Carl Sagan once compiled a list of logical fallacies to help us detect baloney in the world around us. Here is a kit I’ve set up to detect baloney in myself. This isn’t meant to be an in-depth analysis of cognitive bias, but rather a handy list of methods to apply rational thinking.
Read more about these biases here.
- Confirmation Bias- Not only will you tend to notice evidence that supports beliefs you already hold, but you will also seek out that information and recall it more easily.
To counter confirmation bias, you must actively seek out evidence that contradicts what you believe from sources that you would normally avoid. Don’t flinch from updating your beliefs when confronted with sound evidence.
- The dunning-kruger effect- People with low ability in a certain field tend to overestimate their abilities, and people with higher abilities tend to underestimate theirs. It’s only when you reach the expert level that people begin to properly estimate their true abilities.
To counter the dunning-kruger effect, try to look beyond the surface of a task and realize that there are pieces of knowledge you don’t realize that you lack. Think to yourself, “what are the unknown unknowns?”
- Planning fallacy- Even when asked to give their worst-case estimate of how long a task will take, people tend to be far too optimistic.
To counter the planning fallacy, add time to your worst-case estimate, and use that time as your average time estimate. Don’t assume everything will go smoothly.
- Fundamental attribution error- People explain the behavior of others with enduring personality traits, and people explain their own behavior with situational context.
To counter fundamental attribution error, withhold judgment of a person’s character, and instead consider what would have lead to their current behavior.
- Bystander effect- In an emergency situation, people are less likely to receive help when there are many people present. People in a group will wait for someone else to else to act first.
To counter the bystander effect, assume that you are the only one who can help, and do so. To get others to help you, single out a specific person and ask them for help.
- Positive bias- This is the tendency to test hypotheses in a way that would yield positive, rather than negative results. People tend to shy away from testing the null hypothesis.
To counter positive bias, imagine what would happen if your hypothesis were not true, and try to find other things that would explain your observations. Test situations that would give you a ‘no’ answer if your hypothesis were true.
- The Halo/Horns effect- One good quality (halo) or one bad quality (horns) can affect your judgement of a person’s overall character. You might see an attractive person as smarter, for example, or an unattractive person as less trustworthy. You might therefore judge a person’s ideas unfairly.
To counter the halo/horns effect, try to hold fast to the rule that every idea must fall or stand on its own merit. Also, don’t rely too heavily on your first impressions of people; analyze what you know of each of their character traits, instead.
Baloney Detection, 2.5
There are also a few items I would like to include that have no official name.
- The Curiosity Killer- I’ve noticed that sometimes, when I wish to know what something is, learning the name or title is enough to settle the issue in my mind. However, a name or a title isn’t what something is.
To counter the curiosity killer, try to define something without using its name. (This is also useful for when dealing with phrases and buzzwords that carry baggage. Using definitions instead of words can help you avoid pitfall in argument- i.e. stating that you support gender equality to avoid the baggage behind the word feminism.)
- Giving up- It’s easy to look at a problem and declare that it is impossible to solve.
To counter this, spend at least five minutes thinking about the problem before proposing solutions.