So today, I was reading an article about cognitive biases. These are the errors of logic, judgement or reasoning which we are all capable of falling into, often without realising it, which then often influence us to make poor or erroneous decisions. One example of this is the “sunk-cost fallacy”. I am quite proud that I spelled this out here on this before realising that it is a recognised cognitive bias – I guess it is quite obvious really to anyone who has much experience of life! This is where you continue to invest good resources into a poorly-performing thing, rather than more wisely walking away, just because of all the time, money etc you have already invested – or wasted. Previously on this blog, I spoke about the temptation that I have seen acknowledged in many places, for people to continue on in poor relationships just because of the time that they have already invested in those relationships.
Reading that article today has inspired me to write a post about something extremely important. That is one of the premises behind this blog, and why I can talk so confidently about these issues. I sometimes imagine that people are mentally asking, as I write some of these things “Well how do you know, Tosin, since you have never been married yourself?!” Well this is how I know.
Please believe me that I am immersed in statistics. I read dozens of these articles every day, about relationships and anything else that takes my fancy. Sometimes on this blog I will make generalisations. These generalisations will be based on statistics, and of course I know that I should really back up my generalisations with links pointing back to the studies which have produced these statistics or at least the articles where I found the statistics quoted, always..of course I do really know that!
2. Anecdotes, or personal stories.
I often read dozens of these articles too daily. Because these can often be accounts of what just one person has encountered, they are not necessarily representative; we cannot say “most marriages or relationships will experience this!” However, these stories (assuming that they are true!) will illustrate what is possible in a marriage. What is possible is often very different from what is typical, but these kind of stories help fuel my imagination for those posts where I write “imagine if this happened to you”. Individually, the probability of any one of these particular anecdotes happening to someone is quite small. However, the probability of at least one out of eg 20 of these probabilities happening is a lot larger.
So the probability that your spouse will eg be financially controlling is hopefully quite small. So hopefully is the probability that they might be physically abusive (shall we pretend that 25% of women in the church experiencing physical violence is a “quite small” number?) I don’t know any statistics about sexual infidelity in the church – However, the probability that a spouse will be at least one of these things is a lot higher: I can’t remember how we derive this statistic from knowing the probabilities of each individual thing, but I know I could find it by a little online investigation!
But back to statistics. I can categorically tell you that these following things are true, I need to validate them using some links – but in the meantime, please please believe me.
1. Overwhelmingly, the most accurate indication of how an unknown person will behave in a given situation is given by observing the way other people behave in that situation. Overwhelmingly.
2. When the person’s behaviour is known, you can make more accurate predictions based on knowing that individual person’s behaviour. However a person’s individual behaviour will still usually correspond to the larger narrative of the way human beings statistically behave.
While we are all unique, still our patterns of behaviour, the way we think are close enough for very accurate statistical patterns to be drawn.
Here is a very obvious example. I’m doing my best to live forever. I have never died before. And yet, why can I say with absolute certainty that unless Christ returns within the next 100-200 years, tops, I am going to experience mortality, and my life here on earth is going to end through the death of my physical body? Because everyone who has ever lived in history has died – even Jesus! This undoubtedly includes countless others who did their utmost, most powerful best to live forever sometimes aided by royal riches and the might of contemporary scientific knowledge – and yet they all very predictably died. The only two exceptions to this rule were Old Testament figures, Enoch and Elijah. Even there they may not have “died” in the conventional sense, but their earthly lives still ended; God took them from the earth. We have a huge statistical basis for drawing this conclusion: apparently there are as many people living today as have ever lived previously – so that would be approximately 7 billion people – minus 2! And furthermore, every single living creature that has ever lived has also died, or has at least experienced death in some way, through death of cells etc. So it does not take much genius to conclude that I too will experience death, because everyone else has and does, and every living creature does. Does anyone out there realistically think that “science” will eventually be able to grant us immortality? I am absolutely certain that even with the scientific advances of a million years from now, if the earth would still be in existence that would never happen (even though science might eventually prolong our lives until we essentially get to the point of begging for death.) It is far more likely that we would all destroy ourselves in a nuclear apocalypse long before science can yield such a groundbreaking development – lovely positive thoughts today, right?! I should add that I am appy to be proven wrong; while I am unapologetically a Creationist, I have nothing whatsoever against science – do you think I should hold my breath?!
The fact that we are all going to die is also a generalisation, but the statisical basis for it is so overwhelming that it is taken taken not only as a fact, but even as the primary self-evident fact about life, so that no-one feels the need to “prove” it scientifically, and only mad scientists bother to argue against it. Where some life forms, like certain species of tree, have managed to live for a very long time, like whole millenia, we duly revere them and respect their great ages, but from the understanding that they too will eventually succumb to death.
So the point I am trying to make here is that sometimes there will be something that I have never done before. But by examining examples of people who have gone ahead of me in that that particular situation, it will be easy to draw conclusions of what I might statistically be likely to do. This is how Facebook works. Simply by examining patterns and millions of cases of people who like such and such a page, or such and such a cause, they are able to able to deduce the probability of how I might feel about a certain topic, or what else I might like – or how I might vote – often by drawing links between seemingly unconnected issues.
