(featured image credit: Mikepaws)
“None so blind as those who will not see”
At the end of last year, Britain’s Royal Statistical Society invited, for the first time, their members and the general public to nominate their favourite statistic. In the world of words, dictionaries like the OED and Merriam-Webster have had a word of the year tradition for over 10 years now. Germany’s national language society, the GfDS, has even been choosing a Wort des Jahres since 1971. It was obviously time for a numerical equivalent.
The UK statistic of the year referred to the percentage of UK land area that is ‘densely built upon’, also known as continuous urban fabric. If you’ve not heard of the statistic, even if you’ve not been to the UK, do take a guess (the answer is somewhere further in this article.)
Not so educated guesses
The statistic is striking (and presumably got voted to the top spot) because it is so different from what most people would guess it is. We could be excused for being ignorant about the tallest mountain on Mars, the length of the river Nile or the total daily production of crude oil, unless we have a special interest in these topics. But you might expect people living in the UK to be able to give a reasonable guess that is off by at most a factor 2 or 3.
Such educated guesses are an intriguing combination of facts and beliefs, and so in a sense they are a collaboration between Daniel Kahneman’s two thinking systems. The fast and impulsive System 1 is quick to tap into our feelings and impressions, and the slow, logical System 2 takes its time to reason and consider. But sometimes there is not a lot of reasoning, and the process is dominated by heuristics and beliefs, without us realizing that’s what happens. In the UK, 83% lives in cities and conurbations, and of those who don’t, many more work in them. Built-up areas are salient in our experience. We do visit the countryside, of course, and we may occasionally even see the country from the air and be surprised by how small cities are and how much open space there is in between. But the dominant visual picture for most people is one of bricks and concrete, roads and buildings, and that ‘educates’ our guess more than any reasoning we might be doing.
Kahneman calls this WYSIATI – “What You See Is All There Is”. This describes our tendency to be influenced most strongly by our “known knowns”, and is linked to several cognitive biases. One of these is the availability heuristic, the mental shortcut that activates the concepts that are most easily brought to mind. For example, when we think of a swan, most of us would imagine a white one, simply because that is the only colour of swan most of us see. A related one is base rate neglect, which can make us believe in the power of faith healing or other interventions that lack any scientific basis. If we don’t realize how likely it is that a particular condition improves without any intervention, it is tempting to believe that such an improvement is the result of prayer, hand waving or sugar pills. Confirmation bias reinforces the WYSIATI-effect, because it makes us see (and indeed look for) what we already know to be the case. And the overconfidence bias makes us excessively confident of the perception that what we see is indeed all there is. (By the way, the percentage of densely built upon ‘continuous urban fabric’ in the UK is 0.13%, that is just 320 square kilometres. Were you close? The map below shows both continuous and discontinuous urban fabric in red – the actual continuous part is less than 1/50 of all the red colour.)
The effect is not limited to what we physically see, though. It can easily be extended to “what we believe is all there is.” The opinion polling company Ipsos MORI has been conducting a regular poll under the title ‘The perils of perception’ (the 2017 issue is summarized here.) In it, they interview people from a sizeable number of countries about their perception of certain social parameters, like the prevalence of teenage pregnancy, or belief in heaven and hell.
In the most recent one, the subjects had to say in which countries they thought people consume the most alcohol. Russia came out top (it is actually only in 7th position). This is not so much because we see drunken Russians everywhere, but more likely because it is received (and unverified) wisdom. Only 4% of respondents put the real leader in alcohol consumption (Belgium) in their top 3. Even in Belgium, just 5% of respondents correctly guessed they are citizens of the world’s booziest country.
The Perils of Perception polls are full of this kind of sometimes spectacular misperceptions. The figure below shows some intriguing highlights where people get it wrong by considerable margins, often by a more than an order of magnitude.(A note of caution: I have obviously been selective in picking the examples to support my cause here. What you see here is not all there is!)
Rushing to a conclusion
WYSIATI is different from bounded rationality. This means coming to an answer or a conclusion which, even though it is well reasoned-through, is not the most rational one, because we don’t have all the relevant facts, and we have limited reasoning capacity. WYSIATI involves a lot less reasoning and a lot more shooting from the hip. We overestimate the relevance of the fraction of the information we have, and confidently generalize. It’s not as if we are unaware that there are vast areas of open space, from Dartmoor and the Lake District to the Scottish Highlands. But we spend our life in and between man-made constructions of bricks, concrete and glass, and that settles it.
The pernicious nature of WYSIATI is precisely that we don’t reason. This old riddle illustrates how easily we jump to conclusions: a father and his son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital. Just as he is about to go under the knife, the surgeon exclaims, “I can’t operate—that boy is my son!” How can this be?
Just like we assume swans are white because that is what we mostly see, we think surgeons are men because most surgeons we know (about) are men. Did you, for a moment there, fail to realize that the surgeon was the boy’s mother? WYSIATI makes us unwittingly biased and reinforces stereotyping.
Of course we can never see everything, and there will always be stuff that is outside our immediate field of vision, that we don’t remember, or that is at odds with our received wisdom. But what we can do is remind ourselves of our limited perspective on the world around us – especially when we feel particularly confident about our judgement.
If we’re aware that what we see is not all there is, we already see a little more.