A peculiar thing happened to me recently, which highlighted the power of seeing what one expects to see. I’m frightened of dogs, but with one exception.  I think pugs are very cute, and they’re not proper dogs, right? More like a really ugly cat.

So one morning I was leaving my boyfriend’s home, and encountered a pug in the lift down. So as I mentioned before, I am nervous around dogs. But this cheeky little animal was lively and funny, and didn’t have me clawing at the lift doors in order to escape.

Up until this point, things were going to plan. I was on time for my leisurely stroll to the office; the hilarious little dog was excited about the imminent outdoors-ness it would experience. And then the lift arrived at the ground floor.

Photo by GAGE SKIDMORE. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0[
The little dog became even more enthusiastic and downright refused to go on the lead. I couldn’t exit the lobby because the the sliding doors remain open for about 5 seconds after they are released, which is approximately 10 times longer than the average Pug Escape Time. So I steeled myself, helped the owner chase the manic creature around the entrance area, and held on to it while its lead was affixed. And it was actually quite fun. So much fun, in fact, that the situation could only have been improved if “Yakety Sax” had been playing in the building. And that was that.

And then I bumped into the pug and owner a few more times in the lift.  I grew quite fond of the weird little dog and started to look forward to seeing it.  I met them in the gardens, on the street, and on the way to the shops.  It seemed that I was seeing an awful lot of them.

One day I got in the lift and there had clearly been an ‘accident’ on the floor.  There was a moist patch and a, um, distinctive odour.  Totally gross, I thought, but was it that darling little dog? [With hindsight, and subsequent knowledge of the place, it could just have easily been a human]

I realised that I was seeing more and more of this pug, and when I didn’t, I missed it a little.  And I started to notice other pugs.  Everything I saw was pug-shaped.  Coincidence?

And then this appeared in my Twitter feed:

From the excellent @drranj, presenter of Get well Soon and performer of general Telly Doctor duties.
From the excellent @drranj, presenter of Get well Soon and performer of general Telly Doctor duties.

And then this!




Well, no, they’re not.  I’ve probably seen a number of pugs that is proportionate to the number of all dogs in Manchester that I would be expected to encounter, excluding the times when I’ve put myself in situations where I was more likely to be ‘stalked by pugs’.  I hang around a block of flats where lots of people own small dogs, and I’ve been affected by one incident that sticks in my memory and makes me more likely to think of pugs, and hence pay more attention to the times when pugs are present.

This is how confirmation bias works. Results and research that confirm your opinions and beliefs are favoured over an objective assessment of all the information. It’s pretty harmless when applied to Pug Frequency. I can happily exist in my fantasy world where I dream of pugs all day long and disregard the Alsatians, Boxers, and Spaniels. But what about in the context of, say, politics? Science? The Media? Education? Healthcare? Justice? Here’s some Food For Thought from RJ Metrics.com. There are too many articles and examples for me to link them all. But seeing as I began by posting pictures of cats and dogs (what else is the Internet for?), here’s some fun graphs about causation not equalling correlation: Spurious Correlations