On my way to work this last Monday, I couldn’t help but notice that it seemed as if squirrels at the side of the road would wait until the van was almost upon them before rushing across the street in a mad suicidal dash.
Would it be valid to think that the local squirrel population was hell-bent on destroying itself, or that the presence of an oncoming vehicle made them risk their lives in this manner, to become road pizza? I suspect not, fortunately for the majority of the urban tree-dwelling wildlife gene pool.
It turns out that I was engaging in a sort of self-deception known as confirmation bias, and since the sight of small animals running across the street stands out more than the vast majority that don’t rush out in front of oncoming traffic, it’s easier to notice and remember, as per the following observation by Francis Bacon:
It is the peculiar and perpetual error of the human understanding to be more moved and excited by affirmatives than by negatives.
Events that are more cognitively important, and forgetting, for not having paid much attention to those fauna that stay off the road, is a typical example of this error.
Confirmation bias is a form of selective thinking in which one remembers, closely considers, or looks for information that affirm a belief, and forgetting, dismissing, ignoring or downplaying data that contradict it. It’s the human tendency to ‘count the hits and ignore the misses,’ and something we all do if we aren’t careful.
So, if I document my observations of the road on the way to work more carefully, and go back over them later, it speaks much better for the survival instincts of the local squirrels that they aren’t risking their lives to become roadkill as much as they seem to be through casual observation.