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January 16, 2013



Good post!

Are there any biases acting in the opposite direction? The self-serving bias certainly would be a candidate!

Have you considered that people might actually value their optimism bias and opt for a society that gives them a chance of joining the elite, even if that chance is low?


One big problem with this debate is that we tend to conflate the ideology with the outcome.

In actual fact, though we may dislike unfair outcomes resulting from current ideology, it is not clear what the alternative would look like.

We may prefer set-ups in other societies, but it may not be possible to implement them, regardless of ideological preference.

Roger Floyd

Perhaps the biggest ideological bias is alienation which sees society and others as a means to an end instead of an end in itself. This can only be overcome by working class consciousness of its historical mission: socialism.


The question is, are cognitive biases themselves ideological constructs or are they innate mental predispositions?

For example, the just world illusion appears to reflect an innate appreciation of symmetry, but it has also been a central belief in religion for millenia, where its consolation has been used to justify inequality.

john problem

Then there is the cognitive whatsit that nobody ever remembers - all the bad things that happened to mankind have been caused by politicians.... Think about that for a moment!


Increasingly I believe that modern taxation has two primary functions, 1) to promote impoverishment and 2) to alienate individuals from the government. I think that the second function might actually be much more critical.

After all, it makes little sense for a government that can issue its own currency directly to demand that currency indirectly individual-by-individual. This is one of the silent scandals, I think, of the modern era. The decision post-gold-standard era to retain traditional taxation is a neoliberal strategy based on real-political understanding of human psychology (cognitive biases and otherwise.)

The strategy, basically? Use macro-economic policy to strain household budgets. Use traditional taxation both to strain further those budgets and to create a negative association between government and one's personal well-being. Then propose a deal: eliminate elements of personal taxation in exchange for eliminating social programs. Characterize the government as a 'strained household' (the old 'switcheroo') that has been 'spending outside of its means,' etc. etc.


Interesting, but begs some questions.

As suggested above, there probably are also cognitive biases favouring Non-neo-lib positions.

E.g. Why are the cognitive biases you describe so much more pronounced in Anglo-Saxon countries, compared with those enlightened Scandinavians?

It would be good to know why the zeitgeist changes.


I have a gut feeling that the cognitive stance is internal to and complicit in the ideology you are using it to explain. I mean, there seems something alienating about describing people in terms that don't convey their own experience of the world. We experience desires, pleasures, fears, anxieties etc. We don't ourselves experience cognitive bias. This is something someone else tells us that we have. It is alienating because a person's view of things is being presented to them as an error, a mistake; it discounts their actual experience. Is a belief held onto out of fear or anxiety irrational? Is the task to fix the belief or alleviate the fear and anxiety? So the belief may be wrong ('irrational') but the reasons (not the causes) for holding it are not - in such-and-such circumstances it is rational to believe so-and-so. The fundamental rationality of the person is being disregarded over the surface irrationality of the content of the belief. What ends up happening is that the impelling fear gets characterised as irrational i.e. the person's experience of the world is illegitimate. Hence alienation. I'm not quite hitting the nail on the head, but something about this bureaucratic cognitive talk calls me the heebie jeebies. I think it may relate to what Andrew said about not conflating the ideology with the outcome.

Neil Wilson

The other question is whether those cognitive biases can be harnessed to push a more positive agenda.

There is definitely an underlying feeling of insecurity that could be used - the fear of failure.


Well written post, but really this isn't anything new. Hell, its one of the major themes of our Declaration of Independence:

"Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."

ezra abrams

I searched the Wiseman paper for the string
got no hits
Isn't manufacturing consent sort of relevant to this line of thought ?
Or, as they used to say in the Soviet Union, we get more from pravda and isvestia then you do from the Times, because we know pravda is full of lies, and we read it carefully and critically

ezra abrams

sorry, software elided the imp part of my post, which was that the string value was chomsky


Ooh, good game! How about, rather than concentrating on the poor lumpen proletariat, we have a go at exploring how cognitive bias may help perpetuate "enlightened liberal ideology"?

Here's my attempt, but I'm sure you could do better:

(1) Optimism bias repeatedly leads liberals to over-estimate their own intelligence, compassion, creativity and understanding of society (also via the Pygmalion effect of "liberals are smart, liberals are kind etc."). This biases them strongly against precautionary ideas that argue for constraints on the reach and scope of government (because, thinking themselves smart and enlightened, they reason that the more power they have the more good they can do).

(2) The self-serving bias leads liberals to exaggerate their ability to influence and control society for the greater good, often leading them to assume that all social progress and reduction of inequality must be a direct consequence of their enlightened and valiant striving (rather than, say, something that would have just happened anyway through technological progress).

(3) These two biases also strongly depress self-critical thinking as liberals tend to believe (until they are confronted with unequivocal policy failure) that so long as they have the best intentions, and because they are naturally smart, then everything will likely work out for the good, and even if it doesn't then it won't really be their fault because at least they were *trying* to do the right thing (sometimes leading to dangerous "because we are the good guys" reasoning).

