Tag Archives: confirmation bias

Lessons Learned from Irma

by Kassandra Lamb

A week ago, the southeastern U.S. was hit by one of the worst storms ever, Hurricane Irma. It broke all kinds of records and affected multiple states as well as devastating islands in the Caribbean.

And my husband and I were in its path in Florida, as were many of our friends and colleagues. Each of us had to make a series of decisions—ones that would affect our property and/or our safety. Many lessons were learned, some of which can be applied to life in general.

Here are some of those lessons:

1) Hope for the best; prepare for the worst.
Nothing worse than a tropical storm has hit our city in north central Florida since the 1960s. So our residents tend to take it for granted that a true hurricane will never reach us. Everyone took in their lawn furniture and stocked up on bottled water, batteries and canned goods (standard tropical storm prep), but we were initially the only ones in our neighborhood who boarded up our windows. Better safe than sorry is our motto (and we have crappy single-pane windows), but we noticed a certain amount of denial among our neighbors.

Telling yourself that it won’t be that bad is an okay strategy from a mental health standpoint; it will help keep you calm. But from a safety standpoint, it can become dangerous.
pile of necessities

I told myself we would be fine, but I still packed a bag of clothes and toiletries and made a pile of other necessities in one corner of the family room, just in case we needed to evacuate. And I called around and made a reservation for a motel room near Atlanta, back when the storm was slated to go up the east coast.

2) Stay calm and stay informed.
The good thing about hurricanes is that they move relatively slowly. Modern weather prediction techniques can keep us informed of their progress days before they make landfall. The bad thing about hurricanes is that they are fickle. They change course, pick up speed, slow down, strengthen, weaken, and sometimes even go around in circles (as Jose recently did out in the Atlantic).

Like many other important decisions (like who to vote for), the decision about how to respond to a hurricane is not one to be made based solely on emotion, nor is it one that can be made and then forgotten. We need to stay alert for new information that might affect that decision.

This goes against human nature to some extent. Once we’ve made up our minds about something, we tend to defend that position against new input. I’ve talked about this confirmation bias before. It can lead to all kinds of problems, but in the case of an impending hurricane, it can get you killed.

3) We are not in control.
We humans hate feeling out of control. We’ll do just about anything to maintain the illusion of control. But the reality is that Mother Nature is bigger and stronger than mere mortals.

And when she decides to hit us with the mother of all storms, we need to get it that we are not in charge.

Some people opted to stay, even in the most vulnerable sections of the state, out of concern for their property. They wanted to be there in case something happened to their homes, so they could somehow protect their belongings.

I get that feeling.  If I stay, I can somehow control things is the underlying belief.

I almost succumbed to it. What if the roof came off of our 1970s-era house (built before current building codes)?  Water would get in and ruin everything.

Then it dawned on me that my being there would not stop the roof from coming off, and my being there would not stop the rain from coming in. My being there would just get me injured or killed if the roof came off!

4) Belongings aren’t as important as we think they are.
Thinking I might pack up the most valued objects to take with us, I walked around my house and looked at my grandmother’s antique furniture in the living room and my mother’s Japanese tea set in the china cabinet and the jewelry armoire in my bedroom that contains a lifetime of accumulated baubles, many of which hold sentimental as well as monetary value. I didn’t have room for more than a box or two of things, once our suitcases, ourselves and the dog were loaded in our small SUV. Should I forget about all those other things and just grab the photos?

I opted not to try to take anything. I realized none of those things were as important as our lives.

5) Stay flexible.
We’re back to that confirmation bias. We can’t let pride get in the way of changing our minds when facts change. Two days before the storm was to hit, the predicted path was changed from the east coast to the middle of the state (and moving on to Atlanta from there). Although this meant the storm would come right over us, it also meant it would have been on land long enough to have weakened significantly.

We breathed a tentative sigh and decided we could stay. Irma would be nothing worse than a tropical storm when she reached us, and we were more than prepared for that. We canceled the motel room (which was now in the direct path of the storm). But something told me we shouldn’t unpack our bags just yet.

