Smoke and Mirrors
Simply Said

Smoke and Mirrors

Dr. Rajesh Prabhakaran

The year was 1913; the Titanic had sunk a year back and the First World War was yet to break out. The place was Monte Carlo, one of world’s largest paradises for gambling. It was just another night at the casino table till someone noticed that for the previous ten consecutive spins, the roulette ball had fallen on black. The gamblers were convinced that since the ball had fallen on black so many times, it had to hit red next. As the punters started pushing money on to the table in expectance of the inevitable red, the long run of the black continued. Eventually, it did fall on the red, but not until after 26 spins of the wheel, each of which saw a greater number of people pushing their chips over to red. It was perhaps the most profitable night in the casino’s history; records were rewritten, fortunes were lost, and the “Monte Carlo fallacy” was born. Just because something has happened a lot in the past doesn’t mean it is more or less likely to happen in the future. There’s really no such thing as a certain outcome being ‘overdue’. The odds remain the same, no matter what transpired during a previous roll or spin. Not just in casinos, such fallacies and biases of human mind are common in our daily life. As we step into the New Year, let’s explore a bit more on the human mind and it’s fallacies.

Warriors on Whatsapp

The winter chill is in the air, but one must admit that it has been a turbulent year. The showdown in Hong Kong, farmers taking to the streets in Netherlands, climate marches in Paris, protests in India, the list is long. Overall it certainly was a year when emotions boiled over the top. Interestingly the intensity of modern day anger is not just felt on the streets. Private Whatsapp groups for sure have become one such destination where rage burns unabated, and potshots are hurled even amongst friends and family members. And whatever may be the issue of debate, the common string seems to be ‘My way or the Highway’. American astrophysicist Neil Tyson probably summarized it well when he said, “One of the biggest problems with the world today is that we have large groups of people who will accept whatever they hear from the grapevine, just because it suits their worldview, not because it is actually true or because they have evidence to support it”.

The Mother of all Biases

Let’s reflect on the following scenarios:

You have tried to reach a friend on phone, email, or messages, but still not receiving any response. In a situation like this, you may have jumped to the conclusion that your friend wants to avoid you. The danger, of course, is that you leave this belief unchecked and start to act as though it were true.

Consider scientific research programs. There are many cases where scientists interpret data in a biased manner, or repeat experiments until they achieve a desired result.

A journalist may behave as if there is only one side to a story, or a physician may jump to a diagnosis and overlook any other evidence that may tend to disconfirm his initial hypothesis.

In all these scenarios, human judgment appears clouded due to a common misconception called Confirmation Bias. Most of us honestly believe that our convictions are rational, unbiased, based on our years of experience and objective analysis of all available information. But in reality, all of us are susceptible to Confirmation Bias (CB). In his best seller “The Art of Thinking Clearly”, Rolf Dobelli terms CB as the mother of all misconceptions.

Confirmation Bias is the tendency to interpret new information so that it becomes compatible with our existing beliefs and convictions. In other words, we filter out any new information that contradicts our existing views. CB explains why two people with opposing views on a topic can see the same evidence and both still feel vindicated by it. The bias is evident in the case of religious, philosophical or emotionally charged views. The internet is a fertile ground for CB as we tend to browse websites and blogs that mirror our favored views, and inevitably land in communities of like-minded people further reinforcing our existing convictions.

Countering Confirmation Bias

Experts opine that awareness of confirmation bias can itself guard us against falling prey to avoidable errors to a large extent. We can learn to identify it in ourselves and others. But the big question is how to go about it. Well, here are some insights from experts.

Nothing is gonna change his love: In his book ‘Everybody Lies’, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz details a study on how childhood experiences influence which base-ball team one supports. According to him, the most important year in a man’s life, for the purposes of cementing his favourite base-ball team as an adult, is when he is more or less eight years old. Overall five to fifteen is the key period to win over a boy, beyond which he will either love a team for life or he won’t. This is the case of sports, but how about political preferences? Yair Ghitza and Andrew Gelman studied sixty years of survey data and after sifting through more than 300,000 observations on voting preferences found that political preferences are formed in a way that is very similar to our sports preferences. There is a crucial period that imprints on people for life, which is between the ages of fourteen and twenty four. And views crystallized during these key years are likely to last a lifetime. If you still want to argue with that adult friend who has divergent and hardened political views, do it at the risk of losing your own sanity.

Consider the Opposite: This approach is based on the research by Charles G Lord and his colleagues at Princeton University. It urges us to actively consider the opposite of our belief. Whenever an observation contradicts our existing view, do not ignore them, rather, evaluate it critically. It may not be easy to completely overcome our instincts, but making an effort to embrace flexibility can certainly minimize confirmation bias.

The triple ‘S’ strategy: In the age of modern media, this is one of my favorites; Skip, Spare and Swipe. Skip being a social media warrior, it’s just not worth your time. Spare yourselves from the jungle called TV debates; Tom and Jerry may be a better option. Swipe away, rather than posting pointwise rebuttals to your social media buddies, unless of course you are in need of some jaunty fun.

Nothing could be more apt than the following lines of Shannon L Alder:

“Read it with sorrow and you will feel hate
Read it with anger and you will feel vengeful
Read it with paranoia and you will feel confusion
Read it with empathy and you will feel compassion
Read it with love and you will feel flattery
Read it with hope and you will feel positive
Read it with humor and you will feel joy
Read it without bias and you will feel peace
Do not read it at all and you will not feel a thing”.

Simply said, the choice is ours. Have a peaceful year ahead!!!


The author is Co-founder & Director @ BioQuest Solutions, a globally emerging Knowledge Services Organization that has been partnering with clients across the life-sciences value chain since 2005.