Doublethink (Choosing to be Biased)

An oblong slip of news­pa­per had ap­peared be­tween O’Brien’s fingers. For per­haps five sec­onds it was within the an­gle of Win­ston’s vi­sion. It was a pho­to­graph, and there was no ques­tion of its iden­tity. It was the pho­to­graph. It was an­other copy of the pho­to­graph of Jones, Aaron­son, and Rutherford at the party func­tion in New York, which he had chanced upon eleven years ago and promptly de­stroyed. For only an in­stant it was be­fore his eyes, then it was out of sight again. But he had seen it, un­ques­tion­ably he had seen it! He made a des­per­ate, ag­o­niz­ing effort to wrench the top half of his body free. It was im­pos­si­ble to move so much as a cen­time­tre in any di­rec­tion. For the mo­ment he had even for­got­ten the dial. All he wanted was to hold the pho­to­graph in his fingers again, or at least to see it.

‘It ex­ists!’ he cried.

‘No,’ said O’Brien.

He stepped across the room.

There was a mem­ory hole in the op­po­site wall. O’Brien lifted the grat­ing. Unseen, the frail slip of pa­per was whirling away on the cur­rent of warm air; it was van­ish­ing in a flash of flame. O’Brien turned away from the wall.

‘Ashes,’ he said. ‘Not even iden­ti­fi­able ashes. Dust. It does not ex­ist. It never ex­isted.’

‘But it did ex­ist! It does ex­ist! It ex­ists in mem­ory. I re­mem­ber it. You re­mem­ber it.’

‘I do not re­mem­ber it,’ said O’Brien.

Win­ston’s heart sank. That was dou­ble­think. He had a feel­ing of deadly hel­pless­ness. If he could have been cer­tain that O’Brien was ly­ing, it would not have seemed to mat­ter. But it was perfectly pos­si­ble that O’Brien had re­ally for­got­ten the pho­to­graph. And if so, then already he would have for­got­ten his de­nial of re­mem­ber­ing it, and for­got­ten the act of for­get­ting. How could one be sure that it was sim­ple trick­ery? Per­haps that lu­natic dis­lo­ca­tion in the mind could re­ally hap­pen: that was the thought that defeated him.

Ge­orge Or­well, 1984

What if self-de­cep­tion helps us be happy? What if just run­ning out and over­com­ing bias will make us—gasp!—un­happy? Surely, true wis­dom would be sec­ond-or­der ra­tio­nal­ity, choos­ing when to be ra­tio­nal. That way you can de­cide which cog­ni­tive bi­ases should gov­ern you, to max­i­mize your hap­piness.

Leav­ing the moral­ity aside, I doubt such a lu­natic dis­lo­ca­tion in the mind could re­ally hap­pen.

Se­cond-or­der ra­tio­nal­ity im­plies that at some point, you will think to your­self, “And now, I will ir­ra­tionally be­lieve that I will win the lot­tery, in or­der to make my­self happy.” But we do not have such di­rect con­trol over our be­liefs. You can­not make your­self be­lieve the sky is green by an act of will. You might be able to be­lieve you be­lieved it—though I have just made that more difficult for you by point­ing out the differ­ence. (You’re wel­come!) You might even be­lieve you were happy and self-de­ceived; but you would not in fact be happy and self-de­ceived.

For sec­ond-or­der ra­tio­nal­ity to be gen­uinely ra­tio­nal, you would first need a good model of re­al­ity, to ex­trap­o­late the con­se­quences of ra­tio­nal­ity and ir­ra­tional­ity. If you then chose to be first-or­der ir­ra­tional, you would need to for­get this ac­cu­rate view. And then for­get the act of for­get­ting. I don’t mean to com­mit the log­i­cal fal­lacy of gen­er­al­iz­ing from fic­tional ev­i­dence, but I think Or­well did a good job of ex­trap­o­lat­ing where this path leads.

You can’t know the con­se­quences of be­ing bi­ased, un­til you have already de­bi­ased your­self. And then it is too late for self-de­cep­tion.

The other al­ter­na­tive is to choose blindly to re­main bi­ased, with­out any clear idea of the con­se­quences. This is not sec­ond-or­der ra­tio­nal­ity. It is willful stu­pidity.

Be ir­ra­tionally op­ti­mistic about your driv­ing skills, and you will be hap­pily un­con­cerned where oth­ers sweat and fear. You won’t have to put up with the in­con­ve­nience of a seat­belt. You will be hap­pily un­con­cerned for a day, a week, a year. Then CRASH, and spend the rest of your life wish­ing you could scratch the itch in your phan­tom limb. Or par­a­lyzed from the neck down. Or dead. It’s not in­evitable, but it’s pos­si­ble; how prob­a­ble is it? You can’t make that trade­off ra­tio­nally un­less you know your real driv­ing skills, so you can figure out how much dan­ger you’re plac­ing your­self in. You can’t make that trade­off ra­tio­nally un­less you know about bi­ases like ne­glect of prob­a­bil­ity.

No mat­ter how many days go by in bliss­ful ig­no­rance, it only takes a sin­gle mis­take to undo a hu­man life, to out­weigh ev­ery penny you picked up from the railroad tracks of stu­pidity.

One of chief pieces of ad­vice I give to as­piring ra­tio­nal­ists is “Don’t try to be clever.” And, “Listen to those quiet, nag­ging doubts.” If you don’t know, you don’t know what you don’t know, you don’t know how much you don’t know, and you don’t know how much you needed to know.

There is no sec­ond-or­der ra­tio­nal­ity. There is only a blind leap into what may or may not be a flam­ing lava pit. Once you know, it will be too late for blind­ness.

But peo­ple ne­glect this, be­cause they do not know what they do not know. Un­known un­knowns are not available. They do not fo­cus on the blank area on the map, but treat it as if it cor­re­sponded to a blank ter­ri­tory. When they con­sider leap­ing blindly, they check their mem­ory for dan­gers, and find no flam­ing lava pits in the blank map. Why not leap?

Been there. Tried that. Got burned. Don’t try to be clever.

I once said to a friend that I sus­pected the hap­piness of stu­pidity was greatly over­rated. And she shook her head se­ri­ously, and said, “No, it’s not; it’s re­ally not.”

Maybe there are stupid happy peo­ple out there. Maybe they are hap­pier than you are. And life isn’t fair, and you won’t be­come hap­pier by be­ing jeal­ous of what you can’t have. I sus­pect the vast ma­jor­ity of Over­com­ing Bias read­ers could not achieve the “hap­piness of stu­pidity” if they tried. That way is closed to you. You can never achieve that de­gree of ig­no­rance, you can­not for­get what you know, you can­not un­see what you see.

The hap­piness of stu­pidity is closed to you. You will never have it short of ac­tual brain dam­age, and maybe not even then. You should won­der, I think, whether the hap­piness of stu­pidity is op­ti­mal—if it is the most hap­piness that a hu­man can as­pire to—but it mat­ters not. That way is closed to you, if it was ever open.

All that is left to you now, is to as­pire to such hap­piness as a ra­tio­nal­ist can achieve. I think it may prove greater, in the end. There are bounded paths and open-ended paths; plateaus on which to laze, and moun­tains to climb; and if climb­ing takes more effort, still the moun­tain rises higher in the end.

Also there is more to life than hap­piness; and other hap­pinesses than your own may be at stake in your de­ci­sions.

But that is moot. By the time you re­al­ize you have a choice, there is no choice. You can­not un­see what you see. The other way is closed.