Hi, my name is Bryan Johnson, and I have a problem. My brain is critically flawed. I see other people’s cognitive errors but can’t see my own. Just like you. Just like everyone else.
Having these cognitive defects compromises my ability to do and become what I want. So, I’m going to try and eliminate them.
Inspired by Benjamin Franklin’s plan for moral “perfection”. I’m going to try and become cognitively “perfect” in 13 weeks!
In 1726, at the age of 20, Benjamin Franklin conceived of a plan to become morally “perfect”. He was obsessed with the virtue of the individual and thought a society could be optimal only when its members were as well. He identified 13 virtues and created a plan to master each one over the duration of a week. I used Franklin’s framework as a template and mapped it to cognition instead of morality.
Like Franklin, I think our society, our future, is only as “perfect” as we all are.
If we look at the state of the world, it’s clear that upstream of all of our big problems — climate change, ineffective political systems, unemployment, inequality, war, our very future as a species — is an even bigger problem: our susceptibility to cognitive biases, our inability to recognize their existence, and the extreme difficulty of trying to overcome them. It’s urgent that we level up our cognition, or we will fail as a species.
Understanding our cognitive flaws and overcoming them is the lowest-hanging option to leveling up. No additional technology is needed. (Though, I’m working on some neural technologies, too, just in case).
If we could see when, where and how our brains are flawed, we’d have a better chance of tackling the myriad of complex problems that are going to increasingly make life on this planet a challenge for all of us. The quicker we can make radically improving our brains the single highest priority of the human race, the more effective we will be to work on everything else we care about. (Quantifying our brain activity via Attebytes would help kickstart this.)
Skeptical? You’re not alone. 85% of us believe we’re less susceptible to biases as our fellow cognitively suboptimal humans :) That’s the Bias Blind Spot.
For those of you who might wonder if this exercise is just a theoretical or academic contemplation, the New York Times wrote a piece today about how Trump voters feared losing social status more than losing money. Guess what? That’s an aspect of Social Identity Bias: “Social identities are a valued aspect of the self, and people will sacrifice their pecuniary self-interest to maintain the self-perception that they belong to a given social group.”
On the other side of our cognitive biases is elite-level success. Ray Dalio’s financial firm, Bridgewater, has methodically and systematically worked to remove their cognitive shortcomings and their performance speaks for itself. Ray open sourced Bridgewater’s methods in Principles and the results were good evidence that collectives can operate at higher levels when they are open and honest about and can see past their cognitive flaws.
For each of us and all of us, this won’t be easy.
But the problem is bigger than each of us individually.
Going through the Ben Franklin-inspired exercise, I’ve even noticed a few biases that haven’t been written about before but seem so glaringly obvious. Because of the Existence Bias, for example, we don’t have a plan for the future of the human race. That’s odd, because our existence is built upon obsessive planning. It helps us get what we want. Accordingly, we plan for everything: social events, marriage, education, vacations, careers, health, war and even death.
So why don’t we have a plan for the human race? Whether we like it or not, nearly 8 billion of us are interconnected, comprising a vast orchestra, each contributing to a collective fate.
One final note before sharing my plan. Putting this together made a few things apparent:
- My brain is even more flawed than I realized, and I’ve been thinking about this for years. Yikes!
- I don’t possess the proper tools to radically improve my cognition the way I’d like to.
- Striving towards cognitive perfection is infinitely more complicated than striving towards moral perfection.
- We have plenty of myths around what moral perfection looks like (i.e. Franklin identified Socrates and Jesus), but who are the mythical heroes of cognitive perfection? Perhaps that’s another cognitive bias.
After his gallant effort, Franklin learned he can’t attain moral perfection yet concludes he’s better off for having tried.
I hope that’s true for me and any of you who try along with me.
Here are my scratch notes, scaffolded off of Franklin’s moral virtues and combined with categorizations from this great poster which lays out all of our biases and sits on the wall of my office and my home.
The 13-Step Path to Cognitive “Perfection”
1. TEMPERANCE (“Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.” — Ben Franklin)
MY GOAL: Carefully categorize thoughts; be neither too specific nor too general in assumptions or conclusions; consider specifics and notice wholeness.
- We generalize based on specifics: Implicit stereotypes, Prejudice, Negativity bias, Fading affect bias.
- When we cannot generalize, we pick individual items to stand in for the whole: Peak–end rule, Leveling and sharpening, Misinformation effect, Duration neglect, Serial position effect, Modality effect, Memory inhibition, Serial position effect, Suffix effect.
2. SILENCE (“Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.” — BF)
MY GOAL: Delight in not knowing; resist making assumptions from narrow or incomplete information.
- We make conclusions based on limited data: Confabulation, Clustering illusion, Insensitivity to sample size, Neglect of probability, Anecdotal fallacy, Illusion of validity, Masked man fallacy, Recency illusion, Gambler’s fallacy, Hot-hand fallacy, Illusory correlation, Pareidolia.
- In making conclusions based on limited data, we transfer to the generalized version traits and characteristics from the individual items chosen to stand in for the whole: Group attribution error, Ultimate attribution error, Stereotyping, Essentialism, Functional fixedness, Moral credential effect, Just-world hypothesis, Argument from fallacy, Authority bias, Automation bias, Bandwagon effect, Placebo effect
3. ORDER (“Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.”- BF)
MY GOAL: Do not be swayed by the ordering of events or memories; identify context and do not be seduced by novelty.
