How We Know What Isn’t So (Thomas Gilovich)

It is widely believed that infertile couples who adopt a child are subsequently more likely to conceive than similar couples who do not. The usually explanation for this remarkable phenomenon involves the alleviation of stress. Couples who adopt, it is said, become less obsessed with their reproductive failure, and their new-found peace of mind boosts their chances for success.

In reality, couples who conceive after adopting are noteworthy. Their good fortune is reported by the media, transmitted by friends and neighbours, and therefore is more likely to come to our attention than the fate of couples ho adopt but do no conceive, or those who conceive without adopting.

Several things are clear at the outset. First, people do not hold questionable beliefs simply because they have not been exposed to the relevant evidence. Erroneous beliefs plague both experienced professionals and less informed laypeople alike.

Many questionable and erroneous beliefs have purely cognitive origins, and can be traced to imperfections in our capacities to process information and draw conclusions. We hold many dubious beliefs, in other words, not because they satisfy some important psychological need, but because they seem to be the most sensible conclusions consistent with the available evidence. People hold such beliefs because they seem, in the words of Robert Merton, to be the “irresistible products of their own experience.” They are the products, not of irrationality, but of flawed rationality.

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