Why Smart People Believe The Dumbest Things

My wife barged into my office, demanding help in a panic-stricken voice. She suspected that our twenty-pound dog might have swallowed a remote control. It sounded ridiculous.

I relaxed, figuring someone had sat on a couch cushion and inadvertently pressed a button. Twenty minutes later, we still could not find it.

I started to worry. We heard the clicking sound on the television, the kind you hear after you select a select or scroll through a show with a Firestick remote.

I started to suspect that something in the dog’s stomach caused a button to activate. I couldn’t believe it. The dog had swallowed a remote control. It should not be possible, I thought.

But I couldn’t ignore the growing evidence. We tore the house apart and found nothing. It was missing; I was sure of it.

We called the vet, ready to bring the dog in for a procedure that would have cost us a small fortune. In a last-ditch effort, I rechecked the couch cushions.

This time, I felt a slight bulge in the cushion. I unzipped the covering and stuck my hand inside. Sure enough, I pulled out the Firestick remote. I have no idea how a remote made its way inside a couch cushion, though I’m sure it was one of my kids.

Crisis averted. We laughed about it ten minutes later. How can a small dog swallow a remote control? It’s impossible.

This silly event proves something we forget too often.

You’ve probably believed a few things in your past you’d be embarrassed to admit today.

We like to make fun of the delusional, the ones who believe in outlandish theories: Obama is the antichrist, the government puts fluoride in our tap water to control population, the earth is flat.

Then there are the idiots of history who bought into tyrants for reasons which seemed incomprehensible to the rest of the world.

And finally, there are reasonable people (like me) who believed a small dog could swallow a remote control and activate while it sat in his stomach. But why? How could we be so gullible? How could I be so naive?

We can laugh at the genuinely absurd like the flat earthers, but how do reasonable people, smart people believe stupid things?

But we believe we’re acting on perfect information or at least good enough information.

You can argue that we seldom have access to complete information, and to wait for that moment would be pointless. That’s a valid point, but when we act on incomplete information, we are more likely to make poorer decisions, deliberate with faulty logic, or connect-the-dots in a way that wouldn’t make sense with more complete data.

Our modern society has worsened this tendency. We draw conclusions about complex issues from Twitter updates and soundbites without waiting for the story to play out. The momentum builds into a frenzy, and we find ourselves in a mob mentality, suspending all judgment.

Acting on incomplete information is often unavoidable, but other dynamics affect our judgment too.

You hear the term confirmation bias thrown around as an explanation to why people believe things in spite of proof to the contrary. It’s almost become a punchline on the podcast circuit. There are over 47 million references to it on Google.

But why do we succumb to confirmation bias?

According to my aged wisdom, there are three types of people in the world.

I’m almost forty-eight years old. I’m finally at the point in my life where I can admit something painful. I’m not as smart as I thought I was.

My plans and theories never play out the way I predict. I draw conclusions based on information I thought was iron-clad.

Things I was sure of in my twenties and thirties have turned out to be incorrect. Worse, I held onto erroneous beliefs due to confirmation bias. I can’t be the only one with an inflated view of their intelligence.

In Ben Goldcare’s book Bad Science, he titles one of his chapter’s “Why clever people believe stupid things.” Among the reasons he cites, some of which I already covered, three stick out for me.

We see causal relationships where there are none

Bad science is the obvious example, but you see this play out everywhere from science to politics to even the more comical:

I did a rain dance, and it rained two hours later. Therefore, my rain dance caused it to rain

We see patterns where there is only random noise

False pattern recognition is part of being human. It was an evolutionary advantage back in the hunter-gatherer age. It was better for survival to think the rustling in the bushes was a predator rather than the wind blowing.

The cost of being wrong was negligible. In today’s world, we constantly connect-the-dots, even when they bear no relationship.

German neurologist, Klaus Conrad coined the term, apophenia,

It explains why we see patterns in clouds, images of the Virgin Mary on the walls of a subway station, and why we create conspiracy theories from anecdotal, unproven information.

Much of our struggles originated in evolutionary development. Do we have any hope of changing? I don’t think we can change our nature, but we can, in some instances, correct ourselves and fight our instincts.

Reserve judgment, decision making, and reasoning for non-emotional states. It’s difficult to remember this in the heat of an argument or emotional situation, but you can revisit decisions and judgments later when you’ve had time to decompress.

Accept that you can be wrong about most anything. Most folks go their whole lives without coming to terms with their cognitive limitations.

If you recognize your fallibility, you’ll adapt to new information instead of rejecting it or twisting it to suit a pre-existing belief.

If it pains you too much to admit you’re wrong, start by saying to yourself, “ I might be wrong about this, but… Admitting you might be wrong makes it easier to recognize later if new information contradicts your opinion or belief.

Do you see patterns where none exist? Did you make your judgment based on incomplete information? Did you conclude something based on a faulty cause and effect relationship?

You won’t remember to do this when you’re emotionally charged, but it’s helpful to do this once you’ve composed yourself.

Why Smart People Believe The Dumbest Things

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