Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Why Do We Believe in Ground Hog Predictions?

Ground Hog Day is a neat little holiday for many folks around the country who like to place the slothish behavior of a rodent on a pedestal. He's cute. Its old fashioned. Its tradition. There are top hats. Who wouldn't like to be a part of that?

So why do we like Ground Hog Day so much?

Our brains are hard-wired for simple stories. Go back to our earliest ancestors. Information was passed through stories.

We desire a good weather story (a feel-good forecast with some folklore) versus something data/science driven.  Why is this? A data driven paragraph by itself only activates the language processing centers (Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area ) of the brain. Brain scans show that if you incorporate stories with descriptive metaphors, it will active multiple sensory parts of the brain like the Motor Cortex (body movements) and the Insular Cortex (emotional region) at once. In other words, descriptive story with less data make our brains work harder by relating the story to our our own personal experiences! Given that personal stories make up more than 65% of our conversations, this makes perfect sense.

What does this have to do with weather forecasts?

Typically, our brains work much better with a theme or a story that has a beginning, middle and an end. In this daily forecast example, we visualize a line of showers that moves in at a specific time; it stays for a select amount of time and then moves out without fanfare. Our brains involuntarily take this weather story and creates a visualization by melding our personal experiences with the information. The forecast instantly becomes relatable!. It becomes personal!  Unfortunately, weather events rarely behave in this manner.

For our minds to grasp weather probabilities, we need to be able to handle multiple possible outcomes at once. Weather has many, many outcomes over a large area over a significant period of time. Change the initial weather conditions (humidity, wind flow, frontal position, upper level energy, etc) and you create more uncertainty. Factor in time and the probability becomes significantly higher. Unfortunately, when meteorologists attempt to use a data driven narrative to explain why something did or didn't happen, the emotional centers of the brain described above are not activated. The emotional centers of our brain are not activated when presented with probabilities. Our brains simplify the probability using a story (narrative) that we can relate to. If not, there is no nice and tidy story here for our brains to trigger an emotional response.  Simply put, we feel uneasy.

Instead, we favor more simplified stories like the folklore of the Ground Hog or the Old Farmers Almanac.  Without asking your brain subconsciously shrugs off probability and uncertainty narratives and replaces them with predictions and stories from the Old Farmers' Almanac or Punxsutawney Phil.

So why do we believe Ground Hog predictions? It makes us feel good.