Annoying Primitive Human Habits

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.

Don’t eat those flowers. Bob ate them right before he went crazy and croaked.

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 glaring evidence.

So what’s the problem?

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.

Sometimes it’s 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).

The big dipper is not in this picture of the southern sky.

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.

Advertisers know 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.

Wordplay, and 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 something.

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.

Simply having 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.

This is not a spider!

Hopefully this 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 and don’t forget to subscribe. (There’s a link in the sidebar)

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