The Rather Large Ant

Thanks to my now-37-year-old son Daniel for today’s illustration of one reason we’re so easily and often wrong.  His e-mail to his mother, in thanks for his birthday present:
“Thanks mom, I love the shorts.  We recently changed to casual dress at work and all my old ones were probably bought when I was in junior high. I’ve been meaning to upgrade but I HATE clothes shopping, so this is a truly useful gift.
“Now on to the bad part. While I do enjoy the chocolates you gifted, I think we need to make those [chocolates] in-person gifts only from here on out. They actually held up to the temperature surprisingly well; they weren’t melted at all. However…
“As I was opening the package I noticed a rather large ant on my arm. I swatted it and continued opening the package.  I saw another ant on my leg.  As I went to send it to meet its brother, from the corner of my eye I saw two others skittering along the outside of the package.
“I figured a handful of ants had decided to check the package out.  While picking through the shorts I began to realize I should have taken this endeavor outside, as one after another appeared.  But I continued methodically, ensuring no ant escaped as I carefully separated each layer of the shorts, still blissfully overconfident in my ability to handle whatever lay ahead. When I got to the final pair I was a bit stressed out – I don’t like killing things, not even ants.  But this is my house now, and I gotta let them know.
“I lift that last pair up, and I see the expected few newly-disturbed ants run across its pockets. I’m happy this whole thing is almost over.  I reach toward one of the final survivors. He loses his footing, perhaps in fear as he sees that God has now chosen him, and falls to the bottom of the expected-to-be-empty box. Only it wasn’t. There is something truly awful about a swarm of anything, and ants are no exception. The silver lining is that millipedes would have been infinitely worse. I had the pride not to scream, but I jumped back in horror and revulsion. Right now the box is sitting in the backyard, to be dealt with in the safety of daylight.
“Thank you for the shorts and nightmares, mom.
“I love you more than you know.”
Dan’s e-mail was not composed with an eye toward appearing in this blog, but I offer it (with his permission) because it seems to me an excellent illustration of how we’re so good at persisting in error.  Central to this phenomenon, in my view, are the roles played by focus, expectation, and confidence.  In Dan’s case, the appearance of a single ant — a “rather large” ant, in fact — created a perception that it was a solitary intruder.  On the strength of that initial perception, the appearance of three other ants caused no more than the minimally necessary adjustment to the initial theory— a “handful” of ants was in the process of checking out the box.  And having adopted a careful strategy to deal with that belief — the uncovering and execution of every single threatening intruder — his very carefulness, his focused determination to execute that strategy, led to expectation, and to confidence in the result expected.  That very focus and confidence is what blinded him to the truth.
He’s a chip off the old block, alright — and so are the rest of us, I think: confirmation bias and WYSIATI (as Daniel Kahneman calls it) — What You See Is All There Is — are shared cognitive traits we’ve all inherited from common ancestors.  In the world in which we live, individual ants — the things we see — seem large.  Taken individually, each new ant simply confirms what we already believe; it takes a sudden swarm, discovered too late, to shock us into awareness of the way things really are.
Humility is the mother of wisdom, I think.  So my wish for today is that we can look at every ant we come across with wonder, knowing that behind every little thing we see, there’s a great many more — some of which are far larger — that we don’t.
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