Which description is more likely? My neighbor is an atheist, or my neighbor is an atheist and a democrat.
If you picked the second option, congratulations! You just picked the illogical choice, and probably the one you’re biased to.
See, the probability of my neighbor being an atheist is higher because it’s predicated on one characteristics. The second choice relies on two aspects, therefore making the probability that you’ll come across it lower.
This is what’s called the conjunction fallacy. You pick the complex option as the more likely.
The other cognitive distortion involved in this scenario is confirmation bias. If you chose the second option, you probably did it based on personal experience. You’re probably right-leaning, and view the left as less religious. You might’ve read a statistic about which party affiliation believes in god more. Or, the only atheists you’ve met are democrats.
Regardless of which explanation it is, you’ve forced your personal assumptions and experiences on the scenario.
Now, what if I told you about Linda…
“[She’s] thirty-one years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in antinuclear demonstrations.”
Then I ask you to guess whether she’s a bank teller, or a bank teller and a feminist.
Which one is more plausible?
Taking into account the first scenario I pitched you, the more plausible one would be that Linda’s a bank teller. It’s the simpler one of out the two choices.
Unsurprisingly, when Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman used this Linda scenario in an experiment of theirs, the majority of the participants picked the second option. They fell for their own assumptions and judgments.
The students involved in the experiment fell for the conjunction fallacy by taking Linda’s characteristics and wedding it to the probability of each choice.
We all do it, we just don’t know it.
What’s unfortunate is that it routinely subverts our outreach efforts. We make rash judgments about people’s political beliefs, instead of talking to them.
The Linda Experiment also goes to show how illogical our assumptions and experiences are. We can easily take a detail about a certain person, describe them further based on our own assumptions, and eventually judge them based on guesses. Those judgments then predict how we interact and view them and their beliefs.
The Conjunction Fallacy can, in a few minutes of mental work, completely destroy any chance we had at striking up a meaningful conversation. Much less creating a relationship with them.
It’s why I hold back on giving away all my beliefs while talking to someone for the first time. I don’t want them to prematurely judge me before we’ve gotten started. Why give away all your cards in the first five minutes of a conversation?