Error of Recency

There’s something in human behavior called the “Error of Recency.”  It means that humans tend to overvalue recent information, giving it far more importance than what they previously knew, and sometimes even forgetting the previous knowledge to let the new information take its place.  Our opinions tend to be based on first impressions and last impressions, with too little value placed on the stuff in-between.

So if the events of the previous 99 days convinced us that A is true, and then an event today suggests that not-A is true, we don’t give the new event 1% credence against the other 99%.  We give it far more than that, often even letting it overrule everything we knew before.  If you’ve been married for ten years and you’ve never had any hint that your wife is unfaithful, but one day someone tells you she’s been messing around, the tendency for many is to believe it, or at least to doubt ten years of knowledge, instead of putting the claim in its proper context as one data point against thousands of data points accumulated over a decade.

Now, sometimes a new idea should overrule the old because the old was wrong.  So combatting this error isn’t as simple as ignoring anything new that contradicts our current beliefs, of course.  That would keep us from ever learning.  We have to be willing to entertain new ideas that contradict previous ones.  If the person who claims your wife is unfaithful has video, you have to accept that what you believed before was wrong.

But the natural human tendency is to overvalue recency, and these days, the media uses that tendency to get us chasing narratives that seem convincing and dreadfully important in the moment, but that we’ll be mildly embarrassed for chasing once we settle down.  (Although they try to help us avoid the embarrassment by always having a new tennis ball for us to chase.)

If you want to combat this tendency and prevent the media and other enemies from leading you around by the nose, you must force yourself (because it doesn’t come naturally) to consciously down-value new stories.  When something new comes in, don’t let it fill your mind.  Confine it in a box mentally, and consciously remind yourself, “Okay, this may be total bullshit.”  If it contradicts your previous beliefs, remind yourself why you believe what you do — surely there are reasons — and try to give those pieces of knowledge equal value to the new one.  If you’re picturing this mentally, the box the new thing is in shouldn’t necessarily be larger than the boxes around the old ones.  Then, with recency taken out of the equation (as much as you’re able), you can try to judge them rationally.  You may even find that, when you’re not distracted by your emotional response to the new data, you’ll see that the new data can be explained in ways that don’t contradict the old.

If you learn to do that, you’ll have a correct understanding of what’s going on more often.  You’ll be the guy who stays calm when everyone else is freaking out and jumping to new conclusions at every new story.  When stories develop and new facts emerge that contradict or scale back the original hype, you won’t have to swing back the other way like an emotional pendulum.

5 thoughts on “Error of Recency

  1. And then there’s the circumstance where one initially had certain fears, but set them aside, then they later appear to have been borne out, after all, at least in part.

    Where you’ve watched others abandon otherwise their usual healthy skepticism in favour of hero-worship, and rationalizing away anything that their hero does that appears to deviate from what they would expect.

    Until it can’t be denied any longer.

  2. Yes, it does seem like many people see Trump through a hero/villain lens. I recall one NeverTrumper during the campaign literally calling him the “devil,” and I don’t think he was completely joking. If you’re expecting a hero (or villain), then a mere man is likely to disappoint you, that’s true.

  3. And all we ever have, even amongst those we look back on as heroes, are mere men.

    Look at the heroes of the Old Testament:

    Moses: murderer
    Jacob: liar
    David: adulterer
    Solomon: polygamist


    Humans, prone to error and sin, just like us.

    We can still have heroes; we just need to not pedestalize them. (Same as we shouldn’t pedestalize women, of course – for the same reason; they’re flawed humans, too.)

    And we should avoid rationalizing away our heroes’ flaws. (We know about women’s rationalization hamsters; we need to take care we men don’t have our own…)

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