A little while back I did a mini dive into cognitive psychology and behavioral economics by reading Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, Nudge by Sunstein and Thaler, Risk Savvy by Gerd Gigerenzer, Vices of the Mind by Quassim Cassam, and The Book of Why by Judea Pearl. Each of these authors asked questions about the ways we think and tried to explain why our thinking so often seems go awry. Recognizing that it is a useful but insufficient dichotomy, each of these authors can be thought of as either an epistemic optimist or an epistemic pessimist.
In Vices of the Mind Cassam gives us the definitions for epistemic optimists and pessimists. He writes, “Optimism is the view that self-improvement is possible, and that there is often (though not always) something we can do about our epistemic vices, including many of our implicit biases.” The optimists, Cassam argues, believes that we can learn about our mind, our biases, and how our thinking works to make better decisions and improve our beliefs to foster knowledge. Cassam continues, “Pessimism is much more sceptical about the prospects of self-improvement or, at any rate, of lasting self-improvement. … For pessimists, the focus of inquiry shouldn’t be on overcoming our epistemic vices but on outsmarting them, that is, finding ways to work around them so as to reduce their ill effects.” With Cassam’s framework, I think it is possible to look at the ways each author and researcher presents information in their books and to think of them as either optimists or pessimists.
Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow wants to be an optimist, but ultimately is a pessimist. He writes throughout the book how his own knowledge about biases, cognitive illusions, and thinking errors hardly help him in his own life. He states that what he really hopes his book accomplishes is improved water-cooler talk and better understanding of how the brain works, not necessarily better decision-making for those who read his book. Similarly, Sunstein and Thaler are pessimists. They clearly believe that we can outsmart our epistemic vices, but not by our own actions but rather by outside nudges that smarter people and responsible choice architects have designed for us. Neither Kahneman nor the Chicago economics pair believe we really have any ability to control and change our thinking independently.
Gigerenzer and Pearl are both optimists. While Gigerenzer believes that nudges can be helpful and encourages the development of aids to outsmart our epistemic vices, he also clearly believes that we can overcome them on our own simply through gaining experience and through practice. For Gigerenzer, achieving epistemic virtuosity is possible, even if it isn’t something you explicitly work toward. Pearl focuses how human beings are able to interpret and understand causal structures in the real world, and breaks from the fashionable viewpoint of most academics in saying that humans are actually very good and understanding, interpreting, and measuring causality. He is an epistemic optimist because he believes, and argues in his book, that we can improve our thinking, improve the ways we approach questions of causality, and improve our knowledge without having to rely on fancy tricks to outsmart epistemic vices. Both authors believe that growth and improved thinking is possible.
Cassam is harder to place, but I think he still is best thought of as an epistemic optimist. He believes that we are blameworthy for our epistemic vices and that they are indeed reprehensible. He also believes that we can improve our thinking and reach a more epistemically virtuous way of thinking if we are deliberate about addressing our epistemic vices. I don’t think that Cassam believes we have to outsmart our epistemic vices, only that we need to be able to recognize them and understand how to get beyond them, and I believe that he would argue that we can do so.
Ultimately, I think that we should learn from Kahneman, Sunstein, and Thaler and be more thoughtful of our nudges as we look for ways to overcome the limitations of our minds. However, I do believe that learning about epistemic vices and taking steps to improve our thinking can help us grow and become more epistemically virtuous. Simple experience, as I think Gigerenzer would argue, will help us improve naturally, and deliberate and calibrated thought, as Pearl might argue, can help us clearly see real and accurate causal structures in the world. I agree with Cassam that we are at least revision responsible for our epistemic vices, and that we can take steps to get beyond them, improving our thinking and becoming epistemically virtuous. In the end, I don’t think humanity is a helpless pool of irrationality and that we can only improve our thinking and decision-making through nudges. I think we can and over time will improve our statistical thinking, decision-making, and limit cognitive errors and biases as individuals and as societies (then again, maybe its just the morning coffee talking).