All of the mistakes discussed so far are universal among humans to a greater or lesser degree. These last two are also universal and extremely common, leading to a world filled with pain and suffering, bigotry, and misunderstandings on a grand scale. I should warn you that this discussion will make many people uncomfortable because it cuts into the core of how people view themselves. People define themselves through the memories of their experiences and we tend to remember sound bites better than the complexities of reality, which makes for a dangerous combination.
5. We tend to oversimplify our thinking.
Of all of the mistakes, this one has most likely caused the most problems. When we were still living as hunter-gatherers in small bands, this was a benefit and can still be in some areas. When you live in an environment filled with potentially life-ending threats, you need to be able to recognize and react to them quickly. When that rustle in the bush may be a Smilodon about to attack, you can’t afford to think about all the different options because if you do, you are dead. But most of us no longer live in that sort of environment. We can take the time to think. We just have to fight our natural instincts that are hardwired into our brains. It’s tough, I realize that. It’s impossible to do all the time. But I hope you will see why it is so important that we try.
It is at the core of stereotypes and the “us vs. them” mentality that drives everyone to some extent. Any time you hear someone say, “Blacks are…,” or “Muslims are…,” or insert any group you want, that person is oversimplifying their thinking. It does not matter what you say after that first phrase, it will not accurately describe all members of that group. All “Blacks” are not actually black, nor do they share the same heritage, culture, language, or anything else. All those people that are thought of as Muslims by those using that stereotype are not in fact Muslim. I say this because almost invariably when non-Muslims refer to Muslims in a stereotypic fashion, they are confusing Arab (or anyone from the Middle East) and Muslim. Muslims and Arabs, like any large group, do not all share the same beliefs and culture.
In the first post in this series, I mentioned the anti-vaccine movement. It all started from ONE paper (since thoroughly discredited and debunked) that only referred to ONE specific vaccine. The whole point of the paper was to discredit that specific vaccine so the author could sell his own version. But no one in the anti-vaccine seems to remember that and they have simplified the topic to ALL vaccines.
In science, this sort of thinking causes people to read a single set of experiments (or even one experiment) on a specific target and then try to apply the result to everyone. This mistake is rampant in the medical field. A study will be published saying that a series of rats showed a result and instantly the media says that all humans will have the same result. Fortunately, scientists are well aware of the differences between rodents and humans. A result in rats and mice often does not carry over into humans. This is why all drugs have to go through human trials after they pass animal trials.
Even if a drug works in the small sample of humans, that sample is not truly representative of all humans. You may have heard that science has proven that vitamins are pointless and may even be harmful? The studies that indicated vitamins had no benefit were all done on healthy volunteers that mostly had good diets. So yes, if you are healthy and are getting everything you need from your diet, you don’t need vitamins and the excess can actually hurt you. Unfortunately, most people do not fall into this category, so for them, taking vitamins can indeed help. (This is just another example that eating right and having a healthy lifestyle will avoid many of the health problems most people have and will save you money in the long run. Exercise is almost always preferable to pills and is free.) Even healthy humans are incredibly variable and have different metabolisms. The same drug will not work the same on everyone.
All those internet memes you get with a picture of someone with a saying on it? Fabulous examples of oversimplification. The internet is full of examples of overly quick and thoughtless thinking. Here is a tip, if anyone can boil down the essence of a social problem with one pithy statement, it is almost guaranteed to be WRONG. I have heard more than one person say that because Muslims flew planes into the World Trade Centers, all Muslims were evil and should therefore all be killed, because “they all want to kill us anyway.” To any rational person, this statement is clearly, insanely, wrong. You may wonder why I have mentioned Muslims a few times. That is because right now, it is the most prevalent and dangerous stereotype I know and one which is very familiar to everyone. They either hold that view or know many who do.
I could go on and on about how people oversimplify for the rest of my life, but it gets seriously depressing rather quickly, so I will stop here. But I hope you get the point: Oversimplification, overgeneralizing, has led to the wrongful deaths of hundreds of millions of people and is the source of much of the hatred in the world. Be aware of just how common this mistake is and STOP DOING IT.
