On my way to work this last Monday I couldn’t help but notice that it seemed as if squirrels at the side of the road would wait until the van was almost upon them before rushing across the street in a mad suicidal dash.
Would it be a valid inference to conclude that the local squirrel population was hell-bent on destroying itself, or that the presence of an oncoming vehicle made them risk their lives in this manner, to become road pizza? I suspect not, fortunately for the majority of the urban tree-dwelling wildlife gene pool.
It turns out that I was engaging in a sort of self-deception known as confirmation bias, and since the sight of small animals running across the street stands out more than the vast majority that don’t rush out in front of oncoming traffic, it’s easier to notice and remember, as per the following observation by Francis Bacon:
It is the peculiar and perpetual error of the human understanding to be more moved and excited by affirmatives than by negatives.
Events that are more cognitively significant, and forgetting, for not having paid much attention to those fauna that stay off the road, is a typical example of this error.
Confirmation bias is a form of selective thinking in which one remembers, more closely considers, or looks for observations affirmative to one’s beliefs, and forgetting, dismissing, ignoring or downplaying data that contradict one’s beliefs. It’s the human tendency to ‘count the hits and ignore the misses,’ and something we all do if we aren’t careful.
Confirmation bias is one reason for many paranormal and occult beliefs, such as that of the powers of alleged psychics, who often use cold reading techniques such as shotgunning, where a lot of random guesses, some of them highly likely to be true for almost anyone (common names, numbers, dates, etc.), are made, during which the psychic relies on his or her subject to forget or dismiss the incorrect guesses and keep in mind only the ones that subjectively seem accurate, thus seeming to the subject to possess special knowledge obtainable only by paranormal means, while really relying on verbal and non-verbal feedback cues unknowingly given by the subject.
This tendency is also responsible for belief in so-called lunar effects, such as the supposed increase in hospital admissions during nights of a full moon, such things as childbirths, or injury from accident or violence. Some hospital staff will pay more notice to those admissions during a full moon, and pay little or no mind to those times during a full moon when admissions aren’t high as being the exceptions that prove the rule.
A perusal of hospital admission records over time will reveal nothing special about these nights. So if I document my observations of the road on the way to work more carefully, and go back over them later, it speaks much better for the survival instincts of the local squirrels that they aren’t risking their lives to become roadkill as much as they seem to be through casual observation. Fnord.
(Last Updated 16:20, 10/30/2009: Grammar & Verbiage Corrections)