The biases against me, are the biases within me

[PS – I previously published a draft version of this blog a few hours ago. If it caused you any inconvenience, please blame it on the poor design choices of WordPress engineers – not asking for a confirmation before publishing! Philosophically speaking, this is probably a good example of the “Not my problem” bias!]

This was perhaps the first Friday evening in the last 4 months that I spent in bed and went to sleep before 1. It wasn’t because I was burnt by stimuli & screwed by supernormal stimuli, disappointed by humanity or anything as depressing (although I don’t know how I sleep having gone through all that ;)) It was just a bad workout and an over-stressed aching back!

So as I slept there in pain, re-reading my previous post and trying to gain satisfaction in the fact that even though our senses and minds might be susceptible to the illusions of Maya, my rational Intellect is my most loyal, faithful and trusted friend. The one part of me, that unlike the mind is free from desires, feelings and emotional pain and unlike the body is free from physical pain, sickness and instinctive reactions. Turns out, I was wrong.

During the course of my reading, I recalled Dan Ariely‘s book on Predicable Irrationality that I had read last year. Dan Ariely, is a behavioral economist and most of his research is focussed on how we are not as rational as traditional models of economic theory make us out to be. Instead, he claims we have a lot of irrational traits that are surprisingly, largely predictable. Unlike the Gita’s BMI (Body-Mind-Intellect) model, Dan does not make a distinction between irrationalities of the mind (ones that are caused primarily by emotions) and that of the intellect (those that are caused primarily by flaws in our reasoning). He simply points out our irrationalities. Wikipedia in fact, has a great list of biases (with references) that we encounter in our day-to-day decision making and judgement. Some of these biases are clearly emotional, desire-driven ones. e.g the arousal Bias – Dan did a controversial experiment where he asked students to answer a bunch of questions while sexually aroused. The result (as expected) was that arousal had a strong impact on areas of judgment and decision making, demonstrating the importance of situational forces on preferences as well as subjects’ inability to predict these influences on their own behavior. The ones below however, are those which are either directly or indirectly dependent on deep rooted flaws in our decision making process without being influenced by arousal, emotions or feelings. This isn’t an exhaustive list of all biases that Dan talks about, but is more of a representative sample:

Visual saliency bias – bias towards brighter colored items

When consumers chose between items they prefer (such as a Snickers bar) and visually enhanced, i.e., brighter, but less preferred options (such as Sour Skittles), a significant portion of their choices was biased toward choosing the brighter, less liked, item.


Present focus bias – bias towards our present over long term future

We focus on the present too much and as a consequence, we undermine the long term, the long-term effect. This is the problem of Adam and Eve, when you could ask yourself, you know, who would ever give up eternity in the Garden of Eden for an apple? Well, if you ever texted and drive at the same time, you basically have done this mistake, right? And most people have texted while driving. If people were offered $5 today versus $10 after a month, most would choose $5 today. However, if people were offered $5 after a month and $10 two months later, most would choose $10 two months later!


Zero risk biasDan’s “Allure to Free!” bias

…it turns out that “free” is a very big allure, when we see something that is free we often go for it even if it’s not good for us. But it turns out that if it wasn’t free, if it was costing us a penny, or 10 cents, or a dollar, we will not have the same allure to it….So in the experiments we do, we say “Okay what do you want, the Lindt Truffle for fourteen cents or Hershey Kiss for one penny?” Almost everybody says “Thirteen more cents for a better chocolate is a good deal because it could only take one of the other.” Everybody understands the value of the Lindt is high. Then we discount them both by one penny. Now, the difference and the qualities are the same – difference in price is the same – but now everybody goes to the free Hershey Kiss.


Decoy Effect bias – bias towards an item for which we can most easily see an inferior item, even if that item is not superior overall

Ariely describes the ways in which people frequently regard their environment in terms of their relation to others; it is the way that the human brain is wired. People not only compare things, but also compare things that are easily comparable. For example, if given the following options for a honeymoon – Paris (with free breakfast), Rome (with free breakfast), and Rome (no breakfast included), most people would probably choose Rome with the free breakfast. The rationale is that it is easier to compare the two options for Rome than it is to compare Paris and Rome.


Anchoring bias – bias towards relying too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the “anchor”) when making decisions.

