IN his latest book, “Data Detective,” British economist and journalist Tim Harford reminds us that “we’d be wiser to acknowledge that we all think with our hearts rather than our heads sometimes.” And by “sometimes” I think he means “most of the time.”
He also reminds us that biased thinking is easy to see in others, but very hard to see in ourselves.
For example, he says, his “environmentally conscious friends are justifiably critical of ad hominem attacks on climate scientists. You know the kind of thing: claims that scientists are inventing data because of their political biases or because they’re scrambling for funding from big government. In short, smearing the person rather than engaging with the evidence. Yet the same friends are happy to embrace and amplify the same kind of tactics when they’re used to attack my fellow economists: that we’re inventing data because of our political biases, or scrambling for funding from big business. I tried to point out the parallel to one thoughtful person, and got nowhere. She was completely unable to comprehend what I was talking about. I’d call this a double standard, but that would be unfair — it would suggest that it was deliberate. It’s not.”
Harford says we are “capable of persuading ourselves to believe strange things, and to doubt solid evidence, in service of our political partisanship, our desire to keep drinking [or to keep smoking], our unwillingness to face up to the reality of our [medical] diagnosis, or any other cause that invokes an emotional response. But we shouldn’t despair. We can learn to control our emotions — that is part of the process of growing up. The first simple step is to notice those emotions.”
He says count to three, and reflect — double-check our gut reaction.
According to Harford, “one survey conducted by a team of academics found that most people were perfectly able to distinguish serious journalism from fake news, and also agreed that it was important to amplify the truth, not lies. Yet the same people would happily share headlines such as ‘Over 500 “Migrant Caravaners” Arrested with Suicide Vests’ because the moment at which they clicked ‘share,’ they weren’t stopping to think. They weren’t thinking, ‘Is this true?’ and they weren’t thinking, ‘Do I think the truth is important?’ Instead, as they skimmed the internet in that state of constant distraction that we all recognize, they were carried away with their emotions and their partisanship. The good news is that simply pausing for a moment to reflect was all it took to filter out a lot of the misinformation. It doesn’t take much; we can all do it. All we need to do is acquire the habit of stopping to think.”
Harford says inflammatory memes/online comments or tub-thumping speeches invite us to leap to the wrong conclusion without thinking. “That’s why we need to be calm. And that is also why so much persuasion is designed to arouse us — our lust, our desire, our sympathy, or our anger. When was the last time Donald Trump, or for that matter Greenpeace, tweeted something designed to make you pause in calm reflection? Today’s persuaders don’t want you to stop and think. They want you to hurry up and feel. Don’t be rushed.”
Whenever we’re presented with a new piece of information, Harford says we should first examine our emotions, and notice if we’re straining to reach a particular conclusion.
“When we encounter a statistical claim about the world and are thinking of sharing it on social media or typing a furious rebuttal, we should instead ask ourselves, ‘How does this make me feel?’ (A follow-up question might also be worth asking: ‘Why does it make me feel that way?’)”
Harford says we “should do this not just for our own sake, but as a social duty. We’ve seen how powerful social pressure can be in influencing what we believe and how we think. When we slow down, control our emotions and our desire to signal partisan affiliation, and commit ourselves to calmly weighing the facts, we’re not just thinking more clearly — we are also modeling clear thinking for others. It is possible to take a stand not as a member of a political tribe but as someone who is willing to reflect and reason in a fair-minded manner.”
Kumbaya my Lord, kumbaya.
Send feedback to email@example.com