Karen and I were about to leave for the gym when I noticed we were both wearing white sneakers, black sweat pants and gray sweat shirts. When I casually remarked on the coincidence, she surprised me by disagreeing. Her green sweatshirt was nothing like my gray one, she said. Mine was a classic gray, with no color at all; we both agreed about that. But hers, she insisted, was clearly green.
Astounded, I examined her sweatshirt in every light I could. To my eye, her gray sweatshirt was different from mine only in that it had an extremely slight brownish tint to it. In certain lights, I thought I might detect some blue sparkle amidst the gray, and in other lights, red or purple. If I really stretched, I could persuade myself there were occasional flecks of yellow, the way sunlight reflecting off a field of freshly fallen snow might sparkle with microscopic pinpricks of various colors. But as I saw it, that was it. The sweatshirt was clearly gray, as clearly as snow is white, and the mix of other tones, each of them barely noticeable, combined to give its grayness a little more earthiness than mine – no more. It was still clearly gray.
Our respective workouts at the gym did nothing to resolve our different perspectives. So as we were leaving, Karen asked three women behind the membership counter to tell us what color her sweatshirt was. Sensing marital discord, one of the ladies tactfully declined to venture an opinion. But when a second said Karen’s sweatshirt was gray, I chortled with glee to have my opinion corroborated. Karen’s dismay was evident. Picking up on Karen’s dismay, the third woman studied the shirt carefully and announced that it was “tan.” To my eye, there was a stronger hint of tan in the gray than green , so on the drive home, I enjoyed that heady feeling a man gets when other women agree with him, especially in disagreement with his wife. My self-satisfaction was further enhanced when, arriving home, Karen asked our daughter Kate her opinion. Her answer – “sand” – was music to my ears. I’ve never set foot on a green beach.
Now, we all know people can have different perceptions of the same thing. But that’s not the point here. At the moment Karen realized she didn’t have the support she’d expected, she blurted out, “Well. It USED to be green!”
Aha! For me, that explained so much. The sweatshirt, nearly fifteen years old, had faded; Karen had clearly failed to notice the change.. In my very first WMBW blog, I’d told the story of two mistakes I’d just made on the golf course: one forming an incorrect belief about the location of my ball, and the other, more serious error, maintaining that belief thereafter, even in the face of evidence I was wrong. If Karen’s sweatshirt had been green when she bought it, that would explain why she still thought it green. She hadn’t noticed its gradual fading, so her once-green sweatshirt had always remained her green sweatshirt.
I was reminded of the time, forty years ago, when I wrote on an application for a new driver’s license that my hair color was blond. When the clerk who took my application handed it back to me, saying my hair was brown, I argued with her. My hair had always been blond. It wasn’t until a look in the mirror at home that I realized she was right. Examining myself with “new eyes,” I wondered how long I’d been ignoring the evidence while continuing my long-held belief.
I thought I might post my thoughts about this phenomenon – the way we cling to our existing beliefs despite contrary evidence – here on WMBW. But later that day Karen came gleefully home with the report that another daughter, Jen, agreed with her that the shirt was green. I was crestfallen. For two weeks now, I’ve been bothered by that report. Was my theory wrong? Was it simply a matter of differences in the rods and cones of different observers? Whether my theory about the persistence of old beliefs had validity or not, I felt compelled to admit that Karen’s sweatshirt was not persuasive evidence of it. I’ve already written about rods and cones. Karen’s sweatshirt, it seemed, deserved no place in WMBW.
But wait. Alert as you are, you might now be asking yourself, “Why then is he wasting my time with these reflections about the sweatshirt?” Great question. The answer is that, just last night, I found out still more about the sweatshirt: namely, I learned that Karen actually has two of them, and they are identical. Same size, same style, same brand, same color. Bought at the same time, some ten to fifteen years ago. Bought from the same store, one by Karen and one by Jen. Jen – the only other observer to call the sweatshirt green – had worn the identical green sweatshirt for years, back in the day when it really was green, before she gave it to Karen.
So now I blog to report that of five people who’ve based their opinions only on current evidence, there’s been a single tactful abstention, one “tan,” one “sand,” and two “grays.” In contrast, the two “greens” come from the two women who bought the same green sweatshirts over a decade ago, wore them for years, and formed their beliefs long before the sun and frequent washings had done their work. Five non-greens from people without prior beliefs,in contrast to two greens from people with prior beliefs.
Now, a sample size of only seven people may not be large enough to constitute statistical proof in support of my view. That’s probably a good thing, because if a large sample size confirmed my theory, I might feel entitled to tell Karen I’d been proven right. (And that’s rarely a good thing for one spouse to say to another.) So this story is not one like my golfball post, about two mistakes, one the forming of an erroneous belief, the other of holding on to that belief without being willing to question it. And this is not even a story about my conviction that long-held beliefs (whether accurate or not) persist in the face of recent contrary evidence. (There are reasons our marriage has lasted 47 years.)
Rather my point is simply that there’s always new evidence that can be brought to bear on one’s beliefs. In the case of Karen’s sweatshirt, when all I had was my own observation, that single observation was enough to persuade me that the shirt was gray. As Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking Fast and Slow, “You cannot help dealing with the limited information you have as if it were all there is to know. You build the best possible story from the information available to you, and if it is a good story, you believe it.” The thing is, Karen, too, had built her story years ago, and based on the information she had at the time, the shirt was green.
For me, subsequent evidence (Karen’s perception that the shirt was green) was enough to get me looking closer, to question my perception, though it didn’t change my mind. But next came evidence of the perceptions of others – proponents of tan, and sand, and another gray – that led me to a conclusion about retinal differences (not to mention to gloating that I was in the majority). The next piece of evidence – that Karen had bought a green shirt long ago that had apparently faded – changed my understanding from a theory of retinal difference to one of believing that Karen was suffering from confirmation bias. Next, with the evidence that Jen, too, thought the shirt green, I was thrust back in the direction of retinal differences. Now, the most recent information – that Jen wore the identical shirt for years – has cast yet another light on the whole matter. Currently, I’m back to attributing this “minority view” to confirmation bias. But as for the continuing parade of evidence to consider, has it ended, or is there more to come?
Kahneman could have had my initial conclusion in mind (the simply story that the sweatshirt was gray because I perceived it as gray) when he wrote, “Paradoxically, it is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle.” Indeed, the more I learned, the more complicated the puzzle became. But I think Kahneman’s conclusion is profound: “Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”
I believe it’s natural for people to continue to believe what they’ve always believed, even in the face of contrary evidence. And so, I suspect I’ll continue to believe that confirmation bias, aka close-mindedness, is a shared trait of our common human nature – at least until presented with contrary evidence. I only hope that I’ll be willing to consider that new evidence if it comes my way. I just don’t see any reason to believe that I already know everything about that sweatshirt that there is to know.
This morning, when I told Karen I was going to post my thoughts about all this, she looked me in the eye and said, “I STILL think it’s green.” Well. I still think it’s a sandy shade of gray. And I’m not calling Karen any more stubborn than I am, because she is a fantastic listener, always willing to consider new information. I only hope she feels the same way about me.
Best to all for the new year.