Don't be attached to your learning
Pluto is no longer a planet.
In 2006, the scientific consensus changed the definition of what is a planet and what is not. Pluto, unfortunately, is left out of this new definition.
Why do I say “unfortunately”?
I still think—and feel—that it is a planet. I have an attachment to that list of planets I learned in school, and getting rid of this classification feels bad.
In this post, I explain:
- what bias causes this situation
- what is the cost of falling into this bias
- how to avoid falling into this bias.
The learning attachment bias
It is natural to feel an attachment, intellectually and/or emotionally, to those things you have learned. Because learning…
- is an investment of time and effort
- gives you a worldview
- makes you feel connected to your social groups.
Therefore, «learning something new» is always a potential threat to all these things:
- you may discover that you’ve wasted your time and effort
- your worldview can change irreversibly
- you may end up distancing yourself from your social groups.
The problem occurs when this attachment causes you to reject evidence that your knowledge may be wrong or that there may be a better way of doing things. In this situation, attachment becomes a toxic thing that limits your learning.
And this limitation, in my opinion, is one of the worst things that can happen to you in life.
The quality of our lives depends on our knowledge. I’m sure not being up to date with the classification of the planets doesn’t affect your life, but what about…
- using outdated tools?
- having normalized bad health habits?
- having internalized a dysfunctional worldview?
This knowledge makes your life worse.
But if, in addition to having wrong knowledge, you fall into the learning attachment bias, you will be trapped for life. Worst of all, you will be losing one of your most precious assets: your ability to learn and improve.
The base of the learning attachment bias
This situation—of denying evidence that better knowledge may exist—is based on at least two very powerful biases:
The confirmation bias.
When you fall into confirmation bias, you don’t fully see reality; you only experience a partial view of reality that is compatible with your worldview.
You don’t learn new things because you literally can’t see them.
The sunk cost bias.
Imagine that, for a moment, you can come out of your confirmation bias and discover that something you have learned is wrong.
Well, the sunk cost bias makes you not want to get rid of the bad investment it was to learn that wrong knowledge because… it was such a big investment of time and effort, you don’t want to throw it away.
Even if you know there are better options, you won’t switch to learning those new things.
There are more biases that can support learning attachment. I don’t have time to go into them in this post, but I’ll name a few here:
- Naïve realism: “I see the world as it really is, others are idiots”.
- Availability cascade: “An idea is more credible if it is repeated by many”.
- Status quo bias: “You resist change in order to keep what you know.”
- Authority bias: “My teacher said it was OK.”
- IKEA effect: “We tend to be attached to the learning we have created ourselves”.
How to avoid the learning attachment bias?
By attacking at its base.
First the confirmation bias and second the sunk cost bias.
1. Receiving criticism is always good
This may seem counter-intuitive, but, when you receive criticism of your knowledge—on an intellectual level—only two good outcomes can occur:
You are able to counter-argue the criticism.
In this situation, you will have validated and reinforced your knowledge because you have been able to counter-argue someone else’s knowledge.
You are not able to counter-argue the critique.
In this situation, you will have discovered a flaw in your knowledge and, therefore, you have the opportunity to: (i) improve your knowledge to be able to counter-argue the criticism or (ii) change what you think.
In all cases, you win.
The process of testing your ideas against reality is what generates new and better knowledge.
However, not all types of criticism are valid for breaking confirmation bias. It needs to be honest criticism. In particular, the criticism must:
- faithfully reproduce the arguments of the opposing position
- refute the best version of the opponent’s arguments
- have tested, without bias, the opposing position
We cannot control the kind of criticism we receive from others. But what we can control are: (i) the criticisms we make and (ii) turning the unfair criticisms we receive into more honest—and more powerful—versions against our own knowledge.
2. Value the opportunity cost
The fear–of losing the time and effort we have invested in learning something—is natural and rational.
However, what is not rational is to use this fear as justification for maintaining wrong knowledge.
If you have wrong knowledge (or if there is better knowledge), the fact that you have invested a lot of time in getting that wrong knowledge does not justify you continuing to waste your time on it.
Because the problem—and this is the most important thing—is not just the time you are wasting, it is all the benefits you are losing by not incorporating that better knowledge into your life: the opportunity cost.
For example: When you decide to learn to use an obsolete tool, you are not only paying the cost of time to learn to use that obsolete tool. On top of that, you are paying the opportunity cost of not having the benefits of using the best tool available. And those benefits, which you are missing out on, can be very high indeed.
Conclusion: The path leading to the truth
“The path leading to the truth is of infinitely greater interest than one truth or another, and placing ourselves on this path takes us back to a very precise starting point.”
—Antonio Escohotado, Los Enemigos del Comercio. (The original quote is in Spanish; the translation is mine).
It is relatively recently (less than a year) that I have internalized the ideas of this post in my life.
In particular, the idea that produced the click in me was: “Receiving criticism is always good.” I feel that this is a really effervescent principle that can demolish a lot of biases and misconceptions.
Since then, I feel that an irreversible change has occurred in my worldview. I feel that I am now a much less dogmatic and more open-minded person.
However, as a consequence, I am now a person with more doubts:
- How do I know if I am wrong or not?
- What would happen in this situation if I am wrong?
- Am I trying something new honestly, or am I bias about it?
I think these are healthy doubts that give us the humility necessary to walk the path leading to the truth.
And you, do you still think Pluto is a planet?
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