There are things instilled in our biology that aren’t rational from a modern perspective, but when we dig deeply, we find that these annoying habits probably kept our ancestors out of harm’s way.
I stumbled across an
example while reading YouTube comments. Now, to preface this, I’m
not saying that I’m any better than anyone out there. I exhibit
these behaviors as well. We all do. Some people show it off to
different degrees or in different situations, but it’s there,
rooted somehow in a primitive part of our brain where it cannot be
easily extracted. This isn’t a rant, or to pick on anyone in
particular, just a peculiar quirk of human anatomy.
I should also
mention that I research this kind of thing because it adds another
dimension to my storytelling. Better understanding of human behavior
is hard to accomplish. You can’t ask people to rate themselves on
some scale. You can simply observe from a distance and evaluate very
carefully, remembering that anything you find also applies to
yourself, whether you want it to or not. If it didn’t, then it
wouldn’t exist at the core of the human experience.
Okay, so that stuff
out of the way, on with the show.
In this post
(hopefully there will be others of the sort), I want to talk about
first impressions. I’m sure that everyone, even in cultures not
related to my own, has heard at some point that first impressions
matter. This becomes important when searching for jobs, making
business contacts, meeting a new client, or finding a spouse. The
importance of a first impression is stressed. But why?
The answer is the way that human beings gather experience. If your first experience with a snake is being bitten or seeing someone else get bitten, or even hearing a tale of caution about snakes, then a fear will develop inside of you. You’ll immediately respect serpents of all sorts as being dangerous animals that are to be avoided. Some people will eventually look at them in a different light, but for most the threat of a serpent remains tied to the individual throughout their life. Thus phrases like, “the only good snake is a dead one” can be found in our culture.
This fear, or
caution, or whatever you would like to call it, is the basis for
survival in a world without any relevant education source. If another
member of your tribe eats a red mushroom and gets sick immediately
after, then you know not to eat red mushrooms. You accept it without
question, and any attempt to challenge the idea that red mushrooms
are dangerous will be difficult in the future, even in the face of
So what’s the
It goes back to
first impressions. If you show up late for an interview, that
employer will probably always judge your tardiness unfairly against
others, even if you are on-time every day afterwards, even if you
typically show up thirty minutes early. This is why first impressions
are so important. We hold onto new data as if it’s gospel, and
reject data that contradicts these first assumptions.
This habit served
our ancestors by aiding them in knowing which plants/animals/etcetera
could harm them, or how to build an effective shelter. But in the
modern world of global knowledge bases and playing the old telephone
game at 1000x the speed on the internet, this fixation with putting
trust in the first information we come across on a topic is self
destructive. It leads us to believe any clever advertising shoved in
front of our eyes through supposed legitimate sources. It makes us
elitist in our opinions. It confuses and shrouds good information
behind a veil of buzzwords and bullshit.
innocent. In my early twenties, I knew a girl that swore the
constellation Orion was actually the Big Dipper. Being schooled in
physics, and having enough interest in astronomy that I had built my
own telescope, I tried to correct her on the matter one night, and I
couldn’t. I honestly didn’t know if she was messing with me, or
as my naiveté suggested: was just being stubborn. It was annoying,
because I didn’t understand the power of first impressions.
At some point in the past, someone she trusted had either misinformed her or there was a communication error, and the title “Big Dipper” connected with the constellation Orion in her brain. This knowledge became so ingrained that when challenged she defended the idea in her head rather than trusting data from another source. I even offered to look it up on the computer when we got home, and she started talking about making a bet (in which she would obviously lose money).
That was a rather
fun case, but now let’s look at something considerably more
dangerous. Blogs. Blogs (including national news sites) constantly
play this game as well. A story breaks, it seems plausible, and
people start writing about it. The repetitive nature of the internet
drives the story to a certain degree of virality where thousands of
bloggers are also writing about it. The source of the information
becomes fuzzy, if there is an actual trustworthy source in the chain.
Before long, millions of people have an idea that’s not only
incorrect, but they can’t be convinced otherwise because there is a
mountain of blog posts, professional opinion pieces, and even actual
news sites reporting the thing as true.
this, and sometimes use it to their advantage. It’s important to
remember that reporters are not scientists, or star athletes, or any
kind of expert (necessarily of course, there will be others) on
anything other than reporting.
retelling of stories when the actual facts are misunderstood (a game
known as “telephone”) distorts details and sometimes leads to
silly conclusions. About once per year, I run across media sites
reporting that Mars will appear the size of the Moon in the sky. The
story is corroborated by people with no interest in astronomy taking
pictures of a full moon near the horizon (which appears red) and
suggesting that the picture is evidence that Mars really is close
enough to be that large. They aren’t going to wait around for it to
turn white an hour or two later. This is just one example, but it
happens over, and over, and over, and dupes people EVERY time!
