As often happens to me, I run into similar patterns in dissimilar areas that get me thinking. The most recent round of these has to do with the way we develop confidence in what we believe, leading to a number of beliefs that are not so well founded as the argument might suggest. Before I talk about any one area of observation, let me describe a scam that has been around for a long time. Fore simplicity, I will discuss the version that involves email rather than snail mail.
The folks running the scam get a bunch of email addresses, let’s say 100,000. They pick ten stocks, and make a matrix from all ten losing to all ten winning, and every combination in between, which is 100 combinations. They send one combination of predictions to each of 100 groups of 1000. The following week, they purge all of the groups that got picks that were less than 50% right, and for the rest, they build a new matrix dividing up the picks and the groups and repeat, and continue for several weeks until there are only about 1000 recipients left, each of whom have only seen 80%-100% overall correct predictions. Then they send an invitation to join their newsletter at a cost of $100 for a year. Since everyone getting the invitation has only seen success, a fair number will fork over the money for a monthly email with no better advice than you get from Suze Orman. Do this a lot of times and you make a lot on worthless newsletters touting success on mere statistical chance.
The first place I noticed what may be this pattern playing out was in reading a booklet about the fundamental Truth of the Bible. I happen to believe that the Christian Bible has plenty of fundamental truth in it, but this booklet was selling the idea that the Bible was proven to be true because the prophecies in it came to pass. Some of the prophecies were fairly specific, and I do not claim that they were bogus, but the fact that prophecies from 3500 years ago described events that would occur 400-2100 years later leaves open the possibility that those prophecies were not the only ones made, but the only ones that stuck around after the events did or did not come to pass. If we only got the scriptures that were right, does that prove that the way the prophecies were made was inspired? I would say that logically, no, it does not prove anything. We may still believe, but there is not value in pretending that we have the data to back it up scientifically. Folks really want to believe they have proof, and when you combine the virtue of believing without proof to the belief you have proof, you wind up with a double dose of willful suspension of disbelief disguised as certainty.
Another place I noticed this pattern is in the thinking of some wealthy conservative types I have had conversations with. Again, I have no problem with the fact that they are wealthy or conservative. Like the case of the Bible booklet, however, some of the reasoning I run into fits the pattern described above. The pattern is that the paths they followed and the opportunities they received were available to everybody, but they made good choices and those who have not achieved that wealth simply did not make the good choices. No doubt, they generally did make profitable choices, but the idea that those opportunities were available to anyone, or they were not actually quite insulated from bad effects of choices they did not get right is seen as dismissible . They are wealthy because they deserve to be on others are not because they do not deserve to be, with a margin of error of +/- five to ten percent only. Whatever assistance they receive is a wise investment in rewarding merit, while assistance anyone else receives in welfare or charity. No two persons are as predictably alike as the email scam above, and you would be right to suggest that one trick on the scam is to pick blue chip stocks as winners more often to increase the number of success groups in the matrix, but the complexity of the self-made myth has far more components. Listen to people talk. I don’t know that the way a shirt fit ever made a car have better mileage or saved a megawatt of energy in a building, but you can see it has made a difference in who got hired to oversee that process nearly as often as the actual skill involved. Certainly a class ring has done so even more often. Is choosing the right fashion to wear really a measure of worth in society? It is used as a measure, but is it accurate? Only if worth is nothing more than perception, and for any whose worth depends solely on perception, it must be the best possible measure of value.
When we look back at the choices we have made, we tend only to remember the ones that seem to lead to where we are now. The events that set up those choices may be obscure to us, or may not flatter us to know, so we see our own history through the stories of our successes as if the truth followed a path the way our stories do. If the story of our success can be mapped to the values we profess, it is easy to believe the story. We can even adapt the values; twist the meaning, until we can justify to ourselves our own sense of self worth.
We focus on the hero who made a difference, not on whether anyone who fell into that position would have had no choice but to do the same thing, or not. We don’t tend to record the smart, socially awkward person who explained the choices so he could make them. We don’t tend to focus on the things they did not have to work for to be in that position to make a difference. If I mortgaged my house to start a business, I tend to discount those who did not have a house with equity, because they did not have co-signer years before when they were starting out, etc. What did I do to have a co-signer that they did not? Must have been some choice we made that meant my note went to equity and theirs went to rent. Sure, I can tell myself that they could have overcome that disadvantage, but would be lying if I said I did not have an advantage. All things being equal, all things are never actually equal. Yes, there are people who simply work so hard and are so smart that they start from humble beginnings and make it to the top. The overwhelming majority, however, start from beginnings that are only humble in relation to the top. If your story starts with “my parents worked hard to give me the opportunity to…” then you are not self-made. In reality, virtually nobody is self-made, and those who convince themselves that they are simply have delusions about their own history.