- Our attention and interpretations can be dominated by context as well as the recency, availability, or frequency of remembered events: Availability heuristic, Attentional bias, Illusory truth effect, Mere exposure effect, Context effect, Cue-dependent forgetting, Mood-congruent memory bias, Frequency illusion, Empathy gap, Omission bias, Base rate fallacy
- We notice differences and novelty by recent or subjective comparisons, not to an objective standard: Anchoring, Money illusion, Framing effect, Weber–Fechner law, Conservatism, Distinction bias
4. RESOLUTION (“Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.” -BF)
MY GOAL: Hold truth lightly for it will soon be replaced; beware overconfidence, defensiveness, and projection of my beliefs and assumptions into others’ thoughts.
- We are often deluded in our confidence and reasons: Overconfidence effect, Egocentric bias, Optimism bias, Social desirability bias, Third-person effect, Barnum/Forer effect, Illusion of control, False consensus effect, Dunning-Kruger effect, Hard-easy effect, Illusory superiority, Lake Wobegone effect, Self-serving bias, Fundamental attribution error, Defensive attribution hypothesis, Trait ascription bias, Effort justification, Risk compensation.
5. FRUGALITY (“Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.” -BF)
MY GOAL: Do not overvalue the present or that which is immediately before me; embrace ideas that are unfamiliar to me in space (i.e. across the world) and time (i.e. the past or the future).
- We are present focused and familiarity oriented: Time preference, Hyperbolic discounting, Appeal to novelty, Identifiable victim effect
6. INDUSTRY (“Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.” -BF)
MY GOAL: Do not be afraid to abandon ideas or actions; embrace change.
- We stubbornly cling to actions or thoughts that are already in motion, even if they are no longer viable or optimal: Sunk cost fallacy, Escalation of commitment, Loss aversion, IKEA/ Processing difficulty effect, Generation effect, Zero-risk bias, Disposition effect, Unit bias, Pseudocertainty effect, Endowment effect, Backfire effect
7. SINCERITY (“Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.” -BF)
MY GOAL: Acknowledge the independence of other minds; embrace the unknown future and the forgotten past.
- We make errors in our assumptions about the inner world of other people, often based on egocentric or selfish understandings of how we think the world works: Curse of knowledge, Illusion of transparency, Spotlight effect, Illusion of external agency, Illusion of asymmetric insight, Extrinsic incentive error
- We are bad at counterfactuals because we cannot imagine the true impact of technology, randomness, risk, or time: Hindsight bias, Outcome bias, Moral luck, Declinism, Telescoping effect, Rosy retrospection, Impact bias, Pessimism bias, Planning fallacy, Time-saving bias, Pro-innovation bias, Projection bias, Restraint bias, Self-consistency bias
8. JUSTICE (“Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.” -BF)
MY GOAL: Embrace the unfamiliar; do not attach to groups, people, places, or thoughts any attributes based on their pleasantness or unpleasantness nor on their familiar or unfamiliar relation to you.
- We prefer things that are closer, more familiar, and more like us: Halo effect, In-group bias, Out-group homogeneity bias, Cross-race effect, Cheerleader effect, Well-traveled road effect, Not invented here, Reactive devaluation, Positivity effect
9. MODERATION (“Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.” -BF)
MY GOAL: Buck the trend; be less conservative; identify and contemplate the merit of any actions based solely on preservation of status quo or the fear of social loss.
- We avoid risk, irreversibility, and social loss: System justification, Reactance, Reverse psychology, Decoy effect, Social comparison bias, Status quo bias
10. CLEANLINESS (“Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.” -BF)
MY GOAL: The world is not clean and ordered; do not be seduced by simplicity or argument, manner, or contemplation; find harmony in complexity, ambiguity, and contradiction.
- We prefer simplicity: Ambiguity bias, Information bias, Belief bias, Rhyme as reason effect, Law of Triviality, Delmore effect, Conjunction fallacy, Occam’s razor, Less-is-better effect
11. TRANQUILLITY (“Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.” -BF)
MY GOAL: Resist the lure of certainty; overcome fast or error-prone intuitions about probability through rigor, clarity, and honesty.
- Our intuitions often fail us in the presence of ambiguity, unknown probabilities, or uncertain outcomes: Mental accounting, Normalcy bias, Appeal to probability fallacy, Murphy’s Law, Subadditivity effect, Survivorship bias, Zero sum bias, Denomination effect, Magic number 7+-2
12. CHASTITY (“Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dulness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.” -BF)
MY GOAL: Memories are faulty; make no certain assumptions, judgments, or opinions that do not on some level reflect this uncertainty.
- Memories are stored subjectively and based on a variety of factors including context, ease, and emotional or physical context: Levels of processing effect, Testing effect, Absent-mindedness, Next-in-line effect, Tip of the tongue phenomenon, Google effect
- These memories can be edited, reinforced, deemphasized after the fact. False memories are a real thing.: Misattribution of memory, Cryptomnesia, Suggestibility, Spacing effect
13. HUMILITY (“Imitate Jesus and Socrates.” -BF)
MY GOAL: Consider all opinions and options independent of your agreement of them; recognize that all biases apply equally to yourself as to others.
- We find confirming beliefs more likely to be true than disconfirming beliefs, and go so far as to hide ourselves from disagreement: Confirmation bias, Congruence bias, Post-purchase rationalization/Choice-supportive bias, Selective perception, Observer-expectancy effect, Ostrich effect, Subjective validation, Continued influence effect, Semmelweis reflex
- We cannot often see our own flaws or biases: Bias blind spot, Naïve cynicism, Naïve realism