Interesting Confusion

Like every human being on Earth, I am not immune to bias. Despite putting a lot of effort into recognizing mental tricks, logical fallacies, and decision-making noise, I am perhaps 10% better than the average person at reducing the impact of those things on my decisions.

And that’s pretty good! Honestly, if we all got 10% better at making decisions the compound effect would probably make the world unrecognizable. So I’m not complaining!

But I always look for novel ways to trick my brain into freeing itself from all the chains that bind our thinking. And one interesting way I’ve discovered is to put myself in situations where I don’t know enough to be biased.

You see, if I know anything about a topic, then I probably have at least some opinion on it. I recognize that my opinions could be wrong, but it’s still a base point that my thinking will emerge from. Likewise, if I already have a positive impression of a person’s intelligence overall, I’m likely to weight the things they say with more belief than if I heard them from someone who I thought wasn’t very smart.

(To a certain degree the intelligence of the speaker is a rational thing to use as one piece of evidence towards a statement’s truth, but it shouldn’t be the only thing and you should be very careful about it – most people aren’t “generally smart,” they’re knowledgeable in specific areas. Einstein actually said a lot of dumb, definitely wrong things about topics that weren’t physics, but because he’s the universal avatar of “smart people” in most folks’ imaginations, they take everything he said as gospel. Don’t do that!)

So what I’ve done lately is just find interesting-seeming writing written by people who I don’t know anything about, on topics I don’t know anything about, just to start puzzling through it and see what I can absorb. I can’t tell if I’m reading utter nonsense or the next great work of genius that will define our time. I don’t know if I’m standing in the presence of a true master or entertaining a crackpot. It doesn’t matter! In any case, I learn something.

The fun of this is that I have no “skin in the game,” no preconceived notions about any factor, and no agenda for my learning. So bias is pretty much at a minimum, at least in as much as it can be with our particular kinds of brains. I am often confused, in a fun way. My ego is in zero danger, so while I can get confused, I never get frustrated.

This is good practice for learning. Try it, and then remember what it feels like. Then when you find yourself doing something else that looks like learning and should be learning, see if it feels the same. Do you feel confused but interested, psychologically safe and curious, mind changing and possibilities swirling? Or are you nodding along, saying “uh huh, that’s what I always thought” and feeling righteous?

Because that second one? That’s not learning.

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