The Joy of Bias

What do you feel when you dis­cover that your rea­son­ing is flawed? when you find your re­cur­ring mis­takes? when you find that you have been do­ing some­thing wrong for quite a long time?

Many peo­ple feel bad. For ex­am­ple, here is a quote from a re­cent ar­ti­cle on LessWrong:

By de­pict­ing the self as always flawed, and por­tray­ing the as­piring ra­tio­nal­ist’s job as seek­ing to find the flaws, the virtue of perfec­tion­ism is framed nega­tively, and is bound to re­sult in nega­tive re­in­force­ment. Find­ing a flaw feels bad, and in many peo­ple that cre­ates ugh fields around ac­tu­ally do­ing that search, as re­ported by par­ti­ci­pants at the Meetup.

But ac­tu­ally, when you find a se­ri­ous flaw of yours, you should usu­ally jump for joy. Here’s why.

If you are an am­bi­tious per­son, you have likely ex­hausted all the easy ways to im­prove your perfor­mance known to you; all the short­cuts, all the low-hang­ing fruits. If not, what are you wait­ing for? So, what’s left for you is the hard ways, which re­quire a lot of effort for rel­a­tively small im­prove­ments. Think harder, work harder, have more willpower, be more restless, et cetera. Such im­prove­ments are nei­ther easy nor fast.

Now, sup­pose that you have found a se­ri­ous flaw in your rea­son­ing.

What has hap­pened, ac­tu­ally?

Firstly, you have lost noth­ing. All your achieve­ments are still with you; as well as all your abil­ities; as well as any­thing else. How­ever, one pos­si­bil­ity is that your pre­dic­tions about the fu­ture may be­come worse; maybe, you have just no­ticed that your road is lead­ing to the abyss. But I’m talk­ing here about notic­ing bi­ases, er­rors and flaws that you have had for a long time, and such bi­ases are un­likely to have ir­re­versible forth­com­ing con­se­quences. For ex­am­ple, if you have had a bi­ased es­ti­mate of ra­dioac­tivity effects on health and have got­ten a dose—that’s an un­pleas­ant bias to find, in­deed. But most long-term bi­ases aren’t that mal­i­cious.

Se­condly, now you have an op­por­tu­nity to fix it. What­ever you achieved be­fore, you achieved while be­ing im­paired by the flaw. And now, when the bias is elimi­nated, you can do even bet­ter. Fix­ing a bias might re­quire some effort, but usu­ally way less effort than your de­fault hard ways of im­prove­ment. Or maybe you just got rid of some risk which could hit you in the fu­ture—that’s good too.

When I find a flaw or a re­cur­ring mis­take of mine, I imag­ine how my life will be im­proved af­ter I elimi­nate it. That feels good, cer­tainly.