Epistemic Optimists & Pessimists - Joe Abittan

Epistemic Optimists & Pessimists

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).
Nudges for Unrealistic Optimism

Nudges for Unrealistic Optimism

Our society makes fun of the unrealistic optimist all the time, but the reality is that most of us are unreasonably optimistic in many aspects of our life. We might not all believe that we are going to receive a financial windfall this month, that our favorite sports team will go from losing almost all their games last year to the championship this year, or that everyone in our family will suddenly be happy, but we still manage to be more optimistic about most things than is reasonable.

 

Most people believe they are better than average drivers, even though by definition half the people in a population must be above and half the people below average. Most of us probably think we will get a promotion or raise sometime sooner rather than later, and most of us probably think we will live to be 100 and won’t get cancer, go bald, or be in a serious car crash (after all, we are all above average drivers right?).

 

Our overconfidence is often necessary for daily life. If you are in sales, you need to be unrealistically optimistic that you are going to get a big sale, or you won’t continue to pick up the phone for cold calls. We would all prefer the surgeon who is more on the overconfident side than the surgeon who doubts their ability and asks us if we finalized our will before going into the operating room. And even just for going to the store, doing a favor for a neighbor, or paying for sports tickets, overconfidence is a feature, not a bug, of our thinking. But still, there are times where overconfidence can be a problem.

 

2020 is an excellent example. If we all think I’m not going to catch COVID, then we are less likely to take precautions and are more likely to actually catch the disease. This is where helpful nudges can come into play.

 

In Nudge, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler write, “If people are running risks because of unrealistic optimism, they might be able to benefit from a nudge. In fact, we have already mentioned one possibility: if people are reminded of a bad event, they may not continue to be so optimistic.”

 

Reminding people of others who have caught COVID might help encourage people to take appropriate safety precautions. Reminding a person trying to trade stocks of previous poor decisions might encourage them to make better investment choices then trying their hand at day trading. A quick pop-up from a website blocker might encourage someone not to risk checking social media while they are supposed to be working, saving them from the one time their supervisor walks by while they are scrolling through someone’s profile. Overconfidence may be necessary for us, but it can lead to risky behavior and can have serious downfalls. If slight nudges can help push people away from catastrophic consequences from unrealistic optimism, then they should be employed.
Competing Biases

Competing Biases

I am trying to remind myself that everyone, myself included, operates on a complex set of ideas, narratives, and beliefs that are sometimes coherent, but often conflicting. When I view my own beliefs, I am tempted to think of myself as rational and realistic. When I think of others who I disagree with, I am prone to viewing them in a simplistic frame that makes their arguments irrational and wrong. The reality is that all of our beliefs are less coherent and more complex than we typically think.

 

Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow has many examples of how complex and contradictory much of our thinking is, even if we don’t recognize it. One example is competing biases that manifest within us as individuals and can be seen in the organizations and larger groups that we form. We can be exaggeratedly optimistic and paralyzingly risk averse at the same time, and sometimes this tendency can actually be a good thing for us. “Exaggerated optimism protects individuals and organizations from the paralyzing effects of loss aversion; loss aversion protects them from the follies of overconfident optimism.”

 

On a first read, I would expect the outcome of what Kahneman describes to be gridlock. The optimist (or optimistic part of our brain) wants to push forward with a big new idea and plan. Meanwhile, loss aversion halts any decision making and prevents new ideas from taking root. The reality, as I think Kahneman would explain, is less of a conscious and deliberate gridlock, but an unnoticed trend toward certain decisions. The optimism wins out in an enthusiastic way when we see a safe bet or when a company sees an opportunity to capture rents. The loss aversion wins out when the bet isn’t safe enough, and when we want to hoard what we already have. We don’t even realize when we are making these decisions, they are just obvious and clear directions, but the reality is that we are constantly being jostled between exaggerated optimism and loss aversion.

 

Kahneman shows that these two biases are not exclusionary even though they may be conflicting. We can act on both biases at the same time, we are not exclusively a risk seeking optimists or exclusively risk averse. When the situation calls for it, we apply the appropriate frame at an intuitive level. Kahneman’s quote above shows that this can be advantageous for us, but throughout the book he also shows us how biases in certain directions and situation can be costly for us overtime as well.

