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Fixing Cognitive Biases to Shape the Next Generation of Humans

An interview with João Fabiano (translated from Portuguese)

The biases that affect our assessment of very high risks are the most important ones to be observed. There is a special type of risk, the catastrophic risk – with the potential to destroy more than 10 million human beings – and the existential risks – with the potential to destroy the entire human race – which are particularly neglected.

I think the two major biases affecting this area are: (1) the bias of intentionality: to devote more attention to risks posed by humans as opposed to those posed by nature; and (2) observational bias: those that prevent us to obtain information about our probability of extinction based on our own history[1]

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The main bias affecting our judgment on cognitive enhancers is the status quo bias: the one who supposes, a priori, any change in the status quo as being bad. It is often manifested by comparing the risk of something [i.e. the new drug] with nothing [i.e. the absence of the drug] instead of comparing it with the risk of something else [i.e. an old drug] that would be replaced. This occurs, for instance, when comparing the risk of modafinil with a zero risk rather than comparing it with the risk of caffeine.

Another set of persistent bias, which occurs even among the scientific community, consists of those which affect how we absorb information about statistics. These block the human mind to learn that modafinil is safer than caffeine, when we see a poll showing a 5% incidence of coronary complications in those who use coffee as opposed to 0% in users of modafinil. Our brain is programmed to learn that something is not safe if we find out about someone who has suffered the ill effects of the substance, but not if we see an abstract number written down on some research report.

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