Those of you who live outside the UK may not have noticed that we Brits are currently being overwhelmed by more news stories spinning off the inquest into the death of Princess Diana. While I’ve looked at the floral aftermath before as a focus for understanding and refining our working assumptions about how mass behaviour works and is propagated, I think the abiding obsession with the death is worth a moment’s reflection and that it can reveal some really important things about the limits of our mental processes.
Peter Wilby has a great piece in this week’s media guardian which makes a number of useful points (beyond ridiculing the right wing press who rely heavily on such shared stories).
1. Big and unusual events tend to lead us to expect unusual causes
2. Big events tend to generate conspiracy theories (leave it, Mr Stone)
3. Big events are the focus for much social interaction (at the time & after the fact, partly to make sense of the event but also to satisfy other simpler – social – motivations
Herd has a lot to say here:
1. Our individual minds are not as good at making (accurate) sense of the world as they seem. In particular, we struggle with causality – as David Hume famously pointed out
It must certainly be allowed, that nature has kept us at a great distance from all her secrets, and has afforded us only the knowledge of a few superficial qualities of objects; while she conceals from us those powers and principles on which the influence of those objects entirely depends.
That doesn’t stop us trying though, does it? Particularly when there is social benefit to be had from finding an explanation…
This underlying mechanism leads to all kinds of cognitive biases and errors (such as substitution bias where we hear or see one thing in terms of something else) but also to some really great things (for example it frees up our minds to do many more interesting and sophisticated things than pondering the reality of our everyday experience – while our brain is the most extraordinary computing device known to man, it still has very limited processing power compared to what would be needed to crunch everything)
3. One such implication is that we’re not very good at complexity. We imagine that we can ‘sense causation’ – spot it on the surface of things – but we’re mostly wrong. Even if you understand the maths of complexity, it’s well nigh impossible to understand the implications in any particular example except through the use of repeated pc-driven computations outside our minds. This is where our “lazy mind” heuristics are so useful: they give each of us enough information that – when exchanged in interaction with others – can to a certain extent compensate for the inability to deal with complex phenomena. I suspect this is another side of the Wisdom of Crowds phenomenon that James Surowiecki has made famous
4. Unfortunately one of our most important rules of thumb in this area is that big – unusual – events should be expected to have big – unusual – causes. While this would seem to make sense for a creature of habit like ourselves, it doesn’t reflect the causes of social phenomena. Remember Duncan and his Forest Fires? It seems silly to scale the first tree in accordance with the size of the ultimate blaze, doesn’t it? Big fire = big tree; small fire = small tree…
What we’re seeing then with this Diana Death Mania revisited is – apart from the fruits of a grieving father’s obsession and Wilby’s take on the Express and Mail editorial staff – is a Social phenomenon – a public Working Out of a cognitive bias, itself the downside of the brilliantly efficient but limited design of our brain.
The truth is: big things can have small causes, but we’re programmed to believed otherwise (and interact around alternative explanations). And that last thing is the important bit. It’s a Herd thing.