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A bias towards power

by Michael Nielsen on February 24, 2008

Robin Hanson runs a great blog called Overcoming Bias, which is essentially about ways we fool ourselves, both individually and collectively.

A form of bias I’m interested in is the great deference we pay to power, often far more than is warranted by the facts. I’m particularly interested in the damage this does to powerful people, since it greatly reduces the incentive they have to perform well (if people are going to pay attention to you anyway, you have less incentive to improve your ideas), and it also diminishes feedback that can help them improve their ideas.

A few examples (I’m guilty of numbers two and three, incidentally):

  • People’s early works, when they are unknown, are often better than their later works, after they’ve become famous. See, e.g., Tom Clancy.
  • A professor speaking pretty much complete rubbish, and yet being taken seriously by a group of more junior academics. According to James Watson’s account, Linus Pauling should have discovered the structure of DNA before Watson and Crick, but made a stupid error, and then had the misfortune that none of the people around him were confident enough to speak up and say “Hey, that’s obviously wrong!” I’ve seen this in minature a thousand times.
  • A professor shutting down a grad student in a group, simply by disagreeing with them. People tend to assume that the professor is right 100 percent of the time, and the student 0 percent. A more accurate breakup in my experience is 60 / 40. Professors usually aren’t much smarter or more knowledgable than grad students.
  • A rich or famous person holding forth on pretty much any subject, from things they understand well, through to things they barely understand at all, and having other people pay serious attention. An example is the frequent pronouncements on how to solve world hunger we get from Hollywood starlets. Their concern is laudable, but surely there are better experts on this subject?

It’s not hard to think of ways for the powerful to avoid these forms of bias. But in practice it may be rather hard to implement them – it’s nice having people pay attention to what you say! And for the less powerful, it’s hard to see how to avoid them at all.

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13 Comments
  1. Rob permalink

    I don’t agree with point one. I’ve found that the work suffers as people get famous.

  2. Another example of the senior/junior academic dynamic: Feynman, in one of his books, tells how when he and Bohr were both at Los Alamos, Bohr would seek him out to bounce ideas off of, because Feynman was the only person there who was willing to tell Bohr when he was wrong.

  3. Michael Nielsen permalink

    Rob: That was simply a thinko on my part. I meant the opposite. Now corrected.

  4. There is a variation of number 2 that I would call “affiliation bias” instead of “seniority bias”. I recently experienced a combination of them firsthand. I wasn’t so much spouting rubbish, I was just spouting the same things I spouted a few months ago when I was a graduate student. The only thing different was that my name tag had a fancy institution on it and my title was now “postdoc”. People took me much more seriously and I found it quite disturbing.

  5. Michael Nielsen permalink

    Steve: It’s a good thing to be aware of; it’s not entirely clear how to correct for it, other than to spend a lot of time talking to people who don’t take you seriously!

  6. Deference even to idiots serves a social purpose.

    When someone has to pay for the mistake, we can all point to the person in “power” as the responsible one.

  7. Pedro S permalink

    Wow, great points. Mind you, I’m only saying this because you’re a famous physicist.

  8. Kimberly permalink

    “Another example of the senior/junior academic dynamic: Feynman, in one of his books, tells how when he and Bohr were both at Los Alamos, Bohr would seek him out to bounce ideas off of, because Feynman was the only person there who was willing to tell Bohr when he was wrong.”

    There’s nothing more dangerous than being surrounded by “yes people”. I foundered in a research position for two years while working with people who just assumed I knew what I was doing and never offered any constructive advice or criticism. It was just assumed by people around and under me that I didn’t need any help, simply because of my title, and so none was ever offered. Nor did anyone ever look closely at what I was doing and point out mistakes that would have been obvious to them, but weren’t to me.

    I’ve since learned that there’s always one guy in every company who, like Feynman, isn’t afraid to criticize ANYONE. This is who you have make contact with, and cultivate if you can. Even if that person doesn’t like you and gives criticism that isn’t very constructive, you’ll learn more than you do with the yes men.

  9. Michael Nielsen permalink

    Kimberly: Yeah, such people (especially if they’re thoughtful and pleasant in addition to being independent minded) can be worth their weight in gold. I definitely find it an effort to persistently engage with such people – it’s so much easier just to talk to people who’ll agree with everything you say.

  10. Relatedly Hamming’s You and Your Research says something similar. But then again maybe we need to look at myelin http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/04/sports/playmagazine/04play-talent.html

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