A bias towards power
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.