By Cindy Wagman (December 5, 2019)

Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything: A Theory of Human Misunderstanding by Bobby Duffy, Basic Books, November 26, 2019, 304 pp., $29.21

Guess what? We know nothing!

Well, not quite nothing, but when it comes to our understanding of numerical information, we are so far off from reality that it might as well be make-believe. And the funny part about it is that how we are wrong can be pretty predictable if we understand heuristics – or the shortcuts our brains make.

This is the premise of the book Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything: A Theory of Human Misunderstanding by Bobby Duffy. Duffy spent many years studying perception and beliefs at Ipsos and draws on that data, as well as the study of heuristics (perceived rules of thumb), to help us uncover the reasons behind our terrible interpretation of data. Of course, Duffy also explores “what we’re told” and how we’re told it, in combination with heuristics and low numeracy, to paint an alarming picture of how we interpret the world today.

Duffy explores some very common misbeliefs and uncovers the heuristics behind them, to help us uncover our own biases and how they shape our perception of the world.

For example, in Canada, people polled believe that about 43% is overweight, but the reality is that 56% of the population is. This is a concern because there are serious health implications to being overweight, but the more we underestimate the problem, the less likely we are to do anything about it. So why do we have such a low estimation of the problem? Duffy argues that there are two heuristics at play here, the Availability Heuristic and the Herding Bias. The Availability Heuristic is a shortcut that our brain makes when reaching for information. It pulls information that is most readily available. It means we are overly reliant on what we can most easily remember. 

So, for example, we might most readily associate “overweight” with “obese” or even very obese, which is a smaller part of the population than simply “overweight”. Herding Bias is our tendency to want to fit in. We tend to imitate the majority. With such a high percentage of people being overweight, it might look like this is more “average weight”. 

One of the most fascinating examples Duffy gives is Asymmetric Updating – where people take the information that fits with their views, even if it’s on the marginalized side – as a way to reinforce their views.

The example of this in the book is the journalistic treatment of the anti-vaccination arguments. In the beginning, journalists would present both sides of the argument, even if one side has zero scientific evidence. However, just the presence of the “wrong” side of the argument deepened people’s commitment to it, if they already believed it. Today, many broadcasters have addressed “the dangers of ‘false balance.” 

One of the most widely known cases of leveraging heuristics to improve people’s behaviours (also known as behavioural economics, or nudging) is the example Duffy shares of the “Save More Tomorrow” program in the US (which contributed to a Nobel Prize win for Richard Thaler). In their research, Thaler and colleagues determined that there were two heuristics at play that prevented people from adequately saving for retirement – lack of willpower, or Present Bias and Inertia, our tendency to stick with the status quo. 

We favour more immediate gratification over long-term rewards and change is hard. This means that we’d rather spend the money we have, than save it for another day (or, in this case, retirement). As Duffy explains, The ‘Save More Tomorrow’ program auto-enrolls people into workplace saving plans to combat inertia and auto-escalates their savings over time, by getting people to commit to future increases instead of increases today.

Of course, some of the most alarming biases today are when it comes to our understanding of “truth” and our lack of fact-checking. While Duffy points out that these are not new phenomenon, the rise of social media and digital algorithms means that our access to information is skewed, playing into our already existing biases. 

Bobby Duffy

Duffy concludes the book with a list of ways we can “deal with our delusions” – or help combat the problem of our misconceptions and biases. Some of the recommendations include understanding that people will have emotional reactions to information and that challenging their emotions is not a helpful way of getting them to change their minds. We need to teach people how to research in today’s digital era so that they can quickly uncover facts vs. falsehoods.

We need to tell the story – facts are not sufficient in convincing people of anything. Facts should punctuate stories that people can more easily relate to.

(The founder and CEO of The Good Partnership, Cindy Wagman is currently the host of the #1 podcast for non-profits in Canada: the small nonprofit podcast.)

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