Jumping to Conclusions
I remember a conversation I had more than a year ago about the quality of the water in Lake Wildwood.
I was talking with a member of our Lake Committee, a man with impeccable credentials, who had been studying our water rigorously for a dozen years or so. I had heard that a number of people, visitors I think, after swimming and picnicking over at Commodore Beach, had become seriously ill from e. coli, and I wanted to ask him about it.
Our conversation went something like this:
Me: “What’s up with the Lake and the e. coli situation?”
Him: “We’re still studying it, mainly to identify the source of the dangerous strain of e. coli that caused the problems.”
Me: “Seems pretty clear to me. The problem only occurred within a pretty tight circle of family and friends, didn’t it? We’ve never had water quality problems before, right? I think they brought the problem in with them.”
I was pretty sure that I had figured it out, even though I really didn’t have much information, and at that point, not even the experts could prove anything one way or another.
Him: “No, the only thing that’s clear is that it was in the water where they were swimming and playing, and we’re working hard to figure out how it got there.”
I was sure he was wrong, and that my “analysis” was closer to the truth, but I didn’t want to argue, so I dropped it. What I had done, with little or no factual information, was jump to the conclusion that made the most sense to me at the time. It was a false conclusion.
A year later, when they had tracked the source of the e. coli directly to our goose population, I had to revise my hasty (but wrong) conclusion that the afflicted people had brought the e. coli in with them, and that they were the source.
We all jump to conclusions. We can’t help it. We’re wired that way, and it’s a good thing … most of the time. But when it’s not it can lead to all kinds of mischief and conflict.
Why do we jump to conclusions? Our brains evolved at a time when the world was more primitive, and jumping to conclusions could be life saving. In those long ago days, a swaying patch of grass might have been caused by the wind, or it could have hidden a deadly saber-toothed tiger. If our ancestors paused to think about it, the result could have been deadly, but if they drew the quick conclusion — Tiger! —and ran away, even if they were wrong, they lived to see another day.
Jumping to conclusions was a survival trait, and we humans got really good at it.
Lately I’ve been learning about the mind, how it jumps to conclusions, and why we form many of our opinions with certainty, even when we don’t know all the facts. To explain it, let me fall back on my favorite expert of the mind, Dennis Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winner. He has discovered that the unconscious mind exerts the strongest influence on our opinions. He also discovered that the unconscious mind bases all its thinking on whatever information, experience, and unconscious mental habits have accumulated within our minds.
He calls it WYSIATI because, to the unconscious mind, “what you see is all there is.” Kahneman tells us that the unconscious mind assumes that everything it knows is complete (even when it isn’t), assumes it’s true (even when it isn’t), and uses that knowledge to come up with ideas and opinions, which it delivers to our conscious minds with great certainty. And because it’s an unconscious process we’re not even aware that it’s happening to us. All we know is that suddenly, and with great confidence, we “know” what’s “true.”
Kahneman also tells us, that the unconscious mind doesn’t doubt itself…that’s the job of the conscious mind. So conclusions that bubble up from the unconscious mind seem highly certain, unless we double check them with our conscious judgment (which we don’t normally do, but can learn to do).
All of this gives rise to the “confidence illusion” that I mentioned in a previous column. It’s the tendency for people who know a little bit about something to vastly overestimate their knowledge and skill, and to feel unwarranted confidence about their opinions.
I don’t know about you, but personally, I don’t want to jump to a conclusion if it’s wrong, because wrong opinions often lead to stupid decisions, and basically, I don’t want to be stupid. So how can I avoid this kind of stupidity?
It all comes back to WYSIATI and the knowledge (or lack of it) contained in our unconscious minds. People with a lot of education, training, and experience have filled their unconscious minds with more and better knowledge, so their WYSIATIs are packed with more complete, and more reliable information. As a result, they jump to more reliable, reality-based conclusions.
It’s really pretty simple. The more we know about something, the better our conclusions will be about it, and the less we know, the more likely we are to be wrong, no matter how confident we feel.
So, what’s the bottom line here? How can we avoid jumping to false conclusions?
First and foremost, we need to be constantly aware that our minds are designed to jump to conclusions no matter how much or how little we know, and that they’re also designed so that we’ll feel confident about our opinions, even when confidence isn’t justified. Then we need to question ourselves. Do we really know as much as we think we do? Are our opinions reality-based and factual? Are they as solid as they feel? Are there other ways to see the situation?
It’s up to us to use our conscious minds to reality check ourselves and question those conclusions we jump to so easily.
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