Evolution is an unproven theory. The sun revolves around the earth. Expensive vodka is better. Why are so many of us so clueless? (More)

Clueless, Part I – Common Ignorance

This week Morning Feature looks at cluelessness and its causes. Today we consider common ignorance. Tomorrow we examine political ignorance. Saturday we conclude with how to open our own and others’ eyes.

Most of us believe at least some false claims. Last year Newsweek offered a slide show titled “America the Ignorant,” based on responses to various polls. Among their findings: 25% of Americans reject evolution, and 20% believe the sun revolves around the earth. Slate‘s Alex Abramovich wrote that “if all vodkas tasted alike, there’d be no reason to favor a $30 bottle of Armadale over a $12 magnum of Fleischmann’s,” yet blind taste testers on the New York Times Dining section staff favored the cheaper Smirnoff label, and Bloomberg Businessweek found vodka drinkers could not identify their favorite brands in blind tests. Why are we so ignorant?

Predictably Irrational

It’s partly how our brains function. For example, in Predictably Irrational, MIT behavioral economist Dan Ariely writes that given a choice of: (1) a week in Paris (free breakfast); (2) a week in Rome (free breakfast); and (3) a week in Rome (no breakfast), most people choose #2: Rome with the free breakfasts. Dr. Ariely calls that the decoy effect or, in academese, asymmetric dominance effect. Simply, given several options, we tend to choose from options that are easy to compare. It’s easy to choose between Rome with free breakfast and Rome with no breakfast. It’s harder to choose between Paris and Rome. So we rule out Paris and go with the easy comparison. The decoy effect is one of many cognitive biases that can lead us astray.

Some are heuristics, decision-making shortcuts that work often enough that we come to rely on them. For example, we reasonably consider experience – what we’ve witnessed and what we’ve been told – when deciding what to believe. But studies on the availability heuristic show that the experiences we remember are not always the best evidence. We remember vivid stories, even if the stories are exceptional events. That’s especially true if a story is widely repeated and/or we remember several examples. Air crashes are usually big news, told in vivid stories. Car crashes are routine and largely ignored. Thus, many Americans think air travel is more dangerous than driving, despite statistics that prove exactly the opposite.

We also tend to trust our first impressions, even if they’re contrary to later experience. A study released in January showed that we let first impressions establish the “rule,” and treat later contrary experiences as “contextual exceptions.” We maintain the first impression “rule” in general and apply the later experience “exceptions” only in the limited context where they happened. That colleague who seemed arrogant when we met at the office remains a jerk-in-general, even though he’s nice-in-context based on a later experience at a company picnic, nice-in-context based on later experience of a shared project, etc.

Being Spun

It’s not just our brains. We also get plenty of help toward ignorance. In unSpun, Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Public Policy Center offer a list of tactics that advertisers, public relations firms, and political groups use to confuse us, including:

  • Misnomers – How big is a “large” California olive? Not very. “Large” is the third smallest of seven sizes of olives, ranging from “small” to “super colossal.”
  • Weasel Words – “Up to 50% off” may mean no savings at all. “Some say” may mean only the person who just said it.
  • Eye Candy – Vision trumps hearing. Show us a happy woman walking her dog in the park, and most of us won’t even hear the list of side effects for the antidepressant that supposedly made her happy.
  • “Average” Often Isn’t – The “average” Bush tax cut was $1586, but most individuals got only $300. Averages can be skewed by a few huge outliers.
  • Baseline Bluff – Retailers often mark up an item above the intended sale price, so they can advertise a “discount.” So do politicians.
  • Literally True, But – In 1991, Stouffer’s advertised their Lean Cuisine meals as “always less than 1 gram of sodium per entrée.” Literally true, but … one gram of sodium is almost half the FDA’s daily recommended amount (2.3 grams).
  • Implied Lie – The maker of the Ab Force belt never said it would reduce off your waistline. He just showed pictures of people with trim waists and washboard abdominal muscles … holding the Ab Force belt.

The Dangers of Common Ignorance

Some ignorant notions are harmless. But some aren’t. For example, in a 1997 survey, most women thought breast cancer was the number one killer. No one lied, but extensive media coverage and the availability heuristic had pushed breast cancer to the top of women’s minds. In fact, women are nine times more likely to die of heart disease, and most women didn’t know the warning signs for a heart attack for women … which differ from those for men.

Media stories about adolescent sex have a similar effect. A 2005 University of California found only 13.5% of 9th graders had experienced vaginal sex, but they thought 41% of their classmates had … and 26% hoped to have vaginal sex within the next six months. A 2003 James Madison University study found a similar pattern among college students; most students did not want to have sex on a first date, but believed most of their classmates would. Such false beliefs create implicit pressure toward “common” behaviors that aren’t common at all.

We’re all prone to common ignorance. And we’re even more prone to political ignorance, as we’ll see tomorrow.

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Happy Thursday!