Good thing because during the day on Saturday, the path shifted again to the possibility of the storm coming up the west coast and the prediction for our area was upgraded from tropical storm to Category 1 (still tolerable), and then later to Cat 1 with stronger gusts equivalent to a Cat 2 to 3.

predicted path of Irma

There was no guarantee our roof could withstand that. (See the “M” next to “2 AM Mon.” We are slightly northeast from that M, which stands for Major Hurricane. Ack!!)

At 8:15 p.m. Saturday, we made the decision to leave. All the local shelters were full by then, but we had over thirty-six hours to get far enough north to be out of the worst of it. And if we drove at night, that was doable. (The worst thing one can do in a hurricane is leave at the last minute. If the storm catches you in your car on the road, you may very well be swept away and drowned.)

Because we had already packed, the car was loaded and we were pulling out of our driveway by 9:35. As we had hoped, traffic was light and we made good time. I was surprised that it wasn’t that hard to stay awake. Adrenaline is far superior to caffeine as a stimulant!!

6) Cherish your friends.
From the road, I called my friend in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina (that had originally been in the direct path of the storm, but now was not). “Hi. We’re coming to you. Be there for breakfast.”

“Well, okay then,” she said, sounding just a little startled. “I’ll make up the bed in the guest room.”

Afterwards, I realized what a blessing it is to have a friend like that, someone I knew would open her home to us and I didn’t even have to ask. It was okay to just assume we were welcome to come.

Later she told me that her first thought when she hung up the phone was, “Thank God they’re getting out of harm’s way.”

Nurture those kind of friendships. They are far more precious than any antique table or pearl necklace.

7) Don’t waste time on regrets.
When we announced on Facebook the next day that we’d opted to get out, one of my husband’s friends suggested we would feel like fools if it turned out to not be that bad. Hubs’s reaction was, “No, we will feel relieved.”

And we were, because it wasn’t that bad. The storm was a weak Cat 1 by the time it got to our town and the damage was less than was suffered in 2004 in Frances, which was a tropical storm (but a big, slow-moving one that dumped a ton of rain) by the time it got to us.

We had no regrets about leaving, however. We knew it was the best decision we could make with the info we had at the time. And we managed to miss the whole power failure thing. Our electricity was off from Sunday p.m. until Wednesday a.m. We came back Wednesday afternoon. 🙂

Others had perhaps more powerful reasons to feel regret, like the young man who couldn’t convince his mother to leave her trailer home in the Keys. She and the trailer are now gone.

When he was interviewed on TV, he was crying, saying, “Why didn’t I try harder to convince her?” But when the interviewer asked if there was anything he could have said that would have made her leave, he admitted there wasn’t. I hope and pray that he can take that to heart. If there was nothing he could’ve said, trying harder wouldn’t have worked.

Which brings me to the most powerful lesson of all…

8) Sometimes we should do what we might not think is necessary, just to ease the worries of those who love us.
So many of our friends expressed relief when we said we’d evacuated! And we had people we cared about in vulnerable parts of Florida who didn’t evacuate. Thank the good Lord they are okay, but we worried throughout the whole storm.

It isn’t always just about us. Unless we are totally positive that their worries are unfounded, maybe we should listen—and at least consider how they will feel, the regrets they will struggle with, if something bad happens to us.

Because, as I said above, better safe than sorry!

Do any of these lessons resonate for you? Were you or those you love affected by Irma?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please follow us so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )

Keeping An Open Mind (Is Harder Than You Might Think)*

by Kassandra Lamb

In the current climate in the U.S., it’s particularly hard to keep an open mind. For a lot of reasons, we are going through a period of divisiveness, when many would rather out-shout each other than listen to opposing points of view. I’m not going to get into the social and political reasons for all this drawing of lines in the sand, but I’d like to point out that our own human nature works against us as we try to keep an open mind.

sculpture of an open mind

An Open Mind (photo by Roger Cornfoot CC-BY-SA 2.0 Wikimedia Commons)

(*Note: This is the first post in a multi-part series on critical thinking.)

There are several natural biases of thinking that humans tend to suffer from. First, there is primacy effect. The information we receive first will be more readily remembered than later information.

This effect is kin to those first impressions that your mother pointed out are so hard to change. Our initial reactions to someone or something is primary information we have taken in, so it will come to mind more readily later, despite new information regarding that person or topic that has become available since that “first impression.”

