The GMU economics department has been having an argument through blogs about whether bias is worth overcoming. Me, I don’t see how you could say anything definite about the topic without first, well, overcoming bias. Here are some effects that might cause us to underinvest in debiasing.

  • The costs of overcoming bias accrue mostly to you, the benefits mostly to society. Your bad ideas affect others, not only through your decisions, but because you’re likely to spread them around and pass them on to future generations. If egoism is irrational — in the sense of philosophy rather than economics — then so is “rational irrationality”.
  • The costs of overcoming bias are obvious, the benefits subtle and scattered. A bad idea is not an island. Its influence creeps all over your web of beliefs, including the ones you use when assessing the value of overcoming bias. And an irrational judgment that seems individually harmless may still start a bad habit.
  • People don’t seem to fear being wrong as much as they seem to fear being proved wrong. If what you don’t know will cause you to die happy, after a lifetime of fighting for the wrong side, then that is a possibility you might greatly dislike in the abstract; but to really feel the fear, you have to anticipate a horrible realization. This tendency is harmful. Ignorance is a blindfold, not a helmet.

I am unsympathetic to the argument that people need illusions to help them deal with their problems. If we had all made it a point to dispel illusions, would these problems exist in the first place?