You’re not as rational as you think you are

I found this article the other day and thought I would share it: http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/your-brain-is-primed-to-reach-false-conclusions/

A short summary of the article: humans often mistake correlation for causation. We assume that if two things happen in quick succession or according to a sort of pattern that we expected, they must be connected to each other. We also tend to be biased in favor of information we’ve already seen and accepted, and biased against data that disagrees with that information we’ve accepted, regardless of which information is correct.

It’s interesting to see clear examples of how irrational humans can be and not realize it. It’s rather concerning to see this illustration of how we double down on our bad logic. The implications are pretty huge, and I’m not really sure of any way around it. I don’t imagine any of us are exempt from this sort of behavior, at least not completely. I imagine some people have a greater propensity for this sort of bias than others, but, in general, this is how human brains work. Even experts, like the doctors discussed in the article, are prone to this “illusion of causality,” and these are the sorts of people we count on to be able to help us make decisions we’re not equipped to make on our own. I’m not suggesting that doctors aren’t reliable, but it is worth keeping in mind that even experts are human and can harbor biases, even simple misunderstandings based on correlation, not causation.

One thing we can take from this information is that effective messaging should keep this in mind. The article ends with this: “If you want someone to accept information that contradicts what they already know, you have to find a story they can buy into. That requires bridging the narrative they’ve already constructed to a new one that is both true and allows them to remain the kind of person they believe themselves to be.” It isn’t enough to present someone with new information. It isn’t enough to explain to them that how they came to their conclusion is wrong. It’s also not enough to explain your opinion or facts or arguments. I imagine this is a large part of why internet arguments never get anywhere, people are biased towards the information they already have and have accepted. Effective messaging isn’t about simply arguing your point better. In fact, it might have nothing to do with arguing your point or even what your point is in the first place. We’re far less rational than we like to think, which is why so much of political messaging is about grabbing people’s emotions or appealing to their identity (as an American, a worker, a taxpayer, a victim, etc).

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