2016 was quite a political year in the United Kingdom and the United States. The outcome of the UK’s BREXIT vote and the US Presidential election came as a shock to millions. Conventional wisdom, pundits, most of the political cognoscenti and most polls failed to predict both results.
Yet no sooner were the results made official in both cases, than many of these very same experts were explaining in great detail why these results should have been obvious if only we had been looking at the right things and in the right places.
These events remind me of similar results following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. What so few national security experts thought likely in advance — a coordinated, massive terrorist attack on US soil — was quickly exposed as highly probable based on pre-existing evidence only gathered, conflated and assessed after the fact.
Are we humans really stupid? No, at least not most of us. But we Sapiens have a prodigious tendency to see what we want to see not what is often staring us right in the face.
Psychologists refer to this form of cognitive bias as the “CONFIRMATION or MYSIDE BIAS”. It represents the human tendency to search out, recall, favor and interpret information, facts and data in ways that confirm our pre-existing beliefs and assumptions. Concurrently, we give considerably less attention and credibility to alternative possibilities, information interpretations and outcomes.
It is especially difficult to avoid the confirmation bias when it coincides with generally accepted “conventional wisdom”; in the BREXIT and US Election cases, that amounted to the assumptions of millions of people. Yet, as we know, conventional wisdom is always right until, of course, it isn’t.
There are many strategies for avoiding the tendency to often see exactly what we want to see, no matter the mountain of evidence to the contrary . But no matter the avoidance strategy, step one inexorably comes down to one’s ability to actually confront the idea that “we just might be wrong” in advance of events that prove we are.
Once we look the prospect of “being wrong” straight in the eye, we open up our minds to new ways of thinking and new ways of looking at available facts and information. More importantly, it allows us to ask critical ” if, then what?” questions. If this or that outcome — no matter how likely we think it is — is actually what is about to happen, what advance signs and signals should we see and where should we look to find them? What information and facts might be critical and who possesses them?
This type of thinking isn’t that hard but the search for new information and data often is. Moreover, if we are intellectually lazy or one of those individuals who never thinks they are wrong about anything, why bother considering alternatives.
When conventional wisdom is widely believed, it often takes courage to take a position that sets you outside your crowd. But the only way to be certain that you are not simply seeing exactly what you and others want to see, is to force yourself to at least consider reasonable, fact-based alternatives no matter how distasteful or unacceptable they may seem.