Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The available explanation may not be the most reliable explanation

  In the midst of a busy or challenging time in our lives, we can’t analyze and reason out every issue that confronts us.  When time is short, information is lacking, or anxiety is building, we often use mental shortcuts, familiarly known as rules of thumb and more formally as heuristics, to quickly reach conclusions and make decisions. 

  Although using such shortcuts can be quite helpful, their use can also lead to judgment errors and biases –such as when we rely upon “gut instincts” or “educated guesses” instead of careful reasoning.  Psychologists, beginning with Tversky andKahneman in 1973, have identified numerous heuristics and their associated biases.

  One mental shortcut is the availability heuristic—relying upon examples that come easily to mind to make a decision or form an opinion.  When events are readily remembered, particularly recent ones, we tend to give greater credibility to this information and overestimate the likelihood that similar events will happen again. When I hear a media report of a shark attack, for example,  I might conclude that such events are relatively common—and subsequently be surprised to learn that horses kill far more people than sharks do.  

  A related concept is the availability cascade.  In the face of uncertainty, an idea or perspective that seemingly explains a complicated situation in an efficient, straight-forward way, may gain rapid acceptance by a few and then by others who follow their lead.  A self-reinforcing cycle occurs: using the idea binds anxiety, explains what was unexplainable, creates an illusion of insight, and achieves acceptance by others.  Thus, the needs for social acceptance and certainty overwhelm critical thinking.

  This cycle helps explain the onset of some instances of high conflict and parent-child alienation following separation and divorce.  At its best, divorce is fraught with doubts, unanswered questions and uncertain futures.   For spurned spouses and anxious children, the dominant question is “Why? Why is this happening to us?”  Although the reasons for divorce are usually multifaceted, readily remembered events, such as a spouse’s temper outburst, alleged instances of drunkenness, or empathic failures may be given outsize importance, washing out recollection of instances of patience, sobriety, and compassion.  The explanation: “You want to know why we are getting divorced? Because she has a prescription drug problem, that’s why” may seem to explain everything—but may overlook more than it reveals.  But once such an explanation is out there and it’s acceptance a requirement of the speaker’s approval, the idea can cascade, explaining the past, the present, the future and drawing more people into the loop.   Indeed, the attractiveness of a simple answer is oftentimes quite frustrating for thoughtful parents.  One father, for example, was taken aback when, after providing a balanced, nuanced picture of why he and the mother were divorcing, his teenage daughter retorted: “Cut the crap, who had the affair?” 

  Rather than relying upon automatic conclusions, the antidote in these instances is thoughtful reasoning—considering facts, challenging assumptions, asking questions, tolerating ambiguity, accepting complexity.    Although the rule of thumb, "less is more," is appealing and useful in many situations, disrupting an availability cascade requires more thinking and less assuming.