Why a little Skepticism is good for you — when you need it and how to cultivate it
In the age of information overload and distorted truths, it has become ever so important to know what to believe. This is why a little skepticism is good for you.
In the 16th century, when tobacco was first introduced in England, it was seen as a reliable prophylactic against the plague. Kids were encouraged to use it and faced punishment in some schools if they didn’t take the required dose.
In 2020, the World Health Organization’s website says “Nicotine contained in tobacco is highly addictive and tobacco use is a major risk factor for cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, over 20 different types or sub-types of cancer, and many other debilitating health conditions. Every year, more than 8 million people die from tobacco use”.
If you could time travel, it would be prudent to go back to London in 1600 and say to those in charge ‘Maybe a little skepticism is good for you’.
The need for Skepticism
To be skeptical about something means, having an element of doubt about the information being presented. To at least question what you’re being told before agreeing to sign up. George Santayana, a famous Spanish philosopher and novelist said
“Skepticism, like chastity, should not be relinquished too readily”
Us humans, have somehow managed to make it to the Information age despite our efforts at self-destruction. The internet has made information ubiquitous and very accessible. But there is an underlying sense of “My way or the highway” attitude that seems all too pervasive. Social media has only accelerated this problem.
Followers over Friends
Facebook, the first major social media platform to be established, introduced the concept of ‘Friends’. Other major social media platforms that followed Facebook — Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn decided ‘Friends’ was too lame and chose to go with ‘Followers’ instead. Semantics, I know. But indicative of a deeper longing to control rather than cooperate.
Of course, we like to have more followers than friends. Friends question. Followers simply obey. Who wouldn’t want that? Since most people are posing as thought leaders and expect you to be a follower, a little skepticism is good for you.
Facts and Fiction
Information overload, of course, makes it harder to decide what to believe and what not to. For instance, take the case of the picture above. If I’m powerful enough, I may be able to convince a certain percentage of the population that it’s a picture of George Washington rather than Einstein. Neither you nor I have seen him. If I’m clever and forceful enough to sound all pundit-like, I may actually have a few believers! Thankfully, I’m not. So, rest assured.
I have to state the obvious here. Just because something’s said on the internet, does not make it true. The number of conversations that start with “But this was forwarded to me on WhatsApp/Facebook/Twitter” is simply mind-boggling. Entire industries thrive on twisting information. And to counter that a whole new ‘fact-checking’ industry is now up and coming. Snopes.com has a ‘Hot 50’ section on their website. That’s right. Not a Hot 5 or Hot 10 but Hot 50. Because, on the internet, every day is April 1.
Information Traps cause the need for Skepticism
While all of this is great for job creation, it puts even more of an emphasis on us as information consumers to separate fact from fiction. The real from the wishful! To even understand, why a little skepticism is good for you, we need to recognize the kinds of information traps we can fall into.
Information Trap 1 — Prevalent Wisdom
A rather innocuous form is simply prevalent wisdom at the time. The anecdote at the beginning of this essay (of authorities encouraging nicotine use among little children), is an example of this. Unfortunately, this type of information is based on known conventional wisdom at the time. We cannot concretely ascertain or dispute it until further evidence presents itself. That said, this is a major reason to not jump on the bandwagon first when you’re marketed the next shiny object.
I recently came across a deal selling an acre of land on Mars. Yes, the Red Planet! For less than $50 USD, you get a Martian deed with the land owner’s name on it. The deal SOLD OUT quite quickly. The FAQ page for the deal has this last question “Is this real”? Instead of simply saying ‘Of course, not! You crazy loon’, the website has this polite response — ‘This is a novel gift and for entertainment purposes only’.
I’m sure some of the buyers, bought this as a gag gift. A few, however, BELIEVED in the product. Here’s actually a comment from one such buyer “Should have performed more research, I bought these thinking it could turn into a decent investment for my grandkids or maybe their kids one day”. OH.MY.GOODNESS.
Information Trap 2 — Deliberate distortion of facts
This is the more sinister one. Where the perpetrator wants you to believe in their product and will say whatever it takes to make you a customer. I’m not just talking about physical products here. Belief systems, ideologies, some sketchy religious dogmas all fall in to this category.
Gregor MacGregor, a solider in the British army, sold a fictional central American territory ‘Poyais’ to a bunch of British and French investors, claiming it to be paradise. The few, who survived getting there (many died en route), found out it was an uninhabited jungle and died! There are countless other examples in contemporary and recent history. The Nazi propaganda, Madoff’s Ponzi scheme etc. etc.
Why it’s difficult to be Skeptical
Before you think you’re never going to fall victim to such outright scams, think again. You have learnt to avoid email requests for funds transfer from Nigerian princes. You have politely declined when someone tried to sell you the Taj Mahal. But every minute of the day there are plenty of ‘Get rich quick’ or ‘Get liberation quick’ schemes brewing. Because of the number of information sources you are exposed to, these schemes constantly vie for your attention. It only takes a momentary slip before you become victim to one. That’s why cultivating a little skepticism is good for you.
Science behind decision making — Systems 1 and 2
Here it comes! The science.
Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky¸ two preeminent social scientists, completed landmark studies on decision making. They introduced the world to what’s known in psychology as ‘System 1’ and ‘System 2’ 1. These are essentially two modes of thinking our brain is engaged in.
At a super simplistic level, System 1 is involved in all of our automatic decisions and operates with little effort. Solving basic math problems (1+1), perceiving distance, recognizing anger or sorrow based on facial expressions etc. System 1 helps you to see the problem and almost instantaneously know the answer.
Two causes contribute to System 1 thinking:
- Evolutionary ingrained thinking. An example is our fear of creepy crawlies or loud noises.
- Repetitive learning. An example is how we learn social cues. For instance, how quickly your kids can bolt into their rooms when you come back from work and find them watching TV instead of doing their homework.
System 2, on the other hand, requires concentration and effort. You engage System 2 when you are trying to explicitly focus your attention on something. When you’re trying to look for a friend in a crowded bar, you invoke System 2. Or trying to perform currency conversion in your head when determining if it’s reasonable to pay 4.1 Swiss Francs for a small bottle of Coca Cola 2.
When my daughter walks into the kitchen and sees a dark green smoothie, her System 1 reaction is disgust. However, if she sees an exotic food item that she’s never seen before, she’s a little more engaged and curious in trying to learn what is, which is her System 2 acting. (The fact that ultimately this curiosity ends in disgust because she believes her mother is a spoilsport, who insists on turning everything into “healthy” is besides the point).
System 1 v System 2
Most of our common actions that don’t require concentrated effort are ‘System 1’ actions. It is known as The Default mode network. While we like to think we are rational beings, the truth is the OPPOSITE. We make very quick calculations and jump to conclusions. We have limited attention spans and unless there is a something very compelling that forces our attention, we tend not to think through the situation and let our biases make decisions. This is why learning how to develop a little skepticism is good for you.
There definitely are a lot of reasons why System 1 wins over System 2. System 1 is the more efficient system. It makes life so much easier that we don’t have to deliberate every action. Unfortunately, it comes at a cost by making us gullible fools sometimes.
When is Skepticism required?
We don’t have the energy to, nor should we need to question everything that happens. So, we have to pick situations where a little skepticism is good for you. Here are some of the triggers for such situations:
- If it’s too good to be true, it usually is: When a Nigerian prince promises you his immense fortune in return for loaning out $100 to his relative in Atlanta, it probably is not going to happen. Or if someone sells you a weight loss supplement that miraculously turns you from who you are into Jennifer Lopez within a month, beware!
- The credibility of the information source: Getting a complete Covid-19 cure from a friend’s aunt sure is wonderful, but likely more wishful than true. Find out what the information source is. Check references, if needed.
- When you’re offered any get-rich-quick or get-to-heaven quick schemes: Every single one of us would like a goose that lays the golden egg. That’s why it’s a fairy tale and not reality. When your well-meaning colleague’s dad offers you no-fail stock tips. Or when the new religious order requires you to wear green, jump ten times while reciting a prayer (and paying an initiation fee of $1000 to join the group). Better leave these for others to explore.
- The Greater fool theory: You buy into something because someone else you know already bought into it yesterday. Your FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) will override any due diligence checks you should be making. We all have a certain level of FOMO, so this one is particularly difficult to resist.
- Low energy situations: I tried to phrase this nicely but I need to say it like it is. You are more likely to engage in stupidity, when you are tired, sleepy or hungry,. So, don’t shop or put yourself into a gullible situation without sleep, rest and food.
How to Develop Skepticism
We saw the triggers for scenarios that require skepticism. Some steps to deal with are below:
- Second guess your automatic response: System 1 has probably already given you an answer. Question that.
- Take a break from the situation: Create a time buffer between the trigger and your response to think through this. This one is easy to do for product sales pitches. Politely decline an offer for a once-in-a-lifetime-deal on a toaster oven. You’ll find another once-in-a-lifetime deal tomorrow again, if needed. I can write a whole essay on just this point, but will spare you for now!
- Cross check for references and evidence before you respond — this one is self-explanatory. But, beware of the greater fool theory here.
There is a difference between Skepticism and Denial. Seeking clarifications for your doubts because there is not enough information is skepticism. Refusing to believe a world of objective facts, on the other hand, is Denial.
I’m encouraging you to be a little skeptical, not live in Denial. Don’t become a conspiracy theorist. Flat-earthers and people who question the moon landing are simply annoying. Even, if you intend to be annoying, there are much better ways to do it than rehashing the same arguments over and over.
We all have limited time and attention spans and can’t be perfect all the time. But that does not mean we have to be culpable nincompoops. Choosing to wisely save our System 2 responses for when we need them will make us better humans and save us a whole lot of buyer’s remorse. I end with a quote from one of my favorite authors:
“Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.”
- Daniel Kahneman’s masterpiece ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ is a MUST READ for anyone interested in delving deep into how ‘thinking’ actually works. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thinking,_Fast_and_Slow
- No, it’s not. That works to about $4.3, compared to the $1, you’d pay locally in the US. But, then again, you may be the kind that won’t put a price on coca cola!