Monday, June 14, 2010

Contrarian

A quote from From Poverty to Prosperity by Arnold Kling and Nick Schulz:
"Economics 2.0 says yes, it is more efficient to send your shirts to a laundry than to iron them yourself. But have you heard of permanent press?"
That quote exemplifies exactly the kind of thinking that I crave - I love brand new ideas that make you challenge your thought process and assumptions. These ideas add another layer of complexity to what previously appeared simple. They expose the flaws inherent in your perception and there's a beauty to that - it's as though the new way of thinking has always been there but the invisible barrier that prevented you from seeing it until this very moment has now been torn down. That explains a large part of my passion for psychology and cognitive science. It's not always fun if the "viewquake" shatters your world, and especially if it's not for the better. After you come across an idea like this, it can be unnerving as you start to wonder what other important things you're missing.

The fundamental attribution error is one of those ideas. In Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers he posits that instead of looking at the success of hockey players in terms of their inherent characteristics such as skating ability or puck handling, a better way to look at success is in terms the situation someone is in. He argues that the part of the year the player was born in has much more of an impact on ability. The idea is that hockey players born early in the year have a size advantage over the other kids they play against and are subsequently viewed as better all-around players when in reality, size is really the only thing that is different.

These players are viewed as better and get on rep teams where they receive better training and development. This creates in to a positive feedback system where this initial (relatively small) advantage turns in to a very large advantage over time. When two people are in a heated argument over whether skating or puck handling is a better predictor of future success and this idea gets thrown in there, it adds a whole new dimension to the argument.

The very problem is exactly what I just described - that I like that kind of thinking. Liking an idea or a certain kind of ideas isn't the way to the truth. So does that make me a sucker for new and novel ideas? Does their novelty and the switch they trigger in my brain add an unfair advantage when I'm trying to impartially figure out which idea has more merit? Am I not evaluating them in Times New Roman?

From Eliezer Yudkowsky and originally cited in this post (which you should read):
Relinquish the emotion which rests upon a mistaken belief, and seek to feel fully that emotion which fits the facts. If the iron approaches your face, and you believe it is hot, and it is cool, the Way opposes your fear. If the iron approaches your face, and you believe it is cool, and it is hot, the Way opposes your calm. Evaluate your beliefs first and then arrive at your emotions. Let yourself say: “If the iron is hot, I desire to believe it is hot, and if it is cool, I desire to believe it is cool.”

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