9 June 2015

The Problems with the Sample of One

The first few days after moving to the USA, my wife and I stayed at a hotel near our new apartment. One morning, at breakfast, there were two gentlemen at the table next to us. One of them spoke really loud and with profound stamina. Apparently there was some kind of religious convention because Finding Jesus was the main and hottest topic of their conversation.

Just as a note: although I am not religious, I have nothing against religion and practicing it. It simply bothers me when religion is used to promote self-interested bull…….. to way too naïve and vulnerable people.

Coming back to the chat the gentlemen next to us had, the one who was talking (much too) loud was explaining to the other guy how he is prepared to speak / preach to his congregation about (wait for it…) Finding Jesus. He strongly emphasized that he has three or four stories about people who were pretty messed-up and came to his church and in the end Found Jesus and got their lives in order.

The loudly speaking man briefly shared one of his well-crafted stories. As far as I can recall, it is your prototypical alcohol + gambling + debt + lost job + brake up story. However, the character of the story (Jeff if I remember correctly) came to his church and after a while Found Jesus and got his life back on track after a while.

Finding Jesus is not singular. Some people believe that they will be cured of cancer or other terrible illnesses by kissing bones of people long gone – saints. Others believe that they could recover from illness after drinking (herbal) magic potions or other scams from wannabe (unconventional) healers. Others believe that it was because a beautiful lady blew over the dices that they won big in a casino.

For each of these miracles there are stories to back them up. Usually these stories contain one character who was hopeless and resorted to such, let’s say, tricks and by a miracle he or she got what was desired.

All of these are problems of the sample of one.

Whereas the term Sample of one seems to be related mostly to statistics, the issues behind the problems of the sample of one are more related to psychology of judgment than anything else.

First, there is the Availability Heuristic. These so called success stories are overly exposed, most often taken entirely out of context. All the poster-child cases are paraded while the huge majority of not so successful cases are hidden somewhere in a back-closet. Everyone will show off the one person who kissed the knee-cap bone of Saint I don’t know who and who was cured of cancer. However, the other millions of people who also kissed the same piece of dead bone and ultimately died because they were not cured by the holly relic are entirely ignored or even labelled as not true believers.

Second, there is The Narrative Fallacy. We humans are very good at conjuring stories so that what we see (want to see) makes (im)perfect sense. Although all these so called success stories are most likely due to pure chance, we very easily make up a story around them so that they fit with what we (want to) believe.

Third, there is The Coherence Issue. Usually the stories of Finding Jesus or the magical effect of a beautiful lady blowing over dices are exceptionally well crafted. The loud gentleman at the hotel whom I mentioned earlier was very proud that his stories are very good. One thing that makes a story good is its level of coherence. A good story is very coherent. Unfortunately we too often mistake coherence with truth.

Fourth, there is Wishful Thinking. The (sad) truth is many of us want to believe these stories mainly because they fit with what some believe and because they self-serve us. In case we have a difficult illness, we would like to have the extra hope of kissing dead bones and being healed. We would love to be able to do something to improve our chances of success in a casino and overall in our lives.

I know that it is very hard to understand random chance.

I also believe it is even harder to accept that random chance plays such a big role in our lives.

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