Thursday, March 26, 2009

Cognitive Bias

On my recent trip to the library, I picked up 'The Intellectuals' by Paul Johnson, which is turning out to be an interesting satirical history of some of the biggest intellectuals of the West. When I googled the author, he turns out to be a conservative writer. And the book is turning out to be a conservative's paradise with broad swipes at all the major thinkers/intellectuals who are revered by the leftist establishment (he is particularly harsh on Rousseau and Marx). It is quite a witty book and definitely worth a read.
But the book got me thinking on the whole area of cognitive bias. I am clearly left-leaning (the type classical liberals despise) and would normally not venture into any conservative literature (e.g. Hayek, Schumpeter etc would normally not be on my list). Which raises a rather disturbing question - are we all victims of cognitive biases in the realm of ideas? This is especially relevant in the social sciences (economics included) where ideas tend to be clustered around major schools of thought. I read somewhere that your biases are firmed up by 25 and once that happens, we tend to gravitate towards our preferred bias, leading eventually, to group-think. And so I have decided to have a go at the liberal school of thought and at the very least, try to listen to their ideas. 

This just might be some harmless label in the space of ideas - but as it is with a lot of issues in the realm of social sciences, they extend into the real life itself. One example of this could be that someone like me would typically be suspicious of any policy that tries to push markets in, which is actually the cognitive bias pre-supposing a certain kind of outcome(s) which follows a market driven approach. Such a line of thought is obviously flawed but then this is the thing about cognitive biases - they trick you into believing that you are exercising your rational choice(s). 

Why we all tend towards such biases is equally fascinating - one theory is that it is born out of an evolutionary necessity, which goes like this - since you need to make split-second decisions (for the early humans, this could mean the difference between life and death), you cannot rely on using all the available data to arrive at a rational choice outcome. You have to rely on your gut instincts and these in turn, are developed over time based on your past experiences, learning from your elders, peers etc. Which was all fine when the sphere of activity was limited to dodging the next predator and hunting for food but now that we are all occupied in the sphere of conflicting ideas (and even ideologies), it is a whole new ballgame.

And finally, the recommendation on 'The Intellectuals' - worth a read, if nothing else for his acerbic wit.