Read this if you want to live

“Come with me if you want to live.”

The line.

It’s perfect persuasion. If you’re the character that watched a persistent T1000 programmed to end your life, it’s a solid offer- agree with the person that is offering to save your life.

This quote is used throughout the Terminator movie franchise by both humans and machines to transition characters deeper into cooperation with a stranger perceived to offer protection from chaos. Trust the stranger, the lesson goes, at least he’s not trying to destroy you.

Data science pushes big data solutions offering real-time decision making, engineers write sophisticated algorithms and researchers perform logistic regressions. It’s all designed to help make decisions easier. Data collection and management is a booming industry based on the belief that data informs decision making. Does it?

Thoughts & Feelings

We don’t change our minds easily; even when presented with facts contrary to our beliefs. Typical behavior seeks confirmation. Atypical behavior learns nuance and alters their position. This article published in the New Yorker highlights several studies documenting human behavior repeatedly rejecting new information when it refutes their established beliefs. Humans successfully navigated barbaric conditions through cooperation with others. How else would our species survive spending one-third of the day lying around unconscious, sleeping? We scheduled lookouts. We trusted others to watch our families and believe them when they told us predators were coming.

A 1975 Stanford University psychological study demonstrated that “once formed, impressions are remarkably perseverant.” Cognitive scientists Sloman and Fernbach wrote in their new book, The Knowledge Illusion, that there is “no sharp boundary between one person’s ideas and knowledge.” Psychologist Jack Gorman and public health specialist Sara Gorman wrote about the gap between what we learn from facts and our internalized beliefs in their book, Denying to the Grave, noting that it feels good to ‘stick to our guns’ even after being presented with verified information. Research demonstrates that people experience a rush of dopamine when receiving information that supports their beliefs.

“Wrong does not cease to be wrong because the majority share in it.” — Leo Tolstoy

Thought Wrestling

Perhaps you took psychology and remember cognitive dissonance- when a person simultaneously holds two conflicting thoughts causing them to modify their belief, trivialize their participation, add new information to dilute the conflict or completely deny new conflicting details. This is not a medical condition or deficiency affecting a limited group of people- we all do it. We all seek confirmation. We all trust our trusted sources. Khan Academy has a short video describing it. Writer and cartoonist Scott Adams writes about how to identify it. Even if you don’t like the politics, maybe it will help with your poker game.

Whether it’s eating a fast food burger, swiping your iPhone, driving an automobile or brewing your morning cup of Joe, there is a dark side to your participation. Maybe it affects you directly or maybe you’re contributing to a larger trend. If you read enough about something, you will learn the negative effects undermining your enjoyment. To continue enjoying, just modify, trivialize, supplement or deny. Your choice becomes a data point for future analysis.

Past Performance is No Guarantee of Future Results

I’ve written previously on how coding builds a paradigm on binary choices: it works or it doesn’t. This is true in computing but life is rarely this simple. Even when code technically works, the user may prefer a different execution or it’s not what they expected.

Public figures are subject to simple categorizations by the population; corporations are often wholly judged by one product or service; mutual funds are selected based on past performance; politicians are demonized for one vote or vaulted by one speech; athletes are ruined by one decision and immortalized with one play.

We make decisions built upon a scaffold of acquired knowledge, possibly comprised of appropriate materials and perhaps constructed sufficiently to hold the weight of that decision. Confidence in the decision is oft confused with confidence in the scaffolding- this is confirmation bias. Trusting the source because it was accurate in the past is not a guarantee of predictive acumen. Titans of industry fall when they fail to adapt to changes in the environment and humans in life-and-death situations who dismiss evidence or waver, do so at their peril.

The good news is that we all evolve and change. The 77 year-old you is not the same as the 14 year-old, as a 63 year study confirmed, finding no significant stability in six character traits. If you already believed we change as we grow older, there’s your confirmation. If you think we are fundamentally the same through life: question the sample size, challenge the methodology and find better evidence. Or, there’s a third option. The choice is not binary. You can assume a nuanced approach and assimilate this study as evidence for personal growth and redemption while understanding it is only one data point in a deep and tumultuous area of study. We can improve.

Rather than modify, trivialize, supplement and deny your way to truth — read and compare, collate and assimilate, digest and process.

Come with me if you want to live.

Before accepting this offer as truth, confirm there is a threat truly worth avoiding. But don’t study too long, the terminator is coming.

[author admission: I’m terribly afraid of shark attacks and know the statistical chance of my death. I live in Colorado. I’m still afraid.]

Reference material cited where appropriate. The rest is the rest.

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