Question #19: Which is the more likely scenario?
A) Roger seemed happily married. He killed his wife.
B) Roger seemed happily married. He killed his wife because he wanted her inheritance.
Many people select “B” because it sounds more plausible. But it’s the wrong answer. The correct answer is “A” for the simple reason that, logically, the more broadly worded description depicted in Scenario A not only includes Scenario B but also every other possible reason why Roger may have killed his wife, including reasons of anger, jealousy, mental illness, or accident.
The relevance of this common mistake of focusing on the specific to the exclusion of the general can be found in how many people think about insurance. After September 11, 2001, many people were more inclined to purchase insurance to protect against acts of terrorism even though injury or death due to terrorism was already covered under the terms of most general insurance policies. Rental car companies also play off peoples’ inexperience when they encourage customers to buy “extra” insurance. The rental companies know it is easier for people to imagine the specific experience of getting into an automobile accident in a new city with a rental car and they use this knowledge to get the customer to purchase additional—and unnecessary—insurance.
It is not sufficient to merely get others to stop profiting from our inexperience; there are additional ways to profit from your own inexperience—provided you’re willing to unlearn.
In many cases, we can learn from those who have experienced something we have not. Unfortunately, this is more difficult to do than it might sound because people don’t like to believe they are “average” and that their experiences will mirrors the experiences of those who have gone before them.
In his book, Stumbling Upon Happiness, Dan Gilbert documents how people who win the lottery are not happier a year after winning the lottery. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of lottery players are convinced they are unique (or “not average”) and, unlike those other poor saps who won the lottery and didn’t achieve happiness, winning will definitely make them happy. This illusion keeps them playing (and, for the most part, losing) even though it might have been avoided by applying other peoples’ real-world experiences to their hypothetical future experience.
The second way to unlearn from our inexperience is to become cognizant of the fact that often our most vivid memories come from the most unlikely experiences. This causes people to believe these rare experiences are more common than they actually are. For example, do you “always” get in the slowest lane at the grocery store or on the highway during rush hour? The reality is that you don’t. You just don’t recall all the times your lanes are moving at a normal or faster-than-normal clip.
The same effect is at work when people refuse to fly in an airplane after a bad plane crash. Airline accidents are exceedingly rare and, statistically speaking, it is far more dangerous to drive than fly. Because people can more easily and vividly recall these unlikely plane crashes, however, they are more likely to select a different—and far more dangerous—mode of transportation.
By reminding yourself of the totality of your—and others—experiences, not only can you gain a clearer picture of reality, you might even grow enough from your inexperience to extend your life.
Homework assignment #19: Think of someone who has made an unfavorable first impression on you but receives high praise from others. Using those other peoples experiences, make a list of the person’s favorable characteristics. Next, constructive a list of things that you have not experienced about the person. Now, explain how your first impression might have been wrong.
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