Are You Being a Cognitive Cheapskate?

28 Dec 2012

Do you find yourself imagining a fictional account of your ancestor’s life? Of course you do, that’s half the fun! What is much less fun is finding out later that you disregarded evidence that did not support your story and you have, in fact, been telling Great Aunt Gail’s story wrong all along.

The human brain has evolved to make decisions quickly, as was mentioned in another recent blog post. These decisions can be the difference between life and death sometimes, but they can also really throw you for a loop if they’re all you rely on. Look for the hard evidence in your research to support your claims, ideas or hypotheses on ancestors. If you don’t know the true story, it’s a good idea to hold on off on conjecture until you have ferreted out the truth.

 

 

Your brain is cognitively fiscal, meaning that it wants to conserve as much thinking power as possible. If you are presented with two different stories, your brain is more likely to accept the less complicated story simply because it’s easier. This can lead to some serious oversights in genealogical research. Records and evidence can confirm or deny hypotheses and it’s important to rely on this evidence to do so. As people who seek the truth in our ancestral stories, we have to be aware of these cerebral pitfalls. Simply being aware of the process your brain goes through when researching or seeking evidence can allow us all to be better researchers in the future.

Another way in which your brain is cognitively prudent is in regards to confirmation bias. With confirmation bias, we all favor information that confirms our beliefs and tend to subconsciously block out information that points us in another direction. Again, as researchers, it’s best for us to be aware of this bias and try to override it with solid evidence, objective observation and an open mind. Forming that story of your ancestor in your head is fun, just make sure it doesn’t lead you down the wrong path.

 

 

As those who seek the truth in our ancestral stories, we have to be aware of these cerebral pitfalls. Simply being aware of the process your brain goes through when researching or seeking evidence can allow us all to be better researchers in the future. These snap decisions can be helpful to us in some circumstances, but incredibly detrimental in others. When it comes to publishing information on your ancestors, I’m inclined to think snap judgments are useful in potentially pointing you in the right direction, but certainly not in confirmations. Leave that to the hard evidence.