What I’ve spent little time discussing is exactly what some of these errors our irrational mind is prone to making are, and how we can combat them.
There are three mistakes that I see people make all the time. And by “people” I mean not just people I know, but the media, journalists, politicians, celebrities—everybody. You see them in pop culture constantly. And if you’re not informed of them, you may be susceptible to them as well. Check them out:
1. Don’t Fall for the Post Hoc Fallacy, a.k.a. Stupid Internet Headlines
Years ago, a group of researchers had people track their sleeping patterns. When they slept, how they slept, what they wore as they slept, how well they slept, how long and so on. The researchers then wanted to cull all of the data, analyze it and look for any patterns that could potentially help us discover how to sleep better.
But what they found was strange.
Shoes. The factor that had the highest connection to a poor night of sleep was people who fell asleep with their shoes on.
The scientists furiously wrote up their findings and got published in a prestigious journal. Soon the media got tipped off on the new finding. Articles were written, “This Strange Thing Will Prevent You From Sleeping At Night,” life advice was doled out, “6 Tips to Get a Better Night’s Rest.”
The conclusion was simple, applicable, and it made the world a better place.
Shoes! Who would have thought?
Except, none of it was true.
One of the most beautiful things about the human mind is its ability to draw connections and conclusions between disparate pieces of information. We’re wired in such a way that we desperately need to know the why of everything that occurs in the world around us. Jake got promoted? Why? He’s got a bitchin toupee. Of course. Amanda won a scholarship? Why? Because she’s got mad paintbrush skills, yo. Jesse crapped his pants at the Coldplay concert? Why? Because Chris Martin is just that dreamy.
For every event, our mind immediately leaps—whether we realize it or not—to looking for a cause.
Our need to understand causation is so deep and so ingrained in us, that we invent causes for things even when we don’t know what caused them. Before we knew better, we invented spirits, ghosts, and gods. In the last few centuries, we’ve become scientifically rigorous in testing causation through controlled experiments. Yet, our assumptions and theories are still that, just theories. They may explain the universe better than your grandmother’s angry spirit or the Eternal Coconut Goddess, but they are still incomplete explanations. And prone to error.
But this proclivity to see causation even when it’s not there also gets us into all sorts of trouble.
Because the truth is that falling asleep with shoes on does not screw up the quality of our sleep. No. The test subjects were college kids and they slept with their shoes on because they had gotten drunk those nights and practically slept in their own vomit. So, of course, they woke up feeling horrible.
Just because the shoes correlated with morning grogginess and headaches doesn’t mean the shoes caused them. In fact, there was some invisible force outside of the data that caused both.
This is known as the post hoc fallacy, or “correlation does not mean causation.” It means that just because two things often happen together, one doesn’t necessarily cause the other.
But you see this error crop up everywhere, not just with science—in fact, scientists are trained to root out the causation/correlation error and test for it, but they often don’t. We see this fallacy especially in the news media, popular science books, and popular culture. And for the most part, we all fall for it.
A few years ago, a new study about new marriages and their likelihood of ending in divorce came out. This study found that the more people spent on weddings, the more likely they were to later divorce. News outlets picked this up and proclaimed expensive weddings as harmful to one’s marriage.
Here’s that pretty/scary graph about weddings and money spent that got passed around:
The graph clearly shows that the more money a couple spends on their wedding, the more likely they are to divorce. As a result, you saw a lot of people sharing the article stating things like, “Money causes divorces,” and “Expensive weddings are the cause of unhappy marriages.”
This is exactly like saying that wearing shoes causes people to sleep poorly. There are plenty of potential outside causes to explain the relationship between wedding cost and divorce that are not presented here.
For instance, people tend to spend less money on weddings for their second or third marriages. Second and third marriages end in divorce far less often than first marriages. Similarly, elderly people who get married rarely spend on a lavish wedding, and they are less likely to get divorced. Or maybe it’s the simple fact that poorer people who can’t afford a nice wedding also can’t afford a divorce either.
The post hoc fallacy is everywhere. It’s in politics (“Concerned for his slipping approval at home, President Trump doubles down on military intervention abroad”), sports (“Cavs lose as Lebron can’t handle the pressure”) or pretty much every article written about the stock market or economy falls victim to it in one way or another:
“Trump’s comments cause Dow to fall 300 points.”
“Increase in exports gives manufacturing much-needed boost.”
“Aging boomers cashing out as bonds drop third week in a row.”
These are all potentially post hoc fallacies. Yet, we gobble them up and repeat them to everyone we know.
You could say that media and journalism as an industry is in the business of extracting juicy causations out of perceived correlations. The problem is that those causations are likely not true, and sometimes even the correlations are a result of poor perception.
We don’t realize it, but we make the post hoc fallacy all the time in our lives. We assume that because we didn’t have fun the last few times we saw our cousin, that it must be our cousin’s fault—that there’s something wrong with him/her.
We assume that because people at work aren’t happy this week that our new manager must be bad. Or that because our kid has been having behavior problems at school we’re doing something wrong as a parent.
