In his essay The Third Alternative, the artificial intelligence theorist Eliezer Yudkowsky examines the fallacy known as the false dilemma (also known as false choice or the fallacy of the excluded middle), in which a problem is presented as a choice between two options when, in reality, other alternatives exist. As a persuasive tool, the false dilemma is an effective way for mendacious people frame a problem in such a way that their preferred solution seems reasonable. Political messages routinely incorporate false dilemmas, such as socialized health care vs. preserving individual freedom, and, negotiating with Iran vs. endangering Israel. However, false dilemmas are not merely rhetorical tricks that others perpetrate on us. Rather, as individuals, our minds habitually construct false dilemmas for self-serving reasons: to justify irrational beliefs, baseless prejudices, and hurtful actions. Most rationality resources emphasize the motivation component of biased reasoning: we want a particular outcome, so our thinking proceeds in such a way that this desired outcome is assured. Yudkowsky, however, while not discounting the role of motivation, suggests that part of the problem stems from a lack of creativity. His suspicion is that if someone confronting a false dilemma were to think of a viable “third alternative” through an concerted burst of creativity, that person’s motivation to maintain the false dilemma would be ameliorated. Pursuant to this problem, Yudkowsky recommends an unconventional creative exercise:
Which leads into another good question to ask yourself straight out: Did I spend five minutes with my eyes closed, brainstorming wild and creative options, trying to think of a better alternative? It has to be five minutes by the clock, because otherwise you blink—close your eyes and open them again—and say, “Why, yes, I searched for alternatives, but there weren’t any.” Blinking makes a good black hole down which to dump your duties. An actual, physical clock is recommended.
This exercise, when performed in good faith, is intended to force you into creative thought in the hopes that the identification of another alternative will destroy your motivation to continue conceiving of the problem in a binary manner. Yudkowsky does not shy away from the major obstacle to successfully implementing this strategy: if we think that finding a creative solution will undermine our self-serving formulation of a problem, we will consequently be unmotivated in our search for creative solutions. The motivation to be biased is powerful and pervasive, but it can be counteracted by a sincerely held commitment to overcome bias. This conviction in the possibility and desirability of overcoming bias is the foundation of modern rationality.
When I previously described this five-minute timer task as “unconventional,” I did not mean to imply that it was outlandish or radical. I simply meant it was atypical by the standards of most debiasing techniques I’ve read about. The most common techniques involve “commitment devices,” which are ways of intentionally constraining your future options in such a way that there is reduced risk of bad decisions. Examples of commitment devices include reducing your credit line if you have problems restricting your spending, setting up recurring reminders to ensure timely submission of tax forms, or even buying an alarm clock that forces you to chase it around the room in order to turn it off. In a sense, commitment devices work by limiting creativity. Yudkowsky himself frequently extols commitment devices in his essays on rationality. In addition, the creativity-promoting aspect of the five-minute timer task seems at odds with another theme in his writings on rationality, best encapsulated by this quotation: “One of chief pieces of advice I give to aspiring rationalists is ‘Don’t try to be clever.” It is therefore surprising that Yudkowsky would ever endorse a debiasing exercise that called for “brainstorming wild and creative options.”
To resolve this apparent incongruity, it’s important to remember that Yudkowsky’s proposed the five-minute timer exercise as a remedy for a specific fallacy, the false dilemma. Perhaps creative effort is an effective debiasing strategy for false dilemmas, but not for other biases. It is, of course, an empirical question whether this exercise would actually be effective in reducing bias. And, even if it was shown to be effective, would it generalize to other kinds of biased decision-making that Yudkowsky attributes to insufficient creativity, such as the planning fallacy and scope insensitivity? It is my intention to evaluate the scientific evidence pertaining to the intentional application of creative thinking toward the problem of overcoming bias.
I wonder why this proposed solution involving deliberate creative effort is not more common. In our society, the importance of creativity is relentlessly extoled. Educators worry about how to teach it; cultural pundits despair over the deficient creativity of the younger generation; business executives pay exorbitant fees to consultants to make their employees more creative. Creativity is valued in every profession and avocation. Artists, scientists, chefs, and physicians are all praised for their creative contributions. Creativity enjoys such a singularly positive connotation that even the admonition ‘let’s not get too creative” is a humorously mild, and the financial term creative destruction seems at first to be an oxymoron.
Regardless of whether or not the 5-minute timer task works as a debiasing tool, there is broad agreement that creativity is a desirable goal. How, then, can we achieve it? Provocative questions proliferate:
Is solitude or collaboration most conducive to creative thought? How has creativity been defined in the history of psychology? Is creativity correlated with intelligence? Is creativity associated with particular personality traits? Does an individual who is creative in one domain, like songwriting, more likely to be creative in another domain, like designing scientific experiments? Which is to say, is creative potential a general trait or a domain-specific talent that doesn’t generalize to other domains? Relatedly, is there a difference between the high-order creativity we use to describe artistic or scientific achievement and the more mundane form of flexibility and resourcefulness we bring to our daily lives? What is the relationship between creativity and mindfulness meditation, or between creativity and psychopathology? Are there creativity-enhancing drugs? Finally, what is the proper role of creativity in rationality? Is there a correlation between rationality and creativity, and, if so, what is the factor (or factors) that unites them?
I will address each of these questions in subsequent posts. Next time, however, I will address the fundamental issue of how to define creativity. This has implications for whether creativity can be regarded as a tractable scientific topic, as well as how we measure it.