Think about it.

Today, I’m going to teach you something practical.

It’s one of the easiest rationality techniques I know and I’ve personally found it to be quite helpful. The great thing about it is that it’s one of the few techniques I know that is equally useful for both epistemic and instrumental rationality.

You can use it for reaching decisions, for solving problems or just to better analyze information about something. In hindsight it will look really obvious, but in my experience hardly anyone uses this, very simple, technique.

I don’t have a good catchy name for the technique, so I’m just going to describe it in steps:

  1. Decide on the thing you want an answer to. This can be a though decision to make, a truth about yourself you’ve been struggling with, a philosophical discussion you had with a friend, a problem to solve, etc.
  2. Go to a place where people will leave you alone for a couple of minutes. It’s important not to be interrupted. It doesn’t need to be at a quiet place, although that might help for some people.
  3. Sit or lie down. Make sure you’re comfortable.
  4. Set a countdown-timer for five minutes (or ten when it’s a really hard problem).
  5. Close your eyes.
  6. Think about the problem until the timer ends.

That’s it.

Like I said: really easy. Really obvious.

But be honest, when is the last time you took some time to actually think about something? Without also browsing the internet, playing a game, driving a car, looking at people… Most people don’t spend any time thinking about specific things and yet it can be really effective. I’m not saying it will have 100% success rates but for most people reading this it can be an excellent habit to form.

Addendum:

Don’t expect to be successful at this all the time. Most minds have a tendency to wander, even when you’re trying to focus on something. If you’re mind starts to wander, just let it. Don’t force your focus, but keep the thing you want an answer to in the back of your mind. Generally you don’t need the full five minutes, so it’s perfectly alright if you lose focus for a minute or two.

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What are cognitive biases?

In my first post, I described epistemic and instrumental rationality. In this post we’re going to take a look at one of the greatest enemies of epistemic rationality: your own brain.

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In all seriousness, a human brain does a lot of things right, but it also does a lot of things wrong. One of the ways your brain can do things wrong is called a cognitive bias. If you’ve spend some time around Less Wrong affiliated people, you’ve probably heard of the word “bias”, but what does it mean? In the following paragraphs I’ll attempt to explain what a cognitive bias is.

You can compare a cognitive biases with optical illusions.

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You probably already seen this one, so you know all the lines are straight, but you can’t help but perceive them as crooked. A cognitive bias is similar, but instead of tricking the way you see, it tricks the way you think. Even if all the information you have is accurate, your brain can come to incorrect conclusions.

Here‘s an example of how your brain can be tricked:

It’s important that you note the first answer that comes to mind, you shouldn’t be spending time writing this down and working out the equation.

“A baseball bat and a baseball together cost $1.10. The bat costs one dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?”

Just note the first answer that comes to mind.

There’s a good chance you thought $0.10. This is wrong. Feel free to work out why, or click the link if you want to know the correct answer.

And if you got it wrong: don’t feel bad, more than half of the people answering that question made the same mistake.

This is just one of the ways in which your brain can fool itself and the list of all the ways in which this sort of thing can happen is really, really long.

So really, you can’t trust your brain when looking at the world. This isn’t your fault however. Your brain isn’t equipped for all this. It’s the product of evolution, made so you can successfully hunt, gather and do tribal politics. It wasn’t made for solving ball-and-bat problems or looking at weird circles that seem to move. Those things just didn’t happen in the environment you were made for.

And really, a lot of biases are really just shortcuts your brain takes because a lot of the time there isn’t any problem in taking them. Nevertheless you need to be prepared for the times when taking the shortcuts is dangerous. There are people who know about biases and can and will exploit them to get ahead. There are problems you won’t be able to solve properly unless you overcome certain biases.

Which leads us to the good news. Most biases can be defeated or circumvented. It isn’t always easy, but by reading this far you’ve already taken the first step. Knowing about certain biases can be enough to get to more accurate beliefs for some people.

In the future, we will discuss specific biases and how to overcome them. If there’s a particular one you want to see discussed, feel free to let me know.