Episode 5: Can you confirm that negation?

I’m still a bit new to this whole writing (and maybe educating a bit too, no?) thing.  That leads me to look for information on how to write better, get into the flow more quickly, keep my thoughts aligned, engage the reader, etc.  And there are a whole host of helpful articles and speeches out there such as : 5 best socks an aspiring writer should wear, dental habits of successful authors, hat choices to make the most of your next blogging experience, and so on.

What does reading articles like these make me do?  If you said “think”, then you’d be right.  If you said “eat chocolate chip cookies”, well, you’re also right.  I might find out that 80% of bloggers that were successful always wrote while wearing a beret.  What none of those pieces ever tell me is what did 80% of the unsuccessful writer’s wear?  It’s entirely possible that they also wore berets.  These types of articles never tell us the opposite.

Learning to ask such questions is known as “testing the negative” and it’s a really important concept.  Plus, it’s one of the best ways to help avoid the dreaded “confirmation bias”.  We inherently like things that agree with what we think.  A recent study might show that employees who nap at work are more productive.  What?  I like naps, why can’t I do this? But what is the flip side of the study?  How did those employees who didn’t nap fair?  Perhaps they had just average productivity but accomplished the same amount because they weren’t sleeping.

We are inundated with positive only articles.  Why?  Probably because we’re supposed to buy something.  Or maybe it just wants us to click on it (see episode 1).  The trick is to learn to ask yourself what is the inverse in the statement.  Did you know that 75% of Fortune 500 CEOs have two cups of coffee every morning (numbers for illustration only)?  Well, what do non-fortune 500 CEOs drink?  Could they have two cups of coffee too?  Or, how many people who drink two cups of coffee are Fortune 500 CEOs?  There are often several different ways to look at a number or results of a study, but we’re usually just given the one that confirms the statement.

This type of thinking is useful in a wide variety of situations to keep us from blindly doing or agreeing with things.  As someone who is aspiring to do a bit of writing, I’ll hear that a good way to get better is simply to get up early and write for at least 1 hour every day.  OK, sure, sounds plausible.  I’ll bet there are people who did this and got better.  But how many people did this and it made no difference, or perhaps even made them worse (maybe stress and schedule actually reduced their creativity)?

You can also learn to counter anecdotal wisdom with this kind of thinking.  Putting on my pants left leg first has made me the ink connoisseur that I am.  OK, but how many ink connoisseurs put their pants on right leg first?  How many don’t wear pants at all?

Testing the negative isn’t just a way to throw out bad information.  It can also serve to reinforce something.  70% of people who engaged in at least 20 mins of strenuous exercise each day had better overall lung capacity?  Well, we could ask what percentage engaged in the activity and saw no increase or even a decrease and if we found that 25% saw no increase and 5% saw a decrease then we know the 70% probably isn’t too bad.  Exercise is generally good for you.  We could ask how many people engaged in no strenuous activity each day and saw an increase in lung capacity.  If that is small, maybe 5%, then we know that the inverse is helping to show the validity of the main claim.  Again, these numbers are for illustration only.

So, go ahead, be a little more negative.  Testing the inverse is a skill and like most it takes practice (how many got better without practice, you should ask).  A bit of the negative might just make you more positive.