Decisions, Decisions

No one is exempt from the task of complicated thought in a complicated world. We humans are prone to numerous errors in judgment, reasoning about probability, and cognitive biases. "As we navigate our lives, we normally allow ourselves to be guided by impressions and feelings," says the Nobel Laureate of Economics Daniel Kahneman, "and the confidence we have in our intuitive beliefs and preferences is usually justified. But not always. We are often confident even when we are wrong..."1

In the simple prose of Einstein, "Common sense is nothing more than the collection of prejudices acquired by the age of eighteen." Common sense, however, should dictate that one verify sources. Einstein's authorship of that phrase is equivocal, though it is frequently attributed to him.2 Such errors remind me of the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln: "Don't believe everything you read on the Internet just because there's a picture with a quote next to it."

In all seriousness, which of the following statements is true?

Adolf Hitler was born in 1892.

Adolf Hitler was born in 1887.

According to Dr. Kahneman's research, statistically, more people will choose the statement in bold. The words stand out and demand our attention. The truth is that neither statement is correct. Hitler was born in 1889. The presentation of information can play an important role in our perception of accuracy.

Likewise, try answering a question used in Dr. Kahneman's research on judgment: "In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half the lake?"

24 days OR 47 days

Relying on quick intuition, many people will choose 24 days since that is half of 48. However, the correct answer is 47. Since every day the size of the patch doubles, half coverage occurs only one day before full coverage. One must think slow and deliberately, disregarding the seemingly obvious answer.

Consider the following question that has relevance for Rheumatoid Arthritis:

Which of the following drugs would you prefer?

Treatment A is effective for 60% of patients.

Treatment B fails 4,000 out of 10,000 patients.

It is likely you will be drawn to treatment A. We are, according to the research, programmed for risk aversion. Treatment B sounds more risky, but is, in fact, a statistical rewording of the first. How information is presented matters. Statements of failure push us away.

I must admit to a growing frustration with the amount of RA misinformation floating around the World Wide Web. The tactics of charlatans trying to make a quick buck off of vulnerable populations are increasingly sophisticated. The snake oil salesman no longer hawks his products with a twang in his voice and curl in his mustache. The fraudsters of today can be anonymous or famous, soliciting and targeting potential customers through rhetorical sleights of hand.

Recently on social media, I followed what I thought was a research group on rheumatoid arthritis. Most of the links posted went to reputable sites like the National Institute of Health. Within a day, however, the group sent me a personal message that promised a cure for my pain. As one who studies and teaches psychology, I clicked on the link to see what traps of persuasion lay in store. Perhaps their tactics could make a good object lesson for class. It came as no surprise that the cure would require an upfront payment and that no information about its contents would be given until money had changed hands. Flowery personal anecdotes and testimonials sang from the page, beckoning the reader like sirens. A poisoning of the well followed, with doctors described as treating symptoms to make money while suppressing the cure to RA. Yet not a shred of scientific evidence accompanied the new RA revolution said to be freeing millions from their suffering. In fact, no information about the supposed cure was available at all despite the grandiloquent description of its efficacy. I was again reminded of the wisdom of Honest Abe: "Words between quotation marks are easy to invent and a poor substitute for evidence."3

Information in the age of the Internet can be patently false and spread like wildfire. The allure of untruth often appeals to our deepest wishes and misleads our intuitive system of judgment. "The difference between stupidity and genius," Einstein didn't say, "is that genius has its limits."4 The tell tale sign of a falsehood is an absolute claim based on limited evidence. The miracle cure is almost always, "The one secret no one will tell you about," and "guaranteed to cure your RA!" The swindle is often found in the fine print. ***

"Beware the cancer quack," warned a U.S. Public Health Service poster in 1938, "a reputable physician does not promise a cure and demand advanced payment."5 Though many things have changed in the marketing tactics of swindlers, much remains the same.

*** You must meet impossible conditions for the money back guarantee.

By providing your email address, you are agreeing to our privacy policy. We never sell or share your email address.

More on this topic

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Join the conversation

or create an account to comment.