I Don’t Agree With Myself

I want to start today’s post with a story. It is completely true but as I don’t come out of it very well I must ask in advance for forgiveness. 

It happened about ten years ago and at that time I used to take regular walks in the woods with a friend. She was completely obsessed with dogs and one day she told me about a local family that was having a hard time. The mother had died leaving three teenage daughters, and their father was struggling to cope.  But as a dog-lover, my friend was particularly concerned about the family’s two giant poodles as they weren’t getting much attention, and she’d drawn up a list of people who were willing to walk them. She was pleased when I offered to help and she gave me the family’s phone number and told me to get in touch when I was free. 

My daughter Molly was about fourteen and as we’d recently lost our own dogs she was excited to hear about the poodles and keen to meet them. It wasn’t long until a lovely summer evening presented us with an ideal opportunity. I rang the number I’d been given and one of the daughters answered. She seemed quite happy to hear from me. “Let yourself in at the back gate,” she said. “The poodles are in the utility room. You’ll find their leads and everything you need there.” About twenty minutes later we arrived and parked outside the house. It was surrounded by a high wooden fence and as we went through the gate into the garden the first thing we saw was a girl who was occupied in tipping earth from one plant pot to another and humming to herself. She had chin-length mousy hair and was probably about twelve.  As I strode towards her she stiffened and stopped humming. “Hello,” I said. “We’ve come to walk the poodles.” 

She stared wide-eyed at me, through her glasses. “We haven’t got any poodles,” she whispered nervously.  

“Yes you have,” I said impatiently deciding that she must have comprehension difficulties. “I spoke to your sister just now and she said it was alright. The poodles are waiting for us in the utility room.” 

“I haven’t got a sister,” she croaked, looking quietly desperate. I was just about to argue that of course she had a sister when I felt Molly tugging urgently at my dress. “Mum…it’s the wrong house,” she said. 

I often think back to the affair of the poodles as it’s a good reminder of how easily we can jump to the wrong conclusions. When faced with a set of facts that didn’t quite add up I did what people do all the time. I tried to make sense of it but unfortunately in doing that I fell prey to confirmation bias—I concocted a narrative that fitted my pre-existing beliefs. I’d set out purposefully at the end of a busy day, keen to do a good deed and unwilling to let anything stand in my way. The evidence I had was an unlocked gate, a garden, and a girl—just as I’d been led to expect. It therefore made perfect sense to me that the nervous-looking girl was simply unobservant. So unobservant in fact that she’d not even noticed that she shared her home with an older sister and two giant poodles. 

None of us is immune to confirmation bias and a few years ago the comedian Andy Hamilton made me laugh with a routine about people who recognise him but can’t place where he’s from—apparently a common hazard of being on TV.  He recounted that one day he was on the Tube and noticed that the man sitting opposite was staring intently. After a while the man leaned forward and said, “I know who you are…you’re that bloke from the kennels where I take my dog.” 

“No I’m not,” replied the famous radio and TV personality. 

“Yes you are,” said the man with absolute confidence. 

John Maynard Keynes is often credited with saying, “When the facts change I change my mind. What do you do?” It’s fortunate that Molly was nimbler than me in drawing a sensible conclusion about the evidence in the garden, and so it was that driven by her acute embarrassment I reassured the girl and apologised profusely as we made a quick getaway. The poodle palaver was easily resolved but it did make me wonder about other times when I’ve been convinced that I’m right.  And I’ve revisited these unsettling thoughts in the past few weeks while reading Daniel Kahneman’s latest book Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgement. The Nobel Prize winning psychologist and economist is best known for the influential Thinking, Fast and Slow but in his new book he examines the many ways in which humans make unreliable judgements. We like to think of ourselves as deliberative and independent-minded but we’re unconsciously swayed by a number of common errors in thinking. 

It’s no surprise that people hold diverse points of view and have different thresholds for making decisions but what is perhaps more disturbing is how inconsistent we are within ourselves. Whatever area you think about, if the judgements are made by humans then they’re prone to inconsistency—politics, law, medicine, business and forensics, for example. Kahneman cites a review of 207,000 immigration court decisions in the US which found that judges were significantly less likely to grant asylum when the weather was hot. Another study found that criminal court judges were more likely to grant parole after lunch. If you should find yourself in any kind of court I recommend that you choose pleasant weather conditions and a contented, post-prandial judge rather than a grumpy, hungry one.  You might also want to find one whose sports team has recently performed well, and don’t forget to check that they don’t have backache. We are all affected to some extent by our emotions and environment. Further data comes from the American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues at the University of Virginia who asked research subjects to judge written accounts of people displaying morally dubious behaviour. Those who were placed next to a messy desk or a smelly toilet made harsher judgements than those who were placed in a more salubrious environment. 

Another way to study reliability is to get people to rate the same thing on different occasions. Kahneman cites multiple studies that have done this including some where fingerprint experts changed their decisions in as many as 10% of cases. In a major wine competition, experts scored only 18% of the wines the same on the second rating, and these were usually the worst ones and therefore presumably the easiest to agree on. And I know that I’m not as steady and reliable as I might wish to believe. I only have to think about how I’ve reacted to various films. The first time I saw Vertigo, for example, I was indifferent to it. I was tired and fell asleep half way through. But a few years later, I watched it in a different frame of mind and couldn’t understand how I’d been so impervious to such a masterpiece. There have been many similar situations, all of which shifting makes me wonder who I am and what I believe. Can I ever trust my own judgement? 

Each of us can only exist in our own highly individual version of reality—affected by our environment, our emotions, the tendency to jump to conclusions, the information available to us, and much more besides. Kahneman hits the nail on the head—Put quite simply, it is hard to agree with reality if you can’t agree with yourself. We can improve things to some extent by being aware that it’s a problem, by challenging ourselves and others, by looking for more evidence, and by following the wise advice to sleep on it when you have an important decision to make. There’s one thing I can be sure about—if you’re anything like me there’s a good chance that by the morning you’ll have changed your mind.

Photos: Mike Poppleton 

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