“Indeed, evading our awareness is something cognitive biases are precision-engineered by natural selection to do. They are designed to convince us that we’re seeing clearly, and thinking rationally, when we’re not.”
Even worse, we can also say that emotions are precision-engineered by natural selection to sometimes override rationality entirely, whether we realize it or not. When a lion appeared on the prehistoric savanna, those of our ancestors who ran in blind terror apparently fared better in aggregate than those who attempted to rationally deliberate various options like stand and fight, climb a tree, play dead, or run like hell. But of course, some of the blind terror crowd were undoubtedly caught and eaten sometimes too. There’s no perfect solution for every situation, and as a result, we seemed to have evolved a confusing conglomeration of emotions, cognitive biases, and rational thought processes. Unfortunately, evolution failed to equip us with the ability to perceive which or how many of these processes is operating in any given situation. We just muddle through, while telling ourselves that our thoughts and actions are justified by something inside of us.
Wright uses examples of two well-known cognitive biases to make his case against one of the New Atheists. Cognitive biases are observable in repeatable laboratory experiments. There are literally hundreds of observed biases out there, although some are more scientifically defensible than others. This graphic from John Manoogian III tries to sort them all out.
Looking at Wright’s examples, attribution error is when we overemphasize personal character and ignore situational factors while judging the cause of others’ behavior. We think: “They do bad things, because they are bad people”. We do the opposite for ourselves and those close to us: “We are forced to do bad things because the situation requires it.” Confirmation bias is the tendency to favor evidence that supports our side of an argument and to either not notice, reject, or forget evidence that undermines it.
Wright uses these examples to illustrate faulty thinking by some very smart people who are literally professional thinkers. So, I’m almost certain you can find a few instances in all the many Mindfully Investing articles where I claim that counter veiling evidence is suspect because of some characteristic of the evidence’s source. Or you might find me blathering for pages about one piece of supporting evidence and not giving equal time to a contradictory piece of evidence. I try mightily to avoid these traps, but I’m sure I’ve written some fine examples. I’d wager the same is true of most bloggers and investors, mindful or not. Wright notes that,
“Cognitive biases are so pervasive and subtle that it’s hubristic to ever claim we’ve escaped them entirely.”
One Tool in the Tool Box
It seems pretty evident to me that there’s a spectrum of rational versus emotional or biased decisions. No one decision is probably entirely one or the other. Even a decision like marriage is often some combination of love and cold assessment of the practical suitability of the other person as a life-long partner.
Mindfulness is clearly one way to move toward the rational end of the spectrum, but it’s certainly not the only way. I’ve observed that some people seem to have a “natural” inclination for more rational and less emotional thought processes. I certainly think my engineer father was one of them, and as far as I know, he never heard of mindfulness, much less practiced it. Other frameworks of thought such as science, technology, and some cultures all generate more rational behavior and decisions in people without resorting to mindfulness or meditation. However, I believe a specific merit of mindfulness is that it helps you recognize emotionally laden or biased motivations, rather than assuming that because you contemplated a problem for a while, your resulting decision must be entirely rational. Mindfulness helps us consider the uncertainties in our thoughts and beliefs and provides an imperfect guide that can help us avoid the trap of over-confidence.
I hope these observations help resist the growth of what Robert Wright calls “tribalism” around the concepts presented in Mindfully Investing. I have no desire to create a tribe of mindful investors that argues with a tribe of unmindful investors. Whether we practice mindfulness or not, most of us want to avoid counterproductive investing decisions by using more rational thought processes. If you achieve that goal while totally ignoring mindfulness, then I’m entirely supportive. If you happen to achieve that goal using mindfulness techniques, then that’s good too. Regardless, I think that we can all agree that mindfulness is not necessarily a “superior” path to rational decision-making or better investing. And because no one has access to perfect rationality, I hope we can also agree that it’s always worth considering whether your emotions and biases might be leading you astray.
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