Cognitive Biases

A problem:

Being "intelligent" and being "a good thinker" aren't at all the same thing.

The ability to answer analytical puzzles on an IQ test or the SAT is quite different from the ability to juggle information to operate in the real world. 

To put it bluntly: our brains are buggy! We pay too much attention to some things, and not enough to others. We systematically misconstrue situations. And if we want to believe something, it becomes terribly difficult to not believe it — even when presented with clear evidence! 

For examples, take a look at how conspiracy-theory-prone students are. Or listen to them spouting eerily the same political opinions as their parents, though with less understanding of the facts. 

Schools hardly touch this. At best, a school might offer a class on logic. Understanding logic is important, but it doesn't come close to addressing the deeply-rooted problems of cognitive biases. 

But we really can cultivate good thinkers.

Our basic plan:

Even in grade school, introduce kids to a handful of the most common (and most serious) cognitive biases. For example:

  • The fundamental attribution error, in which we're quick to attribute any fact about a person's behavior to their character, rather than their circumstances. (E.g. I ran that red light because I'm going to be late for a meeting; he ran that red light because he's a horrible person with a death wish.) 
  • Self-serving bias, in which we're quick to accept any idea that makes us look good, and reject any idea that makes us look bad. (E.g. she praised my painting because I'm the best artist in the school; he criticized my painting because he has it out for me.)
  • Confirmation bias, in which we only pay attention to evidence that supports our beliefs, and reject any evidence that challenges them. This leads to a host of horrible situations: for example, people's beliefs becoming stronger when they're presented with mixed or contrary evidence.

Share stories of when we've been hoodwinked by biases. Lead kids to find examples of these biases in the stories we tell, in the people around them, and in their own thinking. 

When the students are ready — perhaps in middle or high school — set ourselves at war with bad thinking! Have them research and share methods of combatting these biases. Set personal goals, and perhaps even hold contests. 

Throughout this, praise good thinking. 

The goal:

We want to create clear-headed adults who don't get suckered into conspiracy theories, simple-minded political ideologies, religious manias, or cultural fads.

Our goal is to cultivate adults who think clearly about the world as it really is, rather than getting pulled into self-deceptions. 

As Rebecca Goldstein wrote in Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away

Only once our grandiosity has been decimated — by the shock of reality’s otherness and beauty — can we achieve a life that isn’t a tissue of degrading lies and laughable illusions.

If we can help cultivate adults who operate in the real world, we can help them do bigger and better things.

If you walk into a classroom, you might see:

You might see, on occasion, a kid (or an adult) wincing when they recognize that they've been snookered into believing and publicly arguing for an idea that clearly isn't true.

You might see a student proud in the recognition that she's overturned a previous conviction. 

specific questions:

How far can we actually hope to succeed in this? Overturning cognitive biases is hard work. As Jonathan Haidt has written

It's almost impossible. Nobody's found a way to teach critical thinking that gets people to automatically reflect on, well, what's wrong with my position?

Related elements:

Logical errors (although note the difference — logical errors are about specific statements we make, while cognitive biases are about how we relate to the world)

de Bono's thinking tools

To Learn More:

Take a peek at this webcomic (xkcd) on cognitive biases and conspiracy theories

See the New York Times' article on The Center for Applied Rationality, a group in San Francisco that attempts to train participants in habits to overcome biases.

Read Daniel Kahneman's modern classic, Thinking: Fast and Slow

Read Keith Stanovich's What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought