Tuesday, 4 April 2017

The Problem of Debiasing

Vasco Correia (pictured above) is currently a Research Fellow at the Nova Institute of Philosophy (Universidade Nova de Lisboa), where he is developing a project on cognitive biases in argumentation and decision-making. In this post, he summaries a paper he recently published in Topoi.

This paper is an attempt to show that there are reasons to remain optimistic—albeit cautiously—regarding our ability to counteract cognitive biases. Although most authors agree that biases should be mitigated, there is controversy about which debiasing methods are the most effective. Until recently, the notion that critical thinking is effective in preventing biases appealed to many philosophers and argumentation theorists. It was assumed that raising awareness of biases and teaching critical thinking to students would suffice to enhance open-mindedness and impartiality. Yet the benefits of such programs are difficult to demonstrate empirically, and some authors now claim that critical thinking is by and large ineffective against biases.

While I disagree that teaching critical thinking is useless (the evidence on its benefits is in fact mixed), I argue that there are better ways to promote rational thinking in real-life contexts. In particular, I develop a contextualist approach, according to which debiasing strategies tend to be more effective when they rely on extra-psychic, environmental and social structures, rather than on mere cognitive improvements at the level of the individual. In line with what Thaler and Sunstein (2008) call a “choice architecture”, the idea here is that we ought to promote rationality, not by reforming people’s cognitive systems, but by imposing constraints on the contexts in which people reason and make decisions.

Why would contextual debiasing be more effective than cognitive debiasing? My suggestion is that contextual devices do a better job at addressing the main causes of bias persistence, such as people’s unawareness of biases and people’s lack of motivation to correct their own biases. It is worth noting that, ironically, most people even see themselves as less biased than others (Pronin et al. 2002). From this perspective, contextual debiasing presents a clear advantage over cognitive debiasing, since it relies less on people’s willingness and ability to correct their own biases, and more on external constraints that more reliably enforce rational standards.

Some of these methods are already being used. The peer review system is a good example of a debiasing strategy that doesn’t involve any cognitive change. However misogynous or racist the reviewer may be, for instance, his or her implicit biases won’t have an impact on the evaluation of the author’s work. The problem with this type of device is that it only suppresses the effects of a given bias, leaving the bias itself intact. However, there are other forms of contextual debiasing that enhance rational thinking by effectively reducing the unwanted bias. I examine three such contextual strategies—accountability, incentives and group interaction—and show how they actually end up reinforcing critical thinking and forms of cognitive debiasing. In my view, there must be a complementarity between these two levels. Given that each debiasing strategy has its own limitations, the hope is that they can yield significant improvements as a whole.

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