Feature image credit: Vince Veras @ Unsplash
A few days ago, I was reading the news (aka scrolling through Facebook) when I came across an interesting joke:
An atheist, a vegan, and a CrossFitter walked into a bar. I only know because they told everyone within two minutes.”
Hahaha. I get it — these people make their convictions their entire personality. I have a vegan friend who is an ardent apologist for veganism. He packs cornflakes for lunch and shares long, informational articles about the beauty of veganism… but I digress.
This joke is interesting for another reason because… it’s an example of the toupee fallacy!
The toupee fallacy goes like this: “All toupees look fake. I’ve never seen one that doesn’t look fake.”
Well, we wouldn’t know we are looking at a realistic toupee because it’s realistic, right? If it’s well-made, we wouldn’t notice that it is a toupee. But each time we see a fake-looking one, it reinforces our conclusion. Look! A fake-looking toupee! See, all toupees look fake!
Our brains didn’t evolve to be right. They evolved to be effective at survival. They do this by noticing patterns so we can make predictions. This is where chunking comes from. Chunking is when we take individual pieces of information and group them into larger units. It is how chess grandmasters are able to memorize the entire board. It is how musicians are able to play long pieces by heart.
In other words, we are wired to commit the toupee fallacy. If there is a pattern, we generalize it.
Therefore, though we might be right sometimes, we are wrong VERY OFTEN.
Here’s a way to spot a toupee fallacy. When you hear “You can always tell…” or “I always notice when…” you know a toupee fallacy is coming your way.
Good examples of the toupee fallacy are the ones in the joke:
“Atheists are angry people.”
“Vegans like to force others into veganism.”
“People who do CrossFit always advertise it.”
Because we have already determined a pattern, we ignore atheists who aren’t angry, vegans who do not force their values on others, and CrossFitters who don’t advertise their interest. We don’t notice them. They don’t enter our data set. Thus, bias.
At my previous workplace, we were encouraged to speak up about threats in the operation. At one point, many people wrote in about a recurring mistake that resulted from the poor system.
The boss got worried as more and more reports poured in, so he had a brilliant idea. He decided to penalize all those writing in about the error. Soon after, the number of reports reduced drastically. The boss thumped his chest, boasting that he had “eliminated the error,” completely oblivious that the mistake persisted; people just weren’t reporting it anymore to avoid punishment.
Of course, the rest of us were amused. He was like a kid who covered his eyes while playing hide-and-seek. Since I see nobody, nobody can see me! Yay, I win!
He thought that his immediate data summed up reality. The foolishness made me smirk… until I remembered my remark about how gamers are always anti-social and obsessive. Ooopss.
Chow Ping Lee is a content writer under Headliner by Newswav, a programme where content creators get to tell their unique stories through articles and at the same time monetize their content within the Newswav app.
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