headshot of George Dinwiddie with books he's written

iDIA Computing Newsletter

April 2023

Be Your Own Buddy

Recently a colleague told me that I was the most diverse thinker he knew. While he seemed unsure how I would take that, I felt very proud. I've made a habit of trying to view things from many directions, and through various lenses, to protect myself from being trapped by cognitive biases.

For example, when I notice that I'm falling into the trap of Binary Bias, I hear Jerry Weinberg's words, "If I've only thought of two options, then I haven't thought about it enough." Usually, these two options seem to be "the one I want to choose" and another that is a foil to make the first one look good. I ask myself, "What is a third option?" Sometimes it's hard to think of one, but when I find that third option, it's generally not even on the same axis defined by the first two options that came to mind. It's in some other direction, entirely, and that opens my mind to the many other possible dimensions of the situation. Then thinking of options four, five, six, and more usually happen quite rapidly.

I have other habits of mind to help me stay honest to myself. As I grapple with a situation, I habitually try out different lenses to view it. I zoom in to look at the details. I zoom out to see it in context. Sometimes I imagine it in a different context. Sometimes I imagine I'm someone else, and ponder how it looks to them. Sure, it would be helpful to ask someone in that different context, but that sort of research is hard work and time-consuming. It's good to get outside of my own head, even just a little, and explore possibilities not in my current world-view.

I also play with the time dimension. What's different now from the past? What's it going to look like in the future? Entertain possibilities that you don't believe--even fanciful ones. This gives a richer, more varied viewpoint. I've often found myself considering a longer time horizon than those who hired me. Being free of the tyranny of short term results, or just thinking as if I have that freedom, opens up my awareness of possibilities. I can speculate about the long term consequences of short term decisions. Also, I find it helpful to imagine a future that I don't know how to achieve, but seems desirable to me.

Why Do I Do This?

I strongly believe that I can make better decisions based on facts rather than mirages of what I would like to be true, or what I fear may be true. This is not easy to do. We can never know everything, or know anything completely. The human mind is excellent at taking the data it has and building a believable story, though. We often believe that story. This is where we fall prey to cognitive bias. As Richard Feynman said, "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself--and you are the easiest person to fool."

Annie Duke, in Thinking in Bets, suggests a "buddy system" to help you fight natural human biases, see the world more objectively, and make better decisions. She notes, "doing it on our own is just harder." Yes, it is harder. But it may be harder still to assemble a group that we can count on to help us examine the decisions that confront us. Even if we do, they might not be available at the time we most need them. By making a habit of questioning my conclusions and the assumptions behind them, I help myself climb out of the pit of cognitive bias.

Granted, I can never know something completely, or without bias. I'm OK with that. It's enough, I think, to keep fighting it and do the best I can, for now. It's a forever job, but that doesn't get me down. It also helps me not get paralyzed by it, as I'm not striving for perfection within my lifetime. Just a little better all the time.

/signed/ George

P.S. This is a small part of a topic I've thought about a lot in recent years. If it resonates with you, I'd love to chat with you. You could schedule a Zoom Session with me to talk about it.

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