(featured image credit: Henry Burrows CC BY)
We should be pleased when what we observe contradicts what we believe to be true: wisdom arises when the unexpected happens
We people are simple at heart. We are of course incredibly complex machines – just think about the elements of your anatomy that allow you to read these paragraphs: the muscles, tendons and bones in your hands and fingers, your eyeballs that can turn left, right, up and down, with their diaphragms that can adjust to the light level, the nervous system that connects the lot together, and the brain with its billions of neurons to control it all and make sense of what you see. Yet we like the world to be simple… too simple perhaps.
A possible reason for this desire for simplicity is that we tend to prefer certainty over uncertainty. The dependable straight lines of the exclamation mark in ‘That’s the way it is!’ are so much more comfortable than the circuitous bends of the question mark in ‘What on earth is going on?’ We like our world to be predictable.
It’s the law!
Laws give us that certainty, which is why we are so fond of them. We expect moving objects to always obey Newton’s law, or we expect the economy to always follow the law of supply and demand. And where there are no such laws, we just construct our own. We form beliefs based on what we are taught or what we observe: BMW-drivers never use their indicators, or politicians are all crooks out to line their pockets. Pretty much we treat such beliefs as laws too.
And what do we do when we are confronted with facts that violate one of these laws? We have plenty of ways to eliminate the cognitive dissonance that we would otherwise experience. We can ignore it, or dismiss it as an anomaly that doesn’t count. “A nice Dutch beer? Ah, you mean La Trappe? But that’s a Trappist beer, which is a Belgian beer really!” We can question the validity of the facts, or of the person who raised them. (“Who mentioned a nice Dutch beer? Oh, Fred? But he knows nothing about beer!”) We can declare them to be outside our scope. (“Hertog Jan? Yeah, very nice, but they call it a barley wine, and I was talking about lagers!”)
What would happen if we didn’t immediately pull up the defences, but actually engaged with the apparent conflict between new facts and our beliefs? A few weeks ago, I came across a captivating discussion on Twitter, which featured a clip from a nature documentary. In it, a young female leopard that has just killed a baboon discovers that her prey was carrying a new-born young. Remarkably, rather than eating it, she proceeds to protects it from a bunch of hungry hyenas, taking it up into a tree, and keeps looking after it.
Some people may dismiss this film as fantasy, staged by the makers, in defence of the belief that leopards inevitably will kill and eat helpless little baboons. But if you trust it to be truthful and suspend that belief, an interesting question arises: what might be behind the behaviour of the young female? Clearly, she did not lack the instinct to feed herself, having just killed (and not even eaten yet, so she was still hungry) the baby baboon’s mother. Are we witnessing a stand-off between two instincts – one for survival, and one for maternal care?
It’s hard to tell. But what is obvious is that the primary instinct we associate with hungry predators is not the only driver for their behaviour. Even if we don’t suddenly see young leopardesses routinely starting to fostering orphan baboons, this single unusual, unexpected, frankly surprising event tells us something: it can happen. The belief that a hungry leopard will always kill and eat any prey animal, and never safeguard it, has been dented.
If this can happen with beliefs about animal behaviour, then we can expect the same with human behaviour. In a recent episode of the Freakonomics podcast, one of the guests was Sheena Iyengar, a psychologist renowned for her work on choice. Her research lies at the basis of the so-called paradox of choice. Early in her career, she and Mark Lepper investigated how children react when they can choose from a multitude of toys. They found that, instead of being elated and engaging in play, the children “would look at all these toys and stare outside the window”. This went against the prevailing scientific belief at the time: more choice produces more intrinsic motivation, higher satisfaction and a greater sense of control. Iyengar and Lepper also conducted the now famous jam study, in which shoppers at a prestigious supermarket were shown a choice of 6 types of jam in one condition, and 24 kinds in the other condition. 60% of people stopped to taste with the larger amount of jams on display, while only 40% did so when just 6 jams were presented. But of the people who saw the 24 jams only 3% actually made a purchase, while 30% of those who stopped for the smaller display went on to buy jam. It seems we enjoy choice because we value the multitude of opportunities, but we don’t like the cognitive load of actually having to choose between too many options, like the children or the shoppers confronted with 24 jams.
Iyengar and Lepper’s experiments alone would be a good example of unusual, unexpected behaviour, which challenges a prior belief (“more choice is better”), and which gives rise to new insights. But it is just the beginning of the story: a lot of choice is not always too much choice. As Rory Sutherland once said, “if you’ve driven 27 miles around the North Circular (a notoriously unpleasant London road) to visit a place called World of Jam, you’re probably not going to walk in and go ‘Oh Jesus! There’s just too much jam.’” Context matters.
But does choice overload really exist? A meta-analysis, conducted by Benjamin Scheibehenne at Basel University and colleagues, cast doubt over its very existence, finding a mean effect size of virtually zero (albeit with wide variation). At the very least, the researchers concluded, it is complicated: not just the number of options available but also the structure, and the decision processes matter. And this finding too was not the last word. A further meta-analysis, by Alexander Chernev, a psychologist at Northwestern University, and colleagues, identified four factors (choice set complexity, decision task difficulty, preference uncertainty, and decision goal) that have a reliable and significant impact on choice overload.
Sheena Iyengar’s remarks in the Freakonomics podcast clarify what might be happening here. We don’t necessarily just shop when we go to a store. For instance, even if most of the time we routinely put the same products in our trolley, week in, week out, we still to some extent be on the lookout for new. In addition to replenishing supplies, we are then looking to update our knowledge on the available options, deliberately seeking variety and novelty. If one of our goals is to discover new options, then more options will be benefiting us. In contrast, when we go into your habitual coffee shop in the morning, we are not in updating mode at all: just give us exactly what we’re having every day, and leave out the choices.
Assumptions, better than beliefs?
Assumptions are often reasonable as a first order approximation in most circumstances. Classical music is more likely to feature violins than accordions; most popular Dutch lagers are pretty bland; people prefer more choice over less choice. But if they are turning into beliefs, it is much harder to accept there may be nuances we are missing.
If we are truly concerned with understanding the world better, whether it is in academia, trying to replicate social science experiments, or more generally, in our manifold interactions with our fellow humans, assumptions are more useful than beliefs. When beliefs are contradicted, we feel a strong need to defend them.
Assumptions, on the other hand, allow us to keep our mind open for the unusual, the unexpected, and the surprising. To paraphrase Paul Saffo’s ‘strong opinions, weakly held’ mantra, it is thanks to strong assumptions, weakly held that we learn that not all Dutch beers are bland, not all BMW-drivers are inconsiderate maniacs, and we can be doing more than just replenishing our pantry when we go shopping.
That is how we learn.