Then confirmation bias steps in. This is our natural tendency to accept new information that confirms what we already believe and ignore or reject info that refutes those beliefs.

grumpy cat meme

meme generated by imgflip

We tend to believe that our “knowledge” of the “truth” is more robust than it really is. What we think we “know” is more often an opinion based on information we took in initially (that may or may not be accurate). But then we compare new information to what we already “know” and accept or dismiss accordingly.

Mind you, we psychologists didn’t just make up these ideas. Both confirmation bias and primacy effect (otherwise known as serial position effect) have been studied exhaustively by cognitive scientists. (Here’s an easy-to- read article that mentions some of this research and gives some real-life examples of confirmation bias.)

Next, we have the tendency to fill in the gaps (to the best of my knowledge, psychologists haven’t come up with a cute name for this one). If we only have a few pieces of information about something, our minds will automatically make educated guesses about the rest, to give us a complete picture or story.

It’s a good thing we have this ability; otherwise it would take forever for us to process a scene. We would have to focus our attention on every detail and process it separately. That would really sloooow life dooown.

"Mind The Gap" sign next to railroad tracks

Perry Barr Station, UK (photo by Elliott Brown from Birmingham UK, CC-SA 2.0 Wikimedia Commons).

The problem is that the assumptions with which we fill in those gaps aren’t always correct. And then we memorize those assumptions along with the real information and remember it all later as fact.

Last but not least, we have source amnesia—the tendency to forget where, when or how we obtained a piece of information even though we retain the information itself. So you see an article headline in a link on Facebook… maybe you don’t even read the article. Then later you remember the info in that headline as if it is fact (if you agreed with it), but don’t remember where you saw or heard it.

Frequent or more severe source amnesia may mean the person is suffering from head trauma or some kind of brain disorder, but all of us experience a certain amount of source amnesia, especially when information is taken in casually.

This may be due in part to how thoroughly we are processing information and with which parts of our brains. Concrete information (whether accurate or not) is usually processed in our left hemispheres via word thoughts. So we read that headline and think, “Oh, that’s interesting,” or “Wow, I never knew that,” or even “That can’t be true!”

The info in the headline, along with our thoughts about it, can be fairly readily brought back into our conscious awareness later.

But when, how and where we took in the information is a different kind of memory, called episodic memory—memories of the events in our lives. These memories are processed and stored in the right hemisphere, and in a more global way. We take in the scene in general, along with our emotional reaction to it. For example, when you’re singing “Happy Birthday” at a friend’s party, you’re not intellectually evaluating the expression on each individual’s face, but later you have a general sense of people smiling and a happy atmosphere.

And how important the setting/source is will also impact on how well it’s remembered. You’re more likely to remember the source of a conversation that occurred during that birthday party than the name of the publication behind that article headline that caught your eye for a moment on Facebook.

But getting back to primacy effect and confirmation bias, what causes them? I don’t know that anyone has come up with a definitive answer to that question. But the natural tendency toward these ways of thinking has probably become more common in the human gene pool because they helped our early ancestors to survive.

meme created with imgflip

meme created with imgflip

In more primitive times, in order to protect and provide for one’s family, one had to make a quick assessment of any situation as being either a threat or having positive potential. So the first information available about the situation was processed rapidly and with a fair amount of emotional charge attached to it.

Then a decision was quickly made and put into action, either to welcome those strangers coming toward them or capture or kill them. Indecision or waiting for more information (i.e., keeping an open mind) could be disastrous.

And of course, these biases are exacerbated today by the Internet and social media where we are inundated with information, true and false, practically every waking minute.

The need for open-minded critical thinking is greater than ever, and yet these mindsets/skills seem to be eroding.

In Part 2 of this series (in three weeks), I will talk about some concrete ways that we can improve our critical thinking skills. (In the meantime, we’ve got a couple of fun posts coming up.)

What do you think about all this? Have you ever noticed how hard it is to keep an open mind?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

Please follow us so you don’t miss out on any of the interesting stuff, or the fun! (We do not lend, sell nor otherwise bend, spindle or mutilate followers’ e-mail addresses. 🙂 )