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You Might be Wrong

We have, as human beings, a storytelling problem. We're a bit too quick to come up with explanations for things we don't really have an explanation for.

My son got a concussion after being thrown down on his head in wrestling. He was in high school at the time. We had multiple doctor’s appointments. He went through a neurological exam and cognitive testing. The doctor recommended limited activities, a quiet room, and rest for a couple of days.

After a few weeks, when we assumed he was recovering well, we went in for another appointment. This time they noticed something worrisome.

The nurse shined a light into his eyes. I heard her say, “hmmmmm.” She took way too long to tell me what was wrong. I felt like I was going to have a heart attack.

Finally, she explained that my son’s pupils were two different sizes. One was larger than the other. She said that it was an indication of a more serious form of Traumatic Brain Injury. However, she also said that she hadn’t noticed it when we first came in with the concussion. So perhaps it was due to something else.

Here’s where the stupid part comes.

The doctor came in and asked, among other things, whether my son had had a lot of caffeine that day.

“Well, on our way to the appointment he ordered and drank a large McDonald’s sweet tea” I answered.

The doctor just shook his head, which I interpreted as meaning perhaps the sweet tea could be the problem. I wanted it to be the problem because the alternatives were scary. He then listed some potential serious problems and suggested that we go see an ophthalmologist as soon as possible.

We had to wait two days for the opthamologist appointment. That left plenty of time for me to worry. So I did what any stressed out mom would do in that situation, I focused on the easy solution, sweet tea. This was an explanation I could accept and do something about. I lectured my son about how terrible caffeine and sugar were.

“No more large sized McDonald’s sweet tea” I said. “It can even affect your eyes!” My son conceded. Problem solved. Not.

As Malcolm Gladwell’s quote at the top of this article says, we’re too quick to come up with explanations for things we don’t have an explanation for.

As for my son’s eyes, it actually was simple, but it wasn’t too much caffeine. It turns out that he’s had two different sizes of pupils his whole life. I won’t bore you with the details of figuring this out.

Although I chose a somewhat silly example for this lesson, forbidding sweet tea because it negatively impacts your eyes, it’s a small example of a common problem. Simple answers bring us relief from anxiety, from fear of the unknown, and from the difficulty of fully understanding a complex problem.

Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist and a professor at Wharton, recently published a book called Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. I read this as part of the Big Idea Book Club. He says “If knowledge is power, knowing what we don’t know is wisdom.” He also says “We favor the comfort of conviction over the discomfort of doubt.” So true!

Think about big problems that we're forever trying to solve, such as homelessness or high school drop-out rates. It’s easy, but not all that helpful, to focus on one single contributing factor and think that you fully understand the problem.

Now for a few take-aways.

Take Aways

  • Your decisions are only as good as the information (or opinions) you base them on. Do some research before making big decisions. Read multiple opinions, even ones you don’t agree with.

  • Be aware of our tendency to latch onto a simplistic solution. Think bigger. It’s more interesting.

  • Remember that complex problems have multiple and complex causes, and they are all interrelated.

  • If you haven't already, read Malcolm Gladwell's Blink and Adam Grant's Think Again.

  • Sweet tea is fine.

  • Sometimes doctors miss something important.


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