Our minds are constantly inventing causation to explain everything going on in our lives. And it’s important to develop the ability to stand back and evaluate whether the causes we’re spinning for ourselves make sense and/or are helpful to ourselves and everyone involved.
Once again, it’s a call for a little bit more skepticism.
Get Your Shit Together — Here’s How
2. A Basic Understanding of Statistics Could Save Your Life
Back in 2016, my wedding was in Brazil, in a small beach town outside of Sao Paulo. At the time, Zika had just burst onto the world scene and as you can imagine, there was a lot of brouhaha about how this latest “epidemic” was the sign of the end times and how all of our babies were going to be born with tiny heads and it was the end of the world as we knew it.
A number of American family and friends expressed concern about going. So I took to doing some research and wrote up something to share with all of them.
At the time, there had been only one—yes, ONE—case of Zika in the entire state of Sao Paulo (45 million people). The few cases in the country (3000-4000 at the time) were all isolated to the far northeastern states, a full 1,000+ miles away.
In my write-up, I told everyone this. I reminded people that Brazil is a country with more than 200 million people, and yet only a few thousand (all living in the same rural areas, all deeply in poverty) had contracted the virus. I pointed out that fear of traveling to Sao Paulo because of Zika was akin to being afraid to travel to San Francisco because a few hundred people had contracted malaria in Miami.
I also threw in some other facts, as a good measure. I told people that they were statistically more likely to die from the flu in the US than they were to contract Zika in Brazil. That you were more than 10x more likely to die in an auto accident in the US than you were to contract Zika in Brazil.
Yet, despite this, a few people still didn’t come. And I continue to run into people who are either hesitant or scared to travel to Latin America today because of Zika (and this is since authorities discovered that Zika doesn’t even cause the babies-with-small-heads thing).
Part of this hysteria can surely be blamed on the news media sensationalizing something and making it appear far more likely and dangerous than it is. The same thing happens every few years with new flu strains or ebola or whatever.
But we’re also just as bad at underestimating things that are actually dangerous.
For instance: cars.
You’re more likely to die in a car crash in your lifetime than you are from drugs. You’re about 15 times more likely to die from being struck by lightning than you are from a plane crash. You’re more likely to die from falling over or falling off or into something than you are from being shot or physically assaulted.
We see this dizzyingly poor understanding of statistics reflected in our government policy. You are more likely to die from a piece of furniture than you are from a terrorist attack. Yet, the US government spent over $1 trillion on anti-terrorism measures in the 10 years since 9/11. Not to mention the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In fact, as I write this, a friend recently told me to “be careful” when I go to Europe in a few months. As if there was blood flowing in the streets.
The truth is, despite the fact that I travel to South America and Europe and Asia frequently, my life is probably much safer than most people’s. I don’t drive a car and rarely travel by car. I don’t own a firearm and live in an area where they are largely not allowed. And I don’t have any plans to hang myself anytime soon.
That right there covers three of the most common forms of unnatural death. And the activities I do take part in (air flight, traveling to Europe) are actually incredibly safe.
That is… if you listen to the statistics.
3. Most Arguments Are Not About What Is Being Argued
Most arguments and fights are not about the facts or decisions or policy. They are about identity.
Facts are boring. And that’s a good thing. Facts don’t get people worked up or angry or defensive or depressed.
It’s our emotional attachment to certain information that generates the impassioned responses that then lead to fights.
We become incredibly defensive and righteous when somebody dares to criticize our political beliefs or our line of work or family member or our favorite sports team. It’s because we see those things as indelibly linked to ourselves.
And when people do challenge these things about us, we divert the argument further by distracting ourselves (and others) from the real argument.
For instance, if you look at articles posted on social media that are critical of Trump, undoubtedly one of the first comments will say something like, “Hillary would be even worse!” That may or may not be true, but it’s beside the point. It’s not the real argument. Challenged on facing the fact that Trump may be a total disaster, the supporter is forced to divert the argument to something else (whether Hillary would have been good or not).
Recently, a friend of mine had a huge fight with her mother about where she wanted to live. Despite all of the valid and practical reasons for my friend to change cities, her mother responded with some variation of how ungrateful she was.
Again, the argument wasn’t about cities or logistics, it was about gratitude, and how a mother didn’t feel it (or, perhaps, undeservedly demanded it).
All sorts of major debates get caught up in this sort of thing. People will say, “We need affirmative action because racism is bad.” Well, racism is bad, but that doesn’t necessarily mean affirmative action is good.
Or people will say, “We need to invade North Korea because they’re a threat to peace,” failing to realize that invading North Korea, too, is a threat to peace.
The argument is rarely about the argument. It’s usually about the identity of the person speaking—their values, their hopes, and their fears. It’s usually about a scared person—each one of us—straining to tether together the world in some coherent way that we feel we can manage and absorb.
In the face of this mural of meaning we construct for ourselves, facts rarely matter. Contrary opinions are regarded as threats to be either confronted or diverted. And the stated problem is never as clear as it might initially seem.