The availability bias

The availability bias is commonly discussed bias in the Rationalist community. It says that examples that come to mind readily are thought to be more frequent in occurrence than they actually are. For example, we often come across headlines screaming “plane crash!!”. Hence, every once in a while when I get on a plane, I mutter a silent prayer to the gods above-er. However, I don’t do that when I get into my car, although the chances of me dying in a car crash are 2200 times greater than those of me dying in a plane crash. Because car crashes are relatively frequent, they’re discussed much less in the media, and are hence thought to be much less frequent than plane crashes.

Of avarice and men

What can the availability bias tell us about other aspects of our lives? All of us are constantly bombarded with stories of Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, etc. One possible reaction to these stories is getting inspired and trying to chart a similar entrepreneurial path to hundreds of billions, societal clout, and petty social media fights with other billionaires which make you look like an idiot despite the first two points. However, our knowledge of the availability bias tells us that the reason why these three individuals are discussed non-stop in the media is because it is very, very hard to rise to their position. If talent can be represented on a normal curve, we should have very strong evidence for assuming that we are anywhere but at the mean of this curve. And the further to the right (or left, but irrelevant here) of the mean we claim to be, the more evidence we need to support such claims. You went to Harvard? Fine, maybe you are 2-3 standard deviations above the mean. You got a 4.0 at Harvard? Well, maybe you are 4 standard deviations above the mean. But you still need a lot more evidence before you can claim you’re not the next Elon Musk! You need to take on Ford, NASA and all the banks at the same time, and beat them!

What does that mean for us? That we probably aren’t going to become billionaires. The jobs we are more likely to get are those that are not glorified as much in the media: tech workers in non-FAANG companies, or perhaps middle managers in failing companies.

Talent? What talent?

Whatever skill we want to “rank” ourselves in, we should always assume that we lie somewhere in the middle of the curve, unless we have strong evidence to the contrary. Because I did well in math in school and also managed to get into grad school for a PhD in math, I am probably at least one standard deviation above the mean in the mathematical talent normal curve. But because I haven’t written an Annals paper yet or won an IMO gold medal, I am probably much below the higher standard deviations. The same goes for my talents in music and other skills that correlate somewhat with Mathematics. Does that mean that I can never do amazing things in mathematics? No. It just means that it will be a statistical miracle if I do. Out of 10,000 people with my abilities, only one will do the amazing things that all 10,000 dream of. At Terence Tao’s talent level, those odds will probably be 1:1.5 or something. Hence, although Terence Tao is frequently talked about in mathematical circles, the high frequency of such discussions should tell us how frickin’ difficult it is to become a Terence Tao.

Is any of this useful?

Alright. Like everyone else, I am slightly above the mean in some skills, and (significantly) below the mean in others. On average, I am average. But despite this, I want to be successful in my chosen field, earn money, and have petty social media fights with other successful people at my level. How can I do that? A lot of people in the Rationalist community believe that people like me should play the numbers game. If I try enough things, it is statistically likely that I succeed in one. If I flirt with (flirt at?) enough girls, at least one should like me. If I apply to enough schools, at least one should take me. Experience tells us that this is a flawed strategy.

If I try a lot of things, I probably won’t get very good at any of them. My friend from another school (wink) hits on a lot of girls, and doesn’t succeed with anyone. You can apply to 50, or even 100 schools. However, if you don’t have the stats to get into them, you will be rejected at all. Moreover, the people who succeed at one thing, succeed in everything. Newton discovered his laws of motion, created calculus, split sunlight into seven colors, and also classified all cubic equations. Einstein discovered special relativity, discovered general relativity, discovered entanglement, and also won the Nobel for his discovery of the photoelectric effect. Elon Musk manufactures the best cars in the world, the best rockets in the world, and also the best solar panels in the world. He also helped create the best payment system in the world, and c’mon; we know he’s also gonna be the first person to Tweet from Mars through his Neuralink. Similar things can be said for Nikola Tesla, Gauss, Steve Jobs, etc (Jobs also won a frickin’ Oscar!). Hence, trying a bunch of different things hoping something hits is probably a failure-prone strategy if you’re not already absolutely brilliant at one thing.

So how does an average person succeed? There’s really no better answer apart from “get really good at something”, and “don’t assume you’re already good (3-4 standard deviations above the mean) unless you have strong evidence”. This seems like a particularly unhelpful answer. Wasn’t I already trying to get good at things? Is “try harder!” helpful advice? Well, one way to interpret this is the following: I can keep changing fields until I find something in which I can get good very fast, and can get evidence that shows that I am well above the mean. Another way is to keep changing my methods of learning and understanding until I can get evidence that I am getting beyond the appropriate number of standard deviations. I have tried the latter, but not the former as much. Regardless, I should try and get really good at something, and try and collect evidence for this. I am probably not lucky enough to become successful accidentally, and I should definitely not try to emulate people I hear about in the news. If I was good enough to be newsworthy, I’d probably already be on the news for my skills….or for my huge posterior (I never thought I’d end my article this way, but all roads do indeed lead to the Kardashians).

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Graduate student

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