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The Streetlight Effect: When People Look Within The System For Solutions To The System

The Streetlight Effect: When People Look Within The System For Solutions To The System

A policeman sees a drunk man crawling around on his hands and knees at night and asks what the problem is. The drunk man says he’s trying to find his keys, so the officer gets down and starts searching with him. For a few minutes they crawl around hunting for the missing key ring by the light of the street lamp before the policeman stands up frustrated.

“Are you sure this is where you lost them?” he asks.

“This isn’t where I lost them,” replies the drunk.

“Then why are we searching here??”

“It’s where the light is.”

This old joke is the source of the name for the streetlight effect, one of the many, many glitches in human cognition which cause us to tend toward misperception of our world and the way it’s happening. This one describes our tendency to only look for things where it’s easy to look for them, and it distorts our understanding of subjects from science to big data analysis to history to spirituality.

It’s like the scene from the children’s animated movie The Land Before Time where one of the young dinosaurs knows the way to the Great Valley but the others vote to travel a different direction to search for it, not because they have any reason to believe it’s the right way, but because it is easier. One dinosaur says “I’m going the easy way!” while the other yells out in exasperation “But it’s the wrong way!”

It’s also like the way people keep trying to fight oppressive political systems by working within those systems, arguing that it will be much easier to defeat the oppression machine using the tools the machine gave them.

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