You Are Seeing What You Want To See

Rachel was talking to me about people watching. She was relating a story about an interaction between a man and a women that was fairly innocuous but extremely passionate if you watched their body language. When I asked her who she thought the two people were to each other she laughed and said that isn’t why she does it. It’s interesting for her to watch without trying to create their identities or piece together the lives they may be living. I wondered about this for a minute because while I like people watching and tend to pick up on some of the more subtle aspects of the interaction, I’m always trying to piece together who is who and why they are doing what they are doing. I started thinking about how this tendency may be corrupting or biasing what I actually perceive.

Human beings have a very good reason for trying to make predicts about people’s intentions and behaviour. We are social creatures so historically speaking our chance of surviving are increased if we are well liked by others because they will let us become part of the group. Apart from being social creates, we are also rivals to those in the same peer group – we need others to survive, but we also need to compete against others to thrive. Anything we can do to give us a leg up on the competition is most likely going to help us. To this end, we make predictions about people when we see them. In “Blink” Gladwell referred to making these predictions as thin slicing and uncovered a number of instances when they are very accurate. The fact that we have this innate ability that is often correct indicates a survival advantage to having it so it’s natural that we do it.

I’d assume that because it presents us with a survival advantage, we’re going to be better at predicting things that could hurt us and less effective at determining things that have nothing to do with survival. Rachel watching the two people in the coffee shop is an example of a situation that isn’t going to impact her life from a survival stand point. As a consequence, she has gained the ability to shut off the natural tendency to make predictions. What she lets into her brain is the raw sensory information and from there it is not interpreted. It simply exists as information and it is encoded without biases.

For the predictors, they thin slice a situation and begin to collect data that confirms their prediction. This can have disastrous consequence to the accurate interruption of events. There are countless stories of doctors making bad calls about stuff even in the face of imperial evidence that indicates an alternative cause. Doctors need to stay open and assess all of the information they collect in order to make the best guess about the cause of an illness – there is a reason why they are called educated guesses.

The issue with making predictions about stuff is compounded by the fact that we try to be right and will go to great lengths to BE right whenever we make a guess about something. For example, people who are betting on horses at the track will report a big boost in the confidence about their bet as soon as they put money down. This more complete buy-in after making a prediction likely helps us to conserve mental energy because we no longer need to think about the subject and buy-in is needed for the formation of survival rules – if you fail to believe the rule you created you are not going to modify your behavior and will have learned nothing.

Those prone to make predictions and seek to validate them need to pay particular attention to collecting ALL of the information and remaining open to new information that may become available. New information SHOULD change your opinion, either to reinforce it or to detract from it. Otherwise the accuracy of the predictions will always be suspect.