In a study by Dan Ariely, an audience is first asked to write the last two digits of their social security number and consider whether they would pay this number of dollars for items whose value they did not know, such as wine, chocolate and computer equipment. They were then asked to bid for these items, with the result that the audience members with higher two-digit numbers would submit bids that were between 60 percent and 120 percent higher than those with the lower social security numbers, which had become their anchor.


The Identifiable victim bias – bias towards individual suffering and pain over group suffering

The effect of one individual, identifiable, victim who is known in full detail can evoke a much deeper feelings, emotions and sympathy than a large group of anonymous individuals….This is you can think of as the Baby Jessica, when Baby Jessica fell to the well and she really suffered and her parents must have been incredibly miserable, she got more CNN coverage than Rwanda and Darfur. This is exploited (arguably in a good way) by charities who show an individual case of suffering instead of talking about overall global suffering to achieve higher donations.
We care a lot about individual life and care less and less as the pie… as the number of people become bigger. And this goes to kind of an observation of both Stalin and Mother Theresa said… you know, Stalin said, “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” And Mother Theresa said in the same spirit, “If I look at the masses, I will never act; if I look at the one, I will.”…


Not-Invented-Here Bias– Bias towards “My” Ideas over “Yours”

We tend to overrate and overvalue our own ideas and creations. In fact, we continue to do so even when someone else made it seems as if we came up with it ourselves. In academics it’s called Toothbrush Theory – Everyone wants a toothbrush, everyone needs one, everyone has one, but no one wants to use anyone else’s… So we tried to do this experiments and we got people to build Legos and origamis and all kinds of things. And the first thing we found was if there was an origami that you built and an origami that somebody else built, you think that yours is much, much more beautiful. Not only is it more beautiful, you’re willing to pay much more for it.


Action Inaction bias – Bias towards our actions over our inactions

where in general people view their own actions as much more important than inactions – which means that accountants are more likely to care about their own actions than about reporting the actions of others. Yet, accountants must remember that they are accountable for not just their actions, but also their non-actions, if either tend to affect the public adversely.


Intergroup bias – Bias towards people of our own group over those outside

Refers to a preference and affinity for one’s in-group over the out-group, or anyone viewed as outside the in-group. This can be expressed in evaluation of others, linking, allocation of resources and many other ways. One of these other ways that Dan talks about, is the impact on behaving ethically.


So as the weekend comes to it’s end and after watching and reading about 16 hrs worth of online material, I’m convinced that it is not just my body and mind that carries the evolutionary baggage, but also my intellect. In an evolved and realized mind, Gita’s claim of a rational logical intellect may stand ground. However, as I see things now, my intellect is not only clouded by my emotions (as explained in the paper on desire-driven bias), but even in it’s unmasked, unclouded form is actually quite imperfect. Just as supernormal stimuli are not always bad, our intellectual biases are often useful even in modern day contexts. However, just like supernormal stimuli, they nevertheless restrict our clear, unbiased decision making and are thus impediments to our real freedom. Imagine how easy it’d be if each supernormal stimulus in the world came with a label indicating something like – “SUPERNORMAL STIMULI – CONSUMPTION IS INJURIOUS TO HEALTH!” and every intellectual bias got flagged in our head with a red flashing “DANGER ALERT – APPROACHING INTELLECTUAL BIAS!” light.

The one big ray of hope, as Dan points out in multiple lectures, is that humans (unlike perhaps any other species on the planet), are the only ones who have an intellect that can see fallacies in it’s own self and also has the ability to correct itself. It’s almost like a program that has the ability to find and fix bugs in itself. Being aware of our intellectual biases is just the first step. Preventing others from exploiting these biases and making sure we are aware, if and when these biases are triggered in our reasoning, is the more difficult yet rewarding part. The more interesting possibility however, is to evaluate how we can maximize the value of these biases in our lives by using them to our advantage. As the weekend comes to a close, and my backache shows signs of subsiding, I look back at my flawed self in a different light. I feel like a teacher who has been reprimanding the student on every failure or poor-result, without having understood the root of his problem. Identifying the problem is a oddly empowering, even though I don’t really have a clue on how to fix it!


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7 Responses to “The biases against me, are the biases within me”

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