Biases are just endlessly interesting, don’t you think? Apart from anything else they remind us (if we’re paying attention anyway) that we all have them; they’re like kidneys, or toenails; part of the standard issue equipment. In fact the idea that we’re too clever to have them (or anything like them) is one of them.
Social and cognitive psychologists have identified a number of predictable errors (psychologists call them biases) in the ways that humans judge situations and evaluate risks. Biases have been documented both in the laboratory and in the real world, mostly in situations that have no connection to international politics. For example, people are prone to exaggerating their strengths: About 80 percent of us believe that our driving skills are better than average. In situations of potential conflict, the same optimistic bias makes politicians and generals receptive to advisors who offer highly favorable estimates of the outcomes of war.
It’s a familiar paradox – optimism and confidence are psychologically useful, good motivators, good for the mood and the health and getting things done, but they can also inspire godawful messes. Tricky.
What is ironic is that individuals who attribute others’ behavior to deep hostility are quite likely to explain away their own behavior as a result of being “pushed into a corner” by an adversary…If people are often poorly equipped to explain the behavior of their adversaries, they are also bad at understanding how they appear to others…Excessive optimism is one of the most significant biases that psychologists have identified. Psychological research has shown that a large majority of people believe themselves to be smarter, more attractive, and more talented than average, and they commonly overestimate their future success. People are also prone to an “illusion of control”: They consistently exaggerate the amount of control they have over outcomes that are important to them – even when the outcomes are in fact random or determined by other forces.
An item along those lines in Kida’s Don’t Believe Everything You Think (page 109) is that in a survey of one million high school seniors, all of them (all of them!?) thought they were above average in their ability to get along with others; 25% thought they were in the top 1%. That just made me laugh and laugh and laugh. I’ve never for one second in my life thought that about myself. Never. I’ve always known perfectly well that I’m terrible at it. I know some other people who are terrible at it, too, though – I even know quite a few who are worse at it than I am, even a lot worse. But if that survey is any indication, they all or almost all think they’re good at it. That’s hilarious. It also explains a lot – I do know some people who are blithely rude and tactless and insulting and get surprised when anyone gets cross with them. Rich people are like that, I’ve noticed – they must think their richness somehow makes people love and admire them so much that rudeness is taken for charm?
There’s a good line in Robyn Dawes’s book Everyday Irrationality (page xi): ‘We neurotics tend to whine, to feel unappreciated, to be “passive aggressive,” and – worst of all – to expect our therapists to alleviate our problems.’ Oh! thought I when I read that, enlightened, I’m a neurotic! That’s good to know. (The therapist bit doesn’t apply, on account of I don’t have one, nor do I have problems. But if I did have a therapist, I would certainly expect it to alleviate anything I wanted alleviated. What’s it there for after all?)
The bias about not understanding how we appear to others seems particularly applicable to the Bush administration – which prompted some idle musing this morning on the oddity that people like Wolfowitz are clearly not stupid, and yet they seemed to have a really bad case of this inability – a really astonishing blindness to the way an invasion would appear to the rest of the world. They should have had someone like Kahneman (or in fact Kahneman) on the staff.