisting the ball costs ten cents. This answer is both obvious and wrong. (The correct answer is five cents for the ball and a dollar and five cents for the bat.)
Or try this one:
West and his colleagues began by giving four hundred and eighty-two undergraduates a questionnaire featuring a variety of classic bias problems. Here’s a example: In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake? Your first response is probably to take a shortcut, and to divide the final answer by half. That leads you to twenty-four days. But that’s wrong. The correct solution is forty-seven days.
Our first mistake is too assume the human beings are rational. We should start from the premise that human beings are lazy (Yes, I am talking about you, and I am talking about me).
When people face an uncertain situation, they don’t carefully evaluate the information or look up relevant statistics. Instead, their decisions depend on a long list of mental shortcuts, which often lead them to make foolish decisions. These shortcuts aren’t a faster way of doing the math; they’re a way of skipping the math altogether. Asked about the bat and the ball, we forget our arithmetic lessons and instead default to the answer that requires the least mental effort.
My son calls it the “slacker syndrome.” The first step to learning to make good decisions is to humbly acknowledge that deep down we are all slackers. The smarter we are, the more stupidly we decide, like the super-smart guy who thinks everyone else is an idiot, but HE can time the stock market.
...smarter people are more vulnerable to these thinking errors...intelligence seems to make things worse. The scientists gave the students four measures of “cognitive sophistication.” As they report in the paper, all four of the measures showed positive correlations, “indicating that more cognitively sophisticated participants showed larger bias blind spots.”....
Okay, now that I know I am prone to this weakness (maybe the next time a job interviewer asks me about my number one weakness, I should admit that I am stupid....mmm...maybe not), I can use this new-found self awareness to avoid it in the future. Think again.
...“people who were aware of their own biases were not better able to overcome them.”...
Even worse, we all tend to think of ourselves more highly than we ought.
Perhaps our most dangerous bias is that we naturally assume that everyone else is more susceptible to thinking errors, a tendency known as the “bias blind spot.” This “meta-bias” is rooted in our ability to spot systematic mistakes in the decisions of others—we excel at noticing the flaws of friends—and inability to spot those same mistakes in ourselves.
Wow, that sounds like a modern version of old advise from Jesus.
"Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:4)
Education and self-awareness do not work because the meta-cognition is not available.
The problem with this introspective approach is that the driving forces behind biases—the root causes of our irrationality—are largely unconscious, which means they remain invisible to self-analysis and impermeable to intelligence.
Therefore we are doomed to live in a Zen paradox.
The more we attempt to know ourselves, the less we actually understand.
Nevertheless, I cannot help but feel education and self-awareness of our biases must be better than ignorance. At least, we can learn to be more tolerant and forgiving of others.

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