Do generals commit adultery more often than, say, elementary school teachers?
The way we answer this question says a lot about the way we think. If you’ve been reading about American generals recently, you know that a lot of top ranking officers have been caught with their hands in the cookie jar. The facts are easily available to you. You can recall them quickly. Indeed, they’re very likely top of mind. (One of my students asked, in mock horror, since when have generals taken orders from their privates?)
On the other hand, when was the last time you read about cheating primary school teachers? It’s probably been a long time, if ever. Why? Because stories about cheating teachers don’t sell many newspapers. Stories about cheating generals seize our attention and hold it. It’s a great way to sell newspapers, magazines, and TV shows.
So, it’s easy for you to remember stories about cheating generals. It’s much harder to remember stories about cheating teachers. Based on your ability to remember relevant cases, you might conclude that generals do indeed stray more often than teachers. Would you be right? Maybe … but maybe not. All you’ve really done is search your own memory banks. As we all know, memory is fallible and can easily play tricks on us.
When we’re asked a comparative question like generals versus teachers, we often try to answer a different question: how many cases of each can I readily recall? It’s an easier question to answer and doesn’t require us to search external sources and think hard thoughts. Though it’s easy, it’s often erroneous.
I think I saw this phenomenon in action during the recent presidential election. My friends who supported Obama tended to talk to other people who supported Obama. If you asked how many people would support Obama, they could readily retrieve many cases and conclude that Obama would win. Of course, my friends who supported Romney were doing exactly the same thing — talking with or listening to other Romney supporters. I heard one person say, “Of course Romney will win. Everybody hates Obama”. I suspect that everybody he talked to hated Obama. But that’s not the same as everybody.
Relying on easily available information can help create the political chasms that we see around us. If you read a lot of articles about intransigent Republicans, you may conclude that Republicans are more intransigent than Democrats. That may be true … or it could just be a product of what you remember. Similarly, if you read lots of articles about Democrats undercutting the military, you might come to believe …. well, you get the picture.
What should we do? First, remember that the easy answer is often the wrong answer. It depends on what we remember rather than what’s actually happening. Second, start reading more sources that “disagree” with your point of view. All information sources have some degree of bias. Reading widely can help you establish a balance. Third, study up on statistics. It will help you understand what’s accurate and what’s not.
By the way, this post is adapted from Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, easily the best book I’ve read this year. You can find it here.
(Note: I’ll teach a class on Applied Critical Thinking during the winter term at the University of Denver. Some of my teaching material will show up here in posts about how we think. They’ll all carry the tag, Applied Critical Thinking, so you can find them easily).