On temporal bias

Proposition 1: Don't design a computer system by tracing a piece of data through its lifecycle.

That bit of advice would have been worth the entire time investment of reading A Philosophy of Software Design, where the corresponding mistaken habit is aptly called "temporal bias." The hard part, though, isn't demonstrating that the proposition is true; it's keeping it in mind. (My trick: be strict about using the basic box-to-box arrow in a dependency graph to represent a dependency relationship; if you need to represent data flow, use something else.)

This applies more generally:

Proposition 2: Don't (always) start teach a game by telling someone how to set up the board, or even by telling someone all the rules.

I once read that chess is standardly taught by setting up endgames. This was an "aha" moment for me in learning poker, where I'd been far too caught up in preflop (or third-street) play and had assumed that all other betting decisions are not only temporally but strategically posterior to the first betting round. Sometimes they are; often they aren't.

(This was also an "aha" moment on the meta level: when I learned this, c. 2005, it helped me understand that poker instruction and strategy was in a primitive state.)

(Update: I am reliably informed that "bridge is almost universally taught card play first, bidding second. It took the world about 60 years to figure that out.")

Proposition 3: Don't (always) start a biography at someone's birth or ancestry.

Proposition 4: Don't (always) plan your day by first figuring out what you're going to do in the morning. Determine the core of the day, upon which other things will depend, and plan from there.

Most of the discussion of cognitive biases I read is about mistakes that lead to false belief. Temporal bias leads to bad explanations. We should expect biases like this: reason aims not only at true belief but also correct explanation (and perhaps other things too). I suspect that people who worry a lot about cognitive bias focus, ironically, a bit too much on false belief at the expense of bad explanation.

Subscribe to Nate Meyvis

You'll get email when I post new essays and notes.
jamie@example.com
Subscribe