Is the other queue always faster?

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Life is full of mysteries. Toast always lands butter side down. The other queue in the post office is always faster than the one you are in. The thing you are looking for is always in the last place that you look.

Sometimes it seems that fate is out to get you. Or as they say over the pond, “you-know-what happens”.

On the other hand, you might also have happy connections. Maybe the number 7 is lucky for you. Or a Wednesday. Or the colour blue.

Or you might have a pet conspiracy theory. Let’s say that you believe that NASA didn’t landed on the moon, or the Earth is ruled by the Illuminati, or the problems of the world are all down to incompetent politicians, or … insert your own theories here. And you are constantly seeing new evidence to support this theory. You find yourself forever tutting and saying “Typical!” as a new piece of evidence “proves” your theory yet again.

Have you ever stopped to wonder why?

I would like to propose a little explanation, in four parts.

  1. We survive by filtering a complex world.

The world we live in is extraordinarily complicated. Look around right now. Unless you live in a desert or an ultra-minimalist house, the chances are that you are surrounded by a huge number of details that you are ignoring. You might have a bookcase nearby with over a hundred book titles and the names of the authors. But you don’t look at the individual books unless you want to want to read one of them. Your mind filters out the information that you don’t need.

I noticed this when I turned 40 and became invisible to women in their twenties.

  1. We cope by having a “watch list” of things that are important to us.

Each of us will have our own list of things that are important to us. Someone interested in cars will notice the make and model of cars where everyone else will just see “cars”. A gardener will see individual plants by name where non-gardeners will just see flowers and weeds.

Your watch list could also be a theory, such as the other queue moving faster than the one you are in, or the indisputable fact that everyone apart from you is a bad driver.

  1. We notice things on our watch list more often than anything else

The things on our watch list soon become part of our flight or fight reflex. We get good at spotting them and ignoring everything else. And this tends to reinforce the need for our watch list. We are right to be looking out for X and Y, because they keep on happening.

  1. We stop being objective

Round about this point we start to deceive ourselves. We can remember all these instances when our theory was proved, but hardly any examples when it was disproved. The number 4 or the colour red really must be lucky.

What’s that? You want proof? Okay, try this …

When you think about it, the other queue can’t always move faster than the one you are in. The people in the other queue must be experiencing the opposite thing to you.

Have you ever bought a new car, and then suddenly noticed that there are lots of that type of car on the road? The car hasn’t become popular simply because you bought one. What is happening is that you are now noticing it where before you were ignoring it.

If you would like to perform an experiment, pick a number at random right now. Take the last digit of your credit card, today’s date or the minute hand of your watch. For the rest of today, that number is your new lucky number. Look out for that number.

If you do this honestly, you should find that your new lucky number crops up far more often than you are expecting. It isn’t, of course. What is happening is that you are noticing it more often.

So to return to our original question. Why does the toast always land butter side down? Why does the other queue move faster than the one you are in? Why is the thing you are looking for always in the last place you look?

Answer – none of these things actually happens any more or any less often than simple chance would suggest. We just think that they happen more often because we only remember the times when our personal theories are proved right.

Conspiracy theories rely on this phenomenon. They focus on the small number of details which suggest that their theory is right, but ignore any details which suggest that it might be wrong.

Perhaps the bottom line is that we are very good at deluding ourselves. We spend a large part of our lives looking for affirmation of the things that we already believe in.

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