(4) The just world illusion, re-cast as: "All victims are utterly and always without blame, and thus wholly virtuous and justly deserving of our un-reserved sympathy, empathy and support", can cause liberals to rationalize injustice (when it is incompatible with their view of society) by appointing themselves as exclusive arbiters of who is and who is not awarded the label of victim.

(5) The status quo bias can cause some liberals to prefer the devil they know, thus predisposing them toward an habitual belief that radical change (often only vaguely defined) can be the only solution to our problems, and thus (because radical change is seldom either practical or on offer) allowing them to comfortably and self-righteously snipe from the side lines without having to get their hands dirty by acting pragmatically or exercising compromise.

(6) The fundamental attribution error can cause liberals to overrate the importance of societal factors compared to fundamental human differences, thus driving an over reliance on concepts such as priming, stereotype threat and the Pygmalion effect as explanatory tools. Thus liberals might sometimes attribute inequality to differences in income and power, when in truth those differences are simply the result of inequality in intelligence or industry, not the cause.



You are just making this up, right? All the biases mentioned in the original post have been subjected to laboratory analysis. Where is your supporting research?

One of the things we are supposed to learn in school is how to think clearly and without bias. Those who won't or can't learn this are better described as intellectually dishonest, and I know several with Ph.D.'s an MD's who are intellectually dishonest.


Of course, one might argue that rational means serve irrational ends.

We do objectively stupid things for love, for family, for enjoyment while acting rationally otherwise.

I might happily blow another £30 to get my mum's new TV delivered a day earlier, yet refuse to buy a tin of tomatoes at Waitrose because they're more expensive than Asda's.

We work long hours to earn more money to enjoy a higher quality of life in the snatched moments between commutes.

Go figure.


Sorry; to continue...

Surely criticising cognitive bias is effectively to exhort us to become Vulcans, discounting the reality of our irrational, emotional motivations.

Yet surely our irrationalities are a large component of our identities, our individuality.

How much of our individuality do we need to give up to satisfy you that our political disagreements are legitimate?

Or is this an example of another cognitive bias, namely: to see one's opponents as less rational?


There is another possibility.

Metrics like income and wealth distributions follow the same kind of boltzmann-gibbs and truncated power law found in distributions of natural systems (including biology and phsyics) which are subject to similar mathematical constraints (such as a multiplicative process over non-negative variables). An example from physics is the velocity of particles in a gas at thermodynamic equilibrium.

Maybe ideology evolves as an post-hoc rationalisation for such things, and as time progresses and gets more complex, the axioms of the ideology more closely match the actual mathematical constraints which are underlying.

And then if the cognitive bias is indeed related to the propagation of ideology then the maybe the cognitive bias in itself expresses or models somehow the actual bias that always shows itself in the shape of such distributions.

Because I notice a general convergence of capitalist ideology, economic thinking and economic evolution with how life actually operates on a grand scale.


The Scientific Method only works with critical thinking attacking bias and creatively destroying bias and hypotheses. Social theoreticians can't make the biases go away since that is the only game in their town. Humans game is only reproducible when you remove the good part of creativity. Natural laws require no individual belief or thinking. Thee is the challenge, bias is nothing but agenda, politics.


This is a great essay I 100% agree with.

jon livesey

I wonder if it's possible that in the developed economies the oppressed never even think about their oppression, because they are too busy buying or aiming to buy cars and colour TVs, going out to eat and watching television.

I'm not totally kidding. No-one ever says to me "I deserve to be oppressed". At most they say they don't have enough of the good things they would like to have.

in other words, they are biased towards "neoliberal ideology." because it at least offers the prospect of a supply of goods once they can afford them.

Anyone who has lived in the USSR, as I have, knows that the Soviet utopia didn't even hold out the prospect of a supply of goods ordinary consumers want. It offered only what the Soviet elites decided you needed.

John H. Morrison

"But how do the elite achieve this trick? Sometimes, the left verges towards conspiracy theory here, by believing that our rulers have the organizational skill to hoodwink people through the mass media.

"his, though, needn't be the case. There are numerous cognitive biases which dispose people towards `neoliberal ideology.'"

One event in particular can not possibly be explained by cognitive bias: the nationwide news blackout of Lori Klausutis's dead body found in then Representative Joe Scarborough's office. A young attractive Republican female aide found dead? It occurred the summer of 2001, the same time that the Chandra Levy/Gary Condit issue raged in the national media.

Also see:


Andrew (the one and only)

There must have been some key cognitive biases that came front of mind during the Great Depression and WW2....to herald a 30 long era of increasing equality. Maybe recognition of the common good? These biases must have been incorporated into the dominating ideologies of the era (socialism?). Can the author please go figure and enlighten us all.



I believe the author is (almost!) as guilty as me.