 

We like simple and coherent narratives. We like thinking that we are one thing or another, that other people are either good or bad and right or wrong. The reality, however, is that we contain multitudes within us, act on competing and conflicting biases, and have more nuance and incongruency in our lives than we realize. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We can all still survive and prosper despite the complexity and incoherent beliefs that we hold. Nevertheless, I think it is important that we acknowledge the reality we live within, rather than simply believing the simple stories that we like to tell ourselves.
Thinking Forward to Prepare for Obstacles

Thinking Forward to Prepare for Obstacles

A useful technique I learned for overcoming obstacles is to think ahead to the challenges you are likely to face and how you can overcome those challenges. If you only think ahead to the success you will have and picture a perfect life once you reach your goal, you will be less likely to actually achieve the success you desire than if you think about the challenges that lie ahead. However, dwelling on only the hard parts and obstacles can also be unhealthy. The key is to look ahead not to the obstacles themselves, but to how you will overcome them.

 

When you think about things that can go wrong in your life, you should picture yourself  getting through those obstacles. You should be realistic and specific in thinking things through. “I might encounter X, and if that happens, then I know I can do Y and ultimately be successful or at least manage a reasonable level of comfort.” If you start your plan for how you will overcome those obstacles, you will be more likely to persevere when the going gets tough. If you only think about how nice it will be once you have reached your goal, then you will be unprepared for the obstacles that you will face along your journey.

 

While this is a much more healthy way to think about the future, it is not the most common way for us to think. Most of us anticipate the things that can go wrong, but never get to the next step of thinking through the ways in which we can prepare for and overcome the problems we fear. What we usually end up doing is living in dread of the troubles ahead.

 

In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca writes, “Why, indeed, is it necessary to summon trouble—which must be endured soon enough when it has once arrived, or to anticipate trouble and ruin the present through fear of the future? It is foolish to be unhappy now because you may be unhappy at some future time.”

 

Seneca recognized the dangers of living in dread. If we think ahead to the future and only worry about what negative things we may face, then we turn our present moment, which might be quite peaceful and enjoyable, into a negative space consumed by the thing we hope doesn’t happen. Seneca encourages us to be more present and grounded in the current moment. I would argue that looking ahead and thinking of how we can overcome obstacles and truly understanding how we can adjust to and adapt to these challenges can help us be more confident in ourselves, and help us ultimately live with a greater sense of presence. It will also help us prepare for those times when we do face the obstacles we are afraid of.

Hope

Senator Cory Booker has an interesting thought about optimism and the future. He believes that you can’t simply look forward to the positives of the future and that you can’t ignore the negatives of the present that may persist into the future. What you must do, according to Booker, is be honest about the negativity that you wish to change and set out to make the world better through actions and deliberate choice. Intentional actions to drive toward a better world is what Booker calls hope, and it is about more than just believing things will be better one day. For Booker, hope is believing that one can struggle against the negativity, learn, grow, and make the world a better place. He writes, “Hope is the active conviction that despair will never have the last word.”

 

The power of Booker’s hopefulness lies in its practical manifestations in the real world. On an interview of the Ezra Klein Show, and again in an interview with Tim Ferris, Booker spoke about the word “optimism” and explained that optimism falls short of Booker’s ideas of hope. He sees optimism as empty beliefs that things will get better, leaving out the important decisions and efforts of the individual to make thing better. If one simply assumes the world will move in the right direction without looking at the specific areas that need to change, then one will never have a plan or roadmap to reach that better future. A positive outlook of the future needs to have more than just blind faith that one day things be great, it needs action items that one can relentlessly pursue to improve the world. This is the hope that Booker describes as a participant driven optimism.

 

Hope for Booker is the belief that one has the power to make the world a better place through awareness and action. If you fail to see what negativity exists, if you fail to think about how you could change what you dislike and understand to be unjust, if you fail to acknowledge the pain and suffering of now, then you won’t be able to live in a way that fights against such forces. Booker continues, “It does not ignore pain, agony, or injustice. It is not a saccharine optimism that refuses to see, face, or grapple with the wretchedness of reality. You can’t have hope without despair, because hope is a response.” Hope is the ability to look at the world, visualize a way to improve it, and take steps toward a better future. Hope does not run from the negative of the world today, but looks at the negative more closely to understand where it came from and how it can be overcome.