My friend Mr. James Gill, a talented professional artist, is fascinated by the study of cognitive biases. This fits his lifelong interest in stage magic, and resonates well with his interests in philosophy and psychology. His current project, the Cognitive Bias Parade, is well worth looking at. Like the logical fallacies, and rhetoric’s figures of speech, the currently developing lists of cognitive illusions and biases provide an interesting vantage point to view the human comedy. At present, Mr. Gill uses these human, all-too-human intellectual frailties, tics, and ruts as inspiration for collages, cartoons, and the occasional epigram. (I appropriated the above image, from his site, as my current Facebook profile picture.)

My own somewhat lesser interest in cognitive biases and illusions stems not from an interest in “magic” — I have almost none — but from the basic problems of philosophy, particularly epistemology (theory of knowledge) and axiology (theory of value), as well as the theory of action, praxeology, which resonates with my lifelong interest in economics and social theory.

As I contend with the cognitive biases, a few issues keep on coming up, and a few books on my just-read shelf cannot help but spring to mind:

  • The Study of Sociology, by Herbert Spencer — this work explores, in detail, some of the initial difficulties in doing any kind of social science, going on at length about the biases that might affect the reader or practitioner. Spencer concentrates not on modern cognitive biases as such, but on the humdrum issues of class bias, religious bias, etc.
  • The Slightest Philosophy — in this work, Quee Nelson takes seriously the challenges that most philosophy students treat merely eristically: the challenge of how we can know anything at all, how we can believe  in common sense reality. Ms. Nelson challenges the traditional skeptical challenge, and takes a sharp look at total skepticism. The bias she seems most strongly opposed to is the one that takes seriously the idea that “all is illusion.” She takes the more studied, “centrist” position, that we know something as illusion against the context of non-illusory experience.
  • Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan — in these two books Nassim Nicholas Taleb takes a look at chance and uncertainty beyond the biases developed by “expert” users of statistics.

It was Richard Feynman who gave the most profound warning: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”

The classic case of fooling yourself, I believe, was by the pre-Socratic philosopher Zeno of Elea. His paradoxes were designed, Plato tells us, to prove Parmenides’s notion that all is one and that change is illusory. But what they prove, I think, is a great warning on the misuse of cognitive tools, like measurement. The arrow paradox is a great goofy puzzle that one has to see as a trick, like stage magic. You must disbelieve the premise. For the brute fact of the matter is that arrows are aimed at targets, and usually hit them, if not with complete, Robin-Hood accuracy. If you think the geometric imagination of location, or some mathematical measurement, or conception of space, can disprove the evidence of your senses — can tell you that change is unreal — you have glommed on to a conclusion far worse than many a natural illusion.

Folk theories of the world almost necessarily step into one illusion or another. I have dubbed one popular and characteristic glitch in folk economics “The Beneficiary Focus Illusion.” So far that term has not caught on.