And this is the way I think about marriage. When I am staring at someone, and smiling tentatively, or in my case more likely running away, I might not have any legitimate grounds for knowing how this person will behave
Statistics that bind?
And yet. Just because statistically speaking a man is more likely not to pull his weight does that mean that this man definitely will not! He might be that one man who turns out to be an absolute neat freak, and insists on doing all the housework himself, because he does not think that I can do it to match his standards; just like he might actually turn out to be the third person in history who will not experience physical death! And by some absolute coincidence he is also an outstanding cook and so rightly proud of his skills that he grumbles on those days when his wife insists on cooking! Here is the thing: it might not be likely, but it is all the same not impossible
Unless a statistic is as overwhelming as death, just because X is “more likely” does not mean that it will definitely happen. Or just because the probability is Y does not mean that it will definitely happen. I have been on the receiving end of a few unflattering generalisations, that just because some people are vaguely aware of some vague generalisation concerning people who vaguely look like me, usually living on the other side of the world (and without considering any other contextual data, naturally) that means that I definitely do whatever that generalisation might suggest! Should we turn this into a maths lesson?! Such people do not seem to grasp the point of statistics, which means that if 9 out of 10 people do Z, that means that 1 out of 10 people do not do Z?! Does it not occur to you that unlikely as it might seem to you, there is still a probability that you might actually be dealing with the 10 percent of people that don’t do Z?! That is what a probability means! However it is in my experience more like this: 35% of a particular subset of people do something – ergo everyone in that subset does that thing, ergo you clearly definitely do Z, Tosin, because you belong to that subset! (Did I say 35%? Sorry, I meant 15%)!
So yes, unless you are speaking about something as certain as death, please remember that the person you are speaking to might just be the outlier! But as it happens, I am not an outlier at all! I am totally statistically representative of my gender and my ethnicity and my faith background in terms of my education, my aspirations, my day to day life. So where generalisations many times fail to describe me, in particular it is because the generalisations are themselves woefully inapt, and are often founded on ungrounded presumptions, rather than actual statistics.
This is the sophistication that we need to apply to statistics: on one hand, to be aware of them, but on the other hand to remember that the person standing in front of us just might be different. So where the statistic might be negative, then we need to protect ourselves from the probability that this person might conform to the statistic; “most men do not pull their weight in housework!” while also leaving open the way for interaction, just in case this one person might be different
Speaking specifically of marriage, this is the way I think of it. Yes, here I am casting loving glances at this amazing man who is clearly the most amazing person in the world! I don’t know what our marriage will be like, yet I am looking forward to all the excitement that my imagination suggests will be in store for me! Yet other marriages between other people who equally thought one another amazing will give me a much clearer idea of what might happen in my own marriage between me and Mr Amazing. To be sure, some “amazing” marriages will succeed, excellently. And yet some “amazing” marriages will also fail, miserably. Some “amazing” marriages will be comfortable, if not ecstatic unions. Some will limp along, constantly half-dead but never quite giving up the ghost. Some will be ended quietly, amicably, quickly. The homework I am setting you in this post is to find the statistics to bear all this out yourselves! If you as a person on the verge of marriage are aware of this, that amazing promise prior to marriage is rarely bourne out by an amazing experience within marriage, then how would that affect your approach before marriage? I would ask myself “Yes, I believe that this man is amazing, and this marriage is going to be amazing! But so many people who have previously gotten married thought exactly the same thing, and eventually found only disappointment. If my marriage is truly going to be amazing, what will I do differently from everyone else who also thought that their marriages were going to be amazing, as as strongly as I do? If my marriage truly will be different from that of everyone else who also expected great things, what can I point to to demonstrate to myself that it genuinely will be different?
And this is something else that I often think: few people frown into marriage. Anecdotally, and statistically speaking, I am quite, quite sure that many of the people currently screaming at one another in divorce courts, or spewing vitriol about one another to anyone who would care to listen, and plenty who do not care to listen, or carefully hiding their assets from one another, are one and the same with the people who just a few years ago were instead annoying everyone by talking with shining eyes about how excited they were about facing the future with their “best friend”, or on their wedding day holding one another’s faces and gazing deep into one another’s eyes, or posting those social media updates and photos where they were not bragging exactly, but somehow all the same managing to communicate how deeply, tenderly, thoughtfully and authentically in love they were. I’m sure that laughter featured lots in such photos… and yet look how it all turned out!
So to summarise, please embrace statistics, my friends! When you are struck with a huge, exciting case of “Wow I want to spend the rest of my life with you!”, use an understanding of statistics to understand what you might be likely to encounter in that marriage. Use an understanding of statistics to understand what characteristics your spouse might be likely to demonstrate which might eventually frustrate you, and use an understanding of statistics to determine your own criteria accordingly.