Forming an Opinion

There is one little error I see in reasoning of so many people that I feel the need to mention it here. In fact, I have heard it from famous and well-established thinkers and read it in their best-selling books. This error stems from the tendencies known as confirmation bias and survivorship bias in psychology. Confirmation bias is the tendency to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs. Survivorship bias is our inclination to pick winners applying a particular strategy in a particular field to support our argument while conveniently ignoring all the others who also apply the same strategy but fail.

I have often heard someone during a speech putting forward an argument and then stitching it with the following expression: ‘XYZ (insert a successful person’s name) always followed this approach’. The next thing in the motivational lecture is that you can be like Mr/Ms XYZ if you also follow this approach. While giving you a line of action that might elevate your fortune, the speaker is actually elevating his/her own fortunes.

The examples of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson or Bill Gates are obviously old but relevant. If we want to know if dropping out from college increases our chance of remarkable success, we need to study the careers of thousands of college dropouts and analyze the results. This is the “the law of large numbers” and holds true in other situations. If we want to know the actual positive or negative outcome of a particular set of actions, we must refer to a few thousand cases where it was followed and a few thousand where it was not followed to detect any significant effect.

Today it is more evident in social media where it is easy to get jealous of someone looking so happy in the photos. However, the actual comparison should be between all the highs and lows they have experienced versus all the highs and lows you are experiencing. You might find that you are an overall happier and better person than the social media star.

So next time you hear about a simple argument followed by the example of a famous person, or find something completely in favour of the opinion you already have, think twice and apply the law of large numbers before convincing yourself and others about its wisdom.

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