You how do you avoid this problem? Never take one study or one source as truth. It is ok to keep an open mind about something, but don’t put your faith into it unless you can verify it through other reliable sources. Wait for other studies that confirm the results because it may be that the first study was wrong. Avoid overgeneralizing. Just because something worked once, do not think it will work every time. Always, always, always keep the parameters of a study in mind, respect the limitations of any study. A result on one mouse in one situation has little to do with results from many people in all sorts of variable conditions. Do not extrapolate beyond the data without clearly understanding that the extrapolation is purely speculative guesswork and may not hold up in reality.
6. We have faulty memories.
One way that our memories are faulty is in that confirmatory bias discussed in the previous post. You can see this problem in everyone who gambles, be it at a casino or the stock market. Most people remember their successes far more commonly than their losses. People can lose fortunes this way. Casinos are masters at exploiting this mistake. If a gambler wins early, they tend to continue playing long after they have lost their winnings and more. Every time they win, they remember that one win and forget all the loses before that. Some people do the opposite, focusing on their failures and minimizing their successes, which leads to problems therapists deal with every day.
Science, particularly medical science, has a form of institutionalized faulty memory. It is much easier to publish positive results than negative ones. Therefore, experiments that didn’t work tend to be glossed over and forgotten, focusing on the ones that succeed. Of course, if those successes are due to chance or faulty experimental design, ignoring the negative results leads the whole field astray. How serious is the problem? A paper in 2012 found that only 6 out of 53 “landmark” papers in haemotology (study of blood) and oncology (cancer research) could be replicated. This sort of publication bias on the positive can have profound problems. It may sound like this means that science can’t be trusted, but what it really means is that it is critically important to never jump on the bandwagon and follow the advice of a new study. Wait until it can be confirmed by other research. Science is all about throwing hypotheses out there and testing them to see if they really work. One test doesn’t do it. Multiple tests are needed and you cannot forget the failures.
Where faulty memory really comes into play is in just how easy it is to change our memories. Simply hearing another person’s experiences can change our own. My favorite study showing this interviewed people about their experiences at Disney World. The participants watched an ad showing people interacting with Bugs Bunny at Disney World. The fact that this event is impossible (Bugs Bunny was not owned by Disney and so could not make an appearance at Disney World) did not keep many of the people from saying that they had fond memories of seeing Bugs Bunny at Disney World.
Kida discusses the results from some researchers in which they asked students where they were when they first heard of the space shuttle Challenger exploding. They asked shortly after the event and then again two and a half years later. Despite claiming that their memories were accurate, none of them were entirely accurate. Some of them were wildly off. Yet the students insisted that they were correct and disavowed the record of their earlier remembrance. There are several studies like this that say the same thing: our brains do not faithfully record our experiences and those memories change both over time and through suggestion by others.
So, what does this mean for us? It means that we have a bad habit of misattributing things, combining memories or making them up whole cloth. Criminal psychologists are deeply aware that eyewitness testimony is the least reliable evidence that can be brought into court, despite the fact that it is considered the most reliable by most people. People commonly say “I’ll believe it when I see it,” and “I saw it happen with my own two eyes!” We put a lot of stock into our perceptions and our memories. But, as is quite clear from decades of research, neither our perceptions or our memories are at all reliable.
So what are we to do if we can’t rely on our own experiences? Make records, take pictures, write it down. Compare experiences with other people. There is some truth to the now common statement; “Pics or it didn’t happen.”
And so we conclude the introduction to the six basic errors in thinking we all make to a greater or lesser extent. These mistakes are universal, they happen repeatedly daily basis. Yet they have grave consequences. In science, we have ways to try to avoid them. We record data. We share it with others and let them try to poke holes in it. We do not trust only one example and demand verification. Scientists make these mistakes all the time. But by being aware of the mistakes and having procedures in place to deal with them, we can minimize the problems.