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Daily RC Article 93

Uncovering Cognitive Biases: Plato's Precedent in Behavioral Economics


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In his essay ‘On Being Modern-Minded’ (1950), Bertrand Russell describes a particularly seductive illusion about history and intellectual progress. Because every age tends to exaggerate its uniqueness and imagine itself as a culmination of progress, continuities with previous historical periods are easily overlooked: ‘new catchwords hide from us the thoughts and feelings of our ancestors, even when they differed little from our own.’

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Behavioural economics is one of the major intellectual developments of the past 50 years. The work of the psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in particular is justly celebrated for identifying and analysing many of the core biases in human cognition. Russell’s insight, in fact, bears a strong resemblance to what Kahneman calls the availability bias. Because the catchwords and achievements of contemporary culture are most readily called to mind – most available – they tend to dominate our assessments. The fact that Russell’s articulation of this idea is much less familiar than Kahneman’s is itself a confirmation of Russell’s point.

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But the richest precedent for behavioural economics is in the works of ancient Greek philosophers. Almost 2,500 years before the current vogue for behavioural economics, Plato was identifying and seeking to understand the predictable irrationalities of the human mind. He did not verify them with the techniques of modern experimental psychology, but many of his insights are remarkably similar to the descriptions of the cognitive biases found by Kahneman and Tversky. Seminal papers in behavioural economics are highly cited everywhere from business and medical schools to the social sciences and the corporate world. But the earlier explorations of the same phenomenon by Greek philosophy are rarely appreciated. Noticing this continuity is both an interesting point of intellectual history and a potentially useful resource: Plato not only identified various specific weaknesses in human cognition, he also offered powerful proposals for how to overcome these biases and improve our reasoning and behaviour.

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Many of Plato’s dialogues dramatize the habits and processes that lead humans to false conclusions. He depicts people believing what they want or what they are predisposed to believe (confirmation bias); asserting whatever comes most readily to mind (availability bias); reversing their opinions about identical propositions based on the language in which the propositions are presented (framing); refusing to relinquish current opinions simply because these happen to be the opinions they currently possess (a cognitive version of loss aversion); making false inferences based on the size and representativeness of a sample of a broader population (representativeness heuristic); and judging new information based on salient current information (a version of anchoring). And this is only a partial inventory of the mental errors that he catalogues and dramatizes.

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There’s a reason why Socrates, in the Republic, compares philosophical enquiry to a hunt for an elusive quarry – discovering the truth about things is difficult, and simply trusting our first impressions and beliefs is a recipe for misapprehending the world. Only by rechecking arguments both for validity and soundness and becoming acutely aware of our own susceptibility to certain forms of deception, are we likely to get closer to the truth.

Russell's essay 'On Being Modern-Minded' highlights the tendency to overlook historical continuities and exaggerate the uniqueness of our era. Behavioral economics, a recent intellectual trend, echoes this insight, reminiscent of what Kahneman terms the availability bias. Surprisingly, Plato's ancient Greek philosophy explored similar biases, often neglected in modern discourse. Plato's dialogues showcased various cognitive errors like confirmation bias and framing, offering strategies to overcome them. Socrates likened philosophical inquiry to a challenging hunt for truth, emphasizing the importance of critical evaluation and self-awareness in understanding the world.
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