Lessons from Sherlock Holmes Pt.I: Paying Attention to What Isn't There

Pay attention to what isn’t there, not just what is. Absence is just as important and just as telling as presence.

Today, we begin with the first in a brief series of lessons from Sherlock Holmes on the importance of true observation, of using our senses to their fullest potential to be fully mindful as we make our decisions. The first lesson is, perhaps, the most difficult to apply on a regular basis: pay attention to what isn’t there, not just what is. Absence is just as important and just as telling as presence.

The curious incident of the dog in the nighttime: what doesn’t happen matters as much as what does

It is precisely on this distinction that Holmes bases his insight in “Silver Blaze.” When Inspector Gregory asks, “Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?" Holmes responds, “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time." But, protests the inspector, "The dog did nothing in the night-time." To which Holmes delivers the punch line: "That was the curious incident.”

For Holmes, the absence of barking is the turning point of the case: the dog must have known the intruder. Otherwise, he would have made a fuss.

For us, the absence of barking is something that is all too easy to forget. We don’t even dismiss things that aren’t there; we don’t remark on them to begin with. But often, they are just as telling and just as important—and would make just as much difference to our decisions—as their present counterparts.

How asking what isn’t there can help us make better decisions

Take, for example, a decision to buy something. Some information will be there, right up front. But some will be silent. And marketers have spent countless hours and dollars figuring out how to get you to buy what they want you to buy—and not, perhaps, what you might want to buy for yourself—by presenting the information in a highly strategic way. The tricks are endless (and each one could merit a book chapter on exploiting the irrationalities of our decision making). What you present first, where it is positioned, what it is next to: all of this will influence what you buy.

Numerous studies have illustrated that our brains are quite faulty when it comes to processing information in a way that adequately takes into account what is and isn’t there. We systematically undervalue high probabilities and overvalue low; we confirm what we want to see and discredit what we don’t—and the strategic omission of information plays into every single one of these tendencies. In other words, marketers like to exploit what’s called omission neglect: they omit, we neglect; they win, we lose.

The pantyhose study: strategic presentation of information biases judgment

An effect in isolation can be minor, and not really malicious. Take, for instance, this simple study. In 1977, Nisbett and Wilson ran a series of experiments in a shopping mall. They placed four pairs of pantyhose on a table and asked participants to choose one. In reality, the pairs were identical. However, participants overwhelmingly chose the rightmost pair – and refused to believe the experimenter when told that position might have influenced their choice. The original omission: the pairs were the same. The effect of the mindless choice (i.e., a choice that didn’t really look at the pantyhose to see that they were, in fact, the same): even when told of the omission, in essence leveling the playing field—something not often done in the real world—participants refused to believe it, clinging instead to confirming the choice they had already committed to.

Such minor effects add up and can even mask defects or information that is omitted on purpose because it might detract from the appeal of an item. Your job is to look beyond what is presented and to actually, mindfully interact with it. In a purchase: ask, what aren’t I being told that might be important, even if all the things I am being told are fantastic? Dig deeper and probe for what isn’t there. It’s likely that you actually have more information that you know (in the pantyhose example: your senses should tell you all pairs are identical, and you shouldn’t dismiss that information; in that case, what ‘isn’t there’ is actually right in front of your eyes).

Or, how about a decision to accept a date with someone, or to decide, after a date, whether to go on another one? People present themselves strategically, too. Wouldn’t you want to ask what isn’t there—both what is omitted on purpose and what may not be there at all that you might actually want—and not just focus on what is?

Non-choices are choices, too

Finally, let’s go back to that curious dog. He could have barked or not. He didn’t. One way to look at that is to say, as the inspector does, he did nothing at all. But the other is to say, as Holmes does, that’s not true. He did something. He actively chose not to bark. The result of the two lines of reasoning is identical: a silent dog. But the implications are diametrically opposed: passively doing nothing, or actively doing something.

As I wrote in my first-ever Artful Choice post, non-choices are choices, too. And they are very telling choices at that. Take the well-known default effect: more often than not, we stick to default options and don’t expend the energy to change, even if another option is in fact better for us. It’s simply easier to do nothing. But that’s doesn’t mean we’ve actually not done anything. We have. We’ve chosen, in a way, to remain silent.

Pay attention to it all. Actively engage and never just assume an absence means nothing. While it’s easier by far to assume it doesn’t, or ignore it altogether, easier doesn’t mean better, especially when it comes to your own, personal decisions.

[image credit:Sherlock Holmes revealing the murderer of the trainer, John Straker From "The Adventure of Silver Blaze" By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, originally published in Strand Magazine in 1892, Sidney Paget]

A still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Stories are at the heart of learning, writes Cleary Vaughan-Lee, Executive Director for the Global Oneness Project. They have always challenged us to think beyond ourselves, expanding our experience and revealing deep truths.
  • Vaughan-Lee explains 6 ways that storytelling can foster empathy and deliver powerful learning experiences.
  • Global Oneness Project is a free library of stories—containing short documentaries, photo essays, and essays—that each contain a companion lesson plan and learning activities for students so they can expand their experience of the world.
Keep reading Show less

Four philosophers who realized they were completely wrong about things

Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
Culture & Religion

Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

Keep reading Show less

The history of using the Insurrection Act against Americans

Numerous U.S. Presidents invoked the Insurrection Act to to quell race and labor riots.

The army during riots in Washington, DC, after the assassination of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., April 1968.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • U.S. Presidents have invoked the Insurrection Act on numerous occasions.
  • The controversial law gives the President some power to bring in troops to police the American people.
  • The Act has been used mainly to restore order following race and labor riots.
Keep reading Show less

Experts are already predicting an 'active' 2020 hurricane season

It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

Scroll down to load more…