He invokes cognitive bias (CB) as a *possible* driver for the following observations:

1. Some people don't want higher taxes on top incomes.
2. Some people resist paying tax.
3. Some people believe that if they work hard they'll keep their jobs.
4. People will sometimes rationalise injustice.
5. People are sometimes against radical change.
6. Some people believe that huge pay for bosses is justified.
7. People sometimes wrongly attribute income inequality to differences in intelligence or industry.

However, while there is indeed evidence for the existence of CB in *general* (hence the cited Wikipedia entries) the author does not appear to site anything (other than for the first item) that could be called "laboratory analysis" or "experimental research" in support of the conclusion that the *particular* listed observations are always being driven *specifically* by CB.

The citations presented with the first item support the conclusion that a person's circumstances and their belief, or otherwise, in the existence of equality of opportunity can strongly influence their position on wealth redistribution – but this is not wholly unexpected. But to attribute this (let alone all of the other items in the list) *specifically* to CB then opens the flood gates for deploying the 'accusation' of CB as a re-phrasing of "I'm right and you're wrong" as "You are wrong, and thus you must be suffering from cognitive bias, but I forgive you because your reasoning is enfeebled by your recent evolutionary past".

To be fair on the author I don't think *he* was actually saying this at all, or claiming to have "laboratory analysis" or "experimental research" for his broader speculations either – I think he was mostly having a bit of fun exploring some interesting and *plausible* ideas... and I just wanted to join in by seeing how far I could get by applying the same sort of approach to the opposite target... in the spirit of testing ideas through self-criticism, which is certainly one of the things one needs to do from time to time to encourage bias free clear thinking.



Do your homework -- it is at your fingertips. There is a huge peer reviewed literature on these cognitive biases -- look on Google Scholar or the Web of Knowledge. You might start with Chris Mooney's "The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science - and Reality". Pay attention to the sources in the back as a guide to more reading.


(5) The status quo bias can cause some liberals to prefer the devil they know, thus predisposing them toward an habitual belief that radical change (often only vaguely defined) can be the only solution to our problems, and thus (because radical change is seldom either practical or on offer) allowing them to comfortably and self-righteously snipe from the side lines without having to get their hands dirty by acting pragmatically or exercising compromise.

Do you not see the obvious contradiction in this construct?
Sure you can copy-paste and change the subjects, but what comes out is illogical bable.

F for fail!

Air Max Shoes for Sale

A man is known by his friends.



The point I was trying to make (though I admit it's a bit tortuous) was that the state of being convinced of the need for radical change while at the same time mostly just talking about it (particularly if such change is essentially unachievable) can be in itself a kind of staus quo to which one could become irrationally biased/attached. I suppose I'm talking about a metta status quo of the mind in which one positions oneself intellectually as a radical (which can have quite strong rewards if you're in the right peer-group), while in reality nothing very much changes because things are actually reasonably bearable - in other words, people can be ostensibly (and self-rewardingly) in favour of radical change but at the same time quite strongly (at least empirically in terms of their mundane day to day behaviour) quite strongly attached to and dependent on the staus quo that provides them with a well ordered stage (populated with clearly defined goodies and baddies) from which they can self-satisfyingly play to the gallery.

Does my clarified construct (though I've never been entirely sure what construct actually means) get me promoted from an F for fail to an E-? I'm guessing probably not?


As I said, the author only provided specific references for the first item, along with general references for the various facets of cognitive bias that he invoked - had he provided others I would have looked at them, but, as I said, I don't think that *was* really his intention - I think (hope, almost) that his piece was rather more speculative than you seem to think.

I was *not* particularly questioning his piece - more trying to play along with it in spirit and try to be a bit satirical for the purposes of exploring the issue more deeply. However, you first criticise me for not providing references, and then when I defend myself by saying the author didn't provide references either and suggest the author may have also been being a bit satirical/speculative himself you then reply by saying, essentially, how dare I question his conclusions which are, you assert, strongly backed up elsewhere.

I should have been more direct with what I suppose was the broader point I wanted to try to make. I worry greatly that unless one is *very* careful with assessing the true explanatory-power of these admittedly extremely interesting and powerful concepts/discoveries then one can easily stray into a profoundly anti-democratic and technocratic pseudo-medicalised rationale for almost anything:

(1) Anti-democratic: "Even though this is what you say you want, it isn't actually what you really *need* because you are suffering from cognitive bias, and we have the scientific measurements to prove it".

(2) Technocratic: "Even though you appear to be unable adequately to determine what you really need that's OK because we know better and have already worked it all out for you".

Now, I'm not saying the above is necessarily the only response to these sorts of discoveries/findings (and certainly *not* advocated by the author), but it is easy to see how it could be adopted as a tempting short-cut, particularly by those very eager to do good, so I was trying to use a bit of satire to get an idea of what it would be like to be on the receiving end of this sort of thing.

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