Here are two reasons you might not want to trust just your instincts, experience and training when deciding what research findings or data mean – especially if they are to do with something you’re really knowledgeable about or expert in.

1. The most depressing finding about the human brain ever

In the BBC Radio 4 programme Nothing but the Truth, Dan Kahan, Professor of Law and Psychology at Yale Law School, discusses what he termed:

“the most depressing finding about the human brain ever.”

He described an experiment where he presented people with a set of data and asked them to interpret what it meant: what truth the data revealed. In some instances he stated the data referred to the link between gun control and crime. He told other groups that the same data referred to the efficacy of skin cream.  The panels he asked to interpret the data were highly numerate – adept at the task. Nonetheless where the data clearly ran counter to their instincts or ideologies they would work very hard indeed in order to ‘prove’ that it said the opposite. For example, numerate Democrats resisted the conclusions of data presented to them which clearly showed there was no link between unfettered gun ownership and crime. He described their reasoning process as:

“waterboarding the evidence until it tells them what they wanted to hear.”

2. The Backfire Effect

Elsewhere on the same radio show, Stephan Lewandowsky, Professor of Cognitive Science at Bristol University, discussed The Backfire Effect. This describes the process whereby a group of people presented with new facts running counter to their current ideology or model of the world will tend to discount or ignore those facts and in a significant number of cases actually strengthen the opinion they already hold that the data clearly disproves. And this isn’t just an interesting finding ‘in the population’. It’s an effect we all tend to exhibit…you…me…and is most strongly displayed by those who have a level of expertise in the field in question. So if some strong evidence pops up to undercut a belief you have about your job, for example, you’re likely to strengthen that belief because of the data disproving it.

Think about that for a second. (I says this because when I first heard that my instinctive reaction was: “Not me!” Oh, the irony.)

This is a form of Confirmation Bias, the recently much researched phenomena that has been anecdotally reported for some time, as Francis Bacon (1561–1626), noted:

“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion … draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects or despises, or else by some distinction sets aside or rejects.”

Protect yourself…from yourself

So faced with increasing uncertainty in our VUCA world our skillset and mindset must be to create a space – protected from ideology, existing personal feelings and instincts. Because when uncertainty strikes, the instinct is to take the facts we’re faced with and waterboard them until they tell us what we already believe, rather than make sense of what is actually happening.