WORK-LIFE BALANCE / APR. 10, 2015
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How Smart People Are Often Wrong

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We like to think that when we study hard and do all we can to ensure our knowledge and skills are up to date, that it causes us to be wiser and a better decision maker. Alas, that isn’t always the case, and sometimes very smart and intelligent people can make quite awful decisions and subscribe to the most peculiar beliefs.

This was emphasised by a recent study that explored some strongly held beliefs in a profession that builds itself upon evidence and intellectual rigour - medicine. The study explores the seemingly peculiar belief that the busyness of a hospital emergency facility could have something to do with the lunar cycle in some way.

“Some nurses ascribe the apparent chaos to the moon, but dozens of studies show that the belief is unfounded,” the authors declare.

Perhaps not surprisngly, the study, which was published in Nursing Research, found very little actual evidence for the influence of the moon on events inside a hospital, despite the belief apparently being rather common among healthcare professionals.

The research covered a whole smorgasbord of possible conditions and outcomes, including, hospital admissions, depression, cancer survival rates, number of babies born (and complications with delivery), surgery outcomes and even things such as violent behaviour and criminal activities. There was no link whatsoever between lunar activity and any of these things.

The Confirmation Bias

If you’re anything like me, you might be scratching your head at this moment and wondering how on earth such intelligent people can hold such seemingly peculiar beliefs. The answer may partly lie with something known as the confirmation bias.

The confirmation bias is one of the more widespread and well known of the psychological biases that arises when we have a belief, and then search for information that confirms that belief rather than looking for the latest thinking that may force us to reevaluate our assumptions.

So powerful is this bias that we often do it without realising that we’re doing it. After all, it’s so much easier to consume evidence that doesn’t cause us to challenge our thinking. When we see evidence that confirms what we already believe to be true, it has a self affirming effect on us. I mean who doen’t like to believe they’re right about things?

We can see the negative impact this kind of belief can have in many fields, but not least in healthcare itself, with things like vaccination rates often linked to parents sourcing information that confirms their belief that they are endangering their child by vaccinating them.

The authors of the study into lunar cycles have some advice that may help any of us overcome the confirmation bias in our lives.

“Vaccines are widely and correctly regarded as one of the greatest public health achievements, yet vaccine-preventable diseases are killing people because of beliefs that are out of step with scientific facts. A willingness to engage in evidence-based reasoning and admit that one’s beliefs may be incorrect will produce a more accurate view of the world and result in better decision-making. Perhaps we can start by correcting our delusions about the moon, and work from there,” they say.

In other words, there are times when it pays to not be so sure about your beliefs and have an open mind. Food for thought there for all of us I think.

Can you think of any recent instances when you suffered from the confirmation bias? Do you think that it is surprising that medical practitioners also suffer from it? Your thoughts and comments below please...

 

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