How to Avoid Confirmation Bias


I love it when people agree with me. It makes me feel smart.

It also means I’m not learning. Ben Horowitz says he argues with Andreessen almost every day. “Every time I get mad, I know I’m learning something.”

I argue with people all the time too, but I’m not learning anything except for how wrong they are.

The first thing we usually do when someone disagrees with us is we just assume they’re ignorant. They don’t have access to the same information that we do, and when we generously share that information with them, they’re going to see the light and come on over to our team. When that doesn’t work, then we move on to a second assumption, which is that they’re idiots. They have all the right pieces of the puzzle, and they are too moronic to put them together correctly. And when that doesn’t work, we move on to a third assumption: they know the truth, and they are deliberately distorting it for their own malevolent purposes. So this is a catastrophe. [1]

According to me, I’m surrounded by catastrophic idiots. And they probably feel the same way.

We don’t have to act like idiots: Instead of being stubbornly dogmatic, be mathematical.

State Unknown Variables

An example: suppose that I am arguing in favor of decriminalizing cannabis. What do I not know about this issue?

  • I do not know anything about the long-term health effects of marijuana use. Very little research has been conducted because it’s illegal.
  • I do not know about the economic effects of legalization. The California counties of Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity subsist entirely on the illegal marijuana economy.
  • I do not know if marijuana intoxication levels can be measured. DUI offenders have to have breathalyzer devices attached to their ignition. How do you test a cannabis user for impairment?

Create Boundary Conditions

Under what assumptions do I hold my opinion? What new information would make me change my views?

  • If evidence indicates that chronic use causes harm to others, then I would reconsider my position. Maybe their kids are born with no limbs, or long-term use triggers homicidal tendencies.
  • No amount of economic impact would change my position. I don’t care if legalization wipes out half of Mexico’s GDP.
  • If there is no way to keep impaired drivers off the road, I might consider keeping marijuana as a controlled substance.

Form the Contradictory Arguments

It is possible that these boundary conditions will be violated.

  • Cannabis should not be decriminalized because we don’t yet know the long-term health effects. So allow research on these effects, stupid FDA.
  • Cannabis should remain a controlled substance because it might not be scientifically possible to measure impairment level.

I’m not entitled to have an opinion on this subject unless I can state the arguments against my position better than the people who support it. I think only when I’ve reached that state am I qualified to speak. This business of not drifting into extreme ideology is a very, very important thing in life. –Charlie Munger

None of these exercises will convince an idiot to agree with me, but it will prevent me from becoming one of those idiots.



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