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Ethiopia and the art of thinking clearly

19th Nov, 2014

Gill on top of the world in Ethiopia

We recently returned from a holiday in Ethiopia. Just the linking of the words ‘holiday’ and ‘Ethiopia’ may be causing you some mental confusion right now? Whenever we have told people, either before or since our holiday, we have been often met with some incredulous looks and sharp intakes of breath! Why should just linking the words ‘holiday’ and ‘Ethiopia’ cause such a reaction?

Rolf Dobelli, in his book ‘The art of thinking clearly’ explains that the human brain has to deal with billions of bits of data every second and so it has to create shortcuts to make sense of it all. These ‘shortcuts’ he calls biases that we all succumb to from time to time. So let’s see what biases may influence our reaction to ‘a holiday in Ethiopia’ by using 5 quick quiz questions. Jot down the answers to the questions now:

1. Where is Ethiopia?

2. Describe the landscape of Ethiopia.

3. Should you be worried about the Ebola outbreak when travelling to Ethiopia?

4. What is the population of Ethiopia?

5. How easy is it for you to change your opinion on something?

Question 1. Where is Ethiopia?

This was an easy one wasn’t it? Ethiopia is in Africa. Dobelli describes what he calls ‘chauffeur knowledge’ which is the knowledge a chauffeur or taxi driver picks up from their passengers. It is knowledge – but not very deep. However, as long as nobody asks a follow up question, you can usually get away with it. So here’s the follow-up question. Can you place Ethiopia accurately on a map?

Does your use of ‘chauffeur knowledge’ ever get you into trouble?

Question 2. Describe the landscape of Ethiopia.

Most people we have met are convinced that the landscape is harsh, brown, dusty, barren and flat. Dobelli argues that one of the most important biases that interfere with our ability to think clearly is the ‘availability bias’. The one piece of information that many people have available about Ethiopia is that it had a dreadful famine in 1984 that prompted Band Aid. It is 30 years since then and all the old images are being shown again as a new Band Aid single is being released. There are parts of Ethiopia that are dry and barren but the majority of the country, especially at this time of year after the rainy season, is remarkably green! The food is plentiful and good too. (The rainfall may fail on average 1 year in 10 and the famine of 1984 was largely caused by the inability of the corrupt and inefficient communist government at that time to distribute food stocks.) The country is also in places very mountainous especially in the North as you can see in the picture above. One of our hotels was at 3200m! The country is also rich in history and has numerous world heritage sites.

How often do you make decisions on assumptions based on what you know rather than getting a wide range of inputs?

Question 3. Should you be worried about the Ebola outbreak when travelling to Ethiopia?

Prior to departing many people asked us whether we had cancelled our holiday and whether we were worried about Ebola. The current narrative on Africa is the emotional scenes of Ebola victims in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. This causes what Dobelli calls the ‘story bias.’ Because of the strong emotions stirred by a story we put more emphasis on it than we should if we based our thinking purely on the facts. Ethiopia has had no Ebola cases (unlike the UK, USA and Spain). You may be surprised to find that Google Maps shows the distance from London, England to Freetown, Liberia at the heart of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa as 4487 miles and from Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia the distance is 4600 miles! So, London is closer to the Ebola outbreak!!

What narratives and stories may be clouding your current thinking?

Question 4. What is the population of Ethiopia?

Most people have never been asked this question before and so their answer is a guess based on the bits of knowledge they do know. Most people we asked confidently suggested somewhere in the range 2 to 15 million. Dobelli suggests that in such cases we are almost always over confident in our answer even though we know that we are guessing. The answer is 96 million! It is a big, welcoming and varied country.

What guesses are you currently over confident about?

Question 5. How easy is it for you to change your opinion on something?

Even with this new information has your opinion of Ethiopia changed? Dobelli argues that faced with new information that contradicts our existing thinking we tend to filter it out and ignore it. You may be rationalising the above with thoughts like – yes, but it is still a very poor country; yes, but food at times is still short; yes, but your holiday probably only showed you the best bits, etc, etc. Dobelli calls this the ‘confirmation bias’ – we like to confirm our existing thinking and discount evidence that contradicts.

What examples do you have of ‘confirmation bias’?

Food for thought?

 

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