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Trust your cognitive biases
And why I love diners where the food is just OK.
Life can't be conquered, piece by piece. It's more like a dance.
“Trying to avoid cognitive biases is not only impossible, it’s a waste of life,” I say to my friend, slapping the cracked formica countertop of our booth, fueled by the cheap coffee always filled to the brim by the elderly waitress.
I forced him to drive to this mediocre diner from the west side of LA (that’s almost 2 hours in traffic). I wanted him to experience my favorite diner.
The food is low-quality and overpriced. The menu is the size of a novela. The building was constructed in 1946, and the last time the orange leather booths and the off-brown floor were refurbished was in 1978. Cooks bustle behind a brick half-wall, and the waitstaff is an elderly-yet-well-oiled-machine.
I love it.
What's to love? Nothing “measureable.” LA is filled to the brim with restaurants with a much better cost-benefit on pretty much any conceivable metric. Hey, what can I say? I like a diner.
I found a metaphor to explain why I won’t be talked out of my extreme diner bias.
The optical illusion metaphor
Say, I showed you an optical illusion. Like this one:
You'd look at it and think, "Yeah, cool."
And I'd say, "See how the middle line is actually the same length?"
And you'd say, "Yes."
And then I'd say, "Well, we agree then — your visual system is subject to creating a false impression under certain circumstances, yes?"
And, now suspicious of my motives, you'd say, "...yes."
And, then, drooling, I'd say, "Well, therefore, you'd have to agree with me that you should never trust your eyesight again!"
Ha! Gotcha! You have to agree!
The Bible of this kind of thinking
I was a traveling salesman for a tech startup when I graduated college – I drove all over the country listening to audiobooks and sitting in diners, getting infinite refills on my coffee.
"Thinking, Fast and Slow” by the famous Israeli psychologist Danny Kahneman grabbed my attention like nothing else. After listening to it twice, I went to a Barnes and Noble in Kentucky and bought a hard copy. I still have that worn-out book, which I’ve read a few more times over the years.
If you haven't read it, you basically have. It's like the Bible of modern thinking. It was so influential that everyone on Twitter (or, X, now) talking about “top 10 cognitive biases to avoid 🧵” are knowingly or unknowingly paying tribute to this text.
But, like a pebble in my shoe, something about it kept bothering me.
The book suggests that because the fast thinking system "system 1" (your intuition) makes all these errors in its heuristics (cognitive illusions), it shouldn't be trusted.
In reality, researchers put humans in very odd, unnatural, and unlikely situations where they are subject to demonstrating cognitive biases.
But, these sterile research experiments are more like optical illusions (behavioral illusions, perhaps) than a real picture of reality.
Kahneman, however, concludes that because of the isolated demonstrated failings of the heuristics of system 1, we shouldn’t trust it.
You might already see where I’m going with this illusion comparison. But to get specific on why that’s a wild conclusion to draw, let's look closer at an example from the book.
One of the most famous "cognitive biases" is "loss aversion." Basically, you dislike losing a dollar about as much as you enjoy gaining 2 dollars. I could trick you by leveraging your fear of loss (like offering you a money-back guarantee on a purchase, for example). How stupid are we, right?
Except, as a living organism (which, I assume, you are), you can lose enough that you are completely dead forever. But you can never gain so much that you become immortal. Therefore, it's logical (if we’re seeing the biggest possible picture) to avoid loss more than to seek gains.
Our perception can be "tricked" by drawing a context-free and arbitrary circle around them. But it’s just a trick. In the big picture, they are a very accurate (yet sometimes low-resolution) picture of the world 99% of the time.
Trusting them is your best bet, just like trusting your eyes is your best bet.
I don’t even need to tell you this.
In fact, most of these attempts to correct cognitive biases just create a "cognitive bias bias." Suddenly, you see the “fallacies” in everyone’s logic (except yours, typically) and become overly fixated on that small aspect of reality — like the heady midwit Kahneman, who was always jealous of his more intuitive, extroverted, and successful friend, Amos Tarkovsky. There is no escape!
Kahneman laments this in the book: most people can’t overcome biases (maybe even him). But he fails to take the next step: therefore, forget this whole wild goose chase. Maybe there is another path altogether to understanding reality.
That's kinda my whole point. There is no such thing as "bias-free thinking." There is only your narrative that frames which parts of reality you notice. “I avoid cognitive biases!” is just another narrative. And it’s pretty lame as far as narratives go, in my opinion.
Instead, trust your natural "cognitive biases." In fact, let's call them "perspective." Lean into it. Better yet, develop your intuitions.
If you also love shitty diners, for example, just embrace it. I’ll show you my favorite one if you’re ever in LA.
Fully understood, the fact of my inescapable subjectivity terrifies me. Good! Hopefully, if fully appreciated, I will humbly seek to understand and embody the perspective of myself and others.
Thanks for reading,
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