It’s not really
their fault though. The data they have available, and especially
their first impression of the facts (usually from a Facebook post)
suggest something. They see something in the sky that validates it.
Then, the next day they are talking about how amazing Mars looked.
This all stems from
a habit that has developed over thousands of years of human
existence. Whether you believe God made us or we evolved from lesser
primates, somewhere in our early development (Human 1.0) we began
putting a lot of faith in first impressions. To do this justice,
first impressions tend to be right, a LOT. But we can’t always
trust them, especially when the source of information isn’t known.
Equally annoying is
the refutation of first impressions. Since refuting a first
impression takes work and diligence, a lot of time and energy goes
into the statement, “I used to believe this, but then I found out
different.” This second impression, as it were, gets cemented more
solidly than the first, often requiring threads of collaborated ideas
connected to other “knowledge” in our brains. To refute the
second, you must also refute all of that hard work, time invested,
and possibly related faulty ideas. Having a head full of good data is
probably impossible for a human being. We’re all wrong about
Add to this problem
the nature of the internet, which many of us use for fact-checking,
and you have the paradox of a society where information is free and
available to anyone who is willing to dig for it. It comes with a
terrible consequence: that we can also be easily manipulated. We
might see the prevalence of an idea as an indicator of truth. In
fact, even scientific journals exhibit this kind of nonsensical
behavior, by giving more credit to articles which are cited more
often. Ranking them, so to speak, by popularity. In SCIENCE! They may
get a pass from some people because of the nature and rigor of the
work, but I read a lot of journal articles, and I’ve stumbled
across plenty of crap there too.
So what can we do?
Nothing. Not really.
Well, there’s one thing you can do. If you want to confirm an idea
(any idea) you could try your own test on it. Does honey really catch
more flies than vinegar? Why not give it a shot? Do an experiment.
Learn from actual experience. That is the precursor for this silly
quirk to begin with. It all started with actual observation before it
mutated into trusting data from other sources. Early Mesopotamians
learned to dye glass and sold it as precious gemstone ore. I’m sure
at one point they believed they were actually turning sand into gems,
but sooner or later differences were noticed, swept under the rug,
and the shady manufacturing continued.
The other thing we
could all try to do a bit more is carry an open mind. Realize that
science can be mistaken (proven over and over throughout the last 200
years). Science articles can be misinterpreted by reporters, just as
I might misinterpret my neighbor’s advice about growing cauliflower
(never even talked about cauliflower, but just an example), just as
you might misread what your spouse is trying to tell you from time to
time. Understand that our determination to justify and defend the
beliefs that are already in our head is a natural human thing. When
it becomes the cause of argument, the argument will continue to
degenerate unless one person can whip out an experiment and prove
their idea in plain sight. Even then, they might be a magician, so
that could be doubted as well.
I guess the only
thing to do is carry on, a little wiser, and perhaps a little more
cautious about insisting that we are “right” all the time. That
seems like the decent path to follow, and the humble one. Maybe not a
path for everyone, and perhaps not best in all situations, but it
works for day-to-day petty arguments.
knowledge of this basic human trait can adjust the way we look at
such arguments. When you think people are “wrong” about
something, understand that they are simply working with a different
data set. Even right now. I could be totally off my rocker about
everything in this blog article. The only promise I can make to its
accuracy is that this is a working theory that has seen many, many
trials in my observation and dissection of human behavior, a personal
study point of mine, and I’m disseminating that information the
best way I know how.
It’s primal, it’s
primitive, and it’s inside of all of us. We carry with us the
capacity to be misinformed about a great many things, because we base
so much on first impressions. Consider that once in a while, question
your data and your sources, and you’d be amazed what kind of
silliness you might find rattling around in your noodle.
I used to believe that “daddy long legs” carried the most dangerous spider venom on Earth. Turns out, they aren’t even classed as spiders by experts, nor do they have venom. They eat leaves. At least, the animals that I was taught were “daddy long legs.” The true spider version isn’t very venomous either, so the myth is wrong on both counts. Go get bit by one (if you can identify it, and yes, they can bite humans) if you don’t believe me 😛 Do an experiment.
article was both insightful and fun. Once I get in full-swing, I plan
on writing lots of thought-provoking stuff like this, so stick around
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