False conspiracy theories, mistaken beliefs, and our failure to see the big picture are the result of one thing. It’s something that happens to every single person, and everybody is susceptible to this mistake because it’s ingrained in human nature. People construct stories around what they believe, not based on what the evidence says, but on how they interpret the evidence and how they fill in the missing evidence. When we do this, we tend to only focus on what’s right in front of us. We can’t focus on something that is not the information we’re looking at right now, and we can’t use the information we don’t know in our story, because we don’t know it yet.
But we need to construct a coherent story for ourselves, so we just guess what the missing evidence might be, and this causes us to make mistakes.
What happens when you only focus on what’s right in front of you, is that you tend to forget the bigger picture. The whole gets left out, and you only focus on some, or even one, of its parts. This results in you making mistakes, and creating stories that are based on the exaggerated influence of one detail because it's the information you have in front of you. This creates the crazier conspiracy theories, they focus too much on one specific aspect of something and totally forget that there is a whole lot more going on, resulting in totally false, but good-sounding narratives.
So why exactly do we tend to be too detail-oriented, and how do we lose sight of the bigger whole because of this? More importantly, how can we counteract this and make sure we don’t create false stories? Let’s find out, shall we?
You are too detail-oriented:
Most of you get too caught up in the details of an argument and forget that there is a bigger picture. This may happen when you dive too deep into a single detail of a subject, and you forget that that the whole is not simply the sum of its parts, but that all the parts are interconnected. You tend to forget what the actual big picture is and get obsessed with that one detail.
This is what happens to most conspiracy theorists. Take for example some people saying that Covid was not real. Obviously, Covid was real, but there were simply lies spread about it, its severity, and what measures were necessary, probably with one end goal in mind. But when it came to this, some people tended to focus on one tiny aspect of the pandemic, perhaps fake news reports, or the massive decrease in flu reports that are similar to the increase in Covid, and they take this as the whole thing is fake, forgetting the overall bigger picture and what happened. When you lose yourself in the details, you tend to forget the other details and connections which are important not to miss, because they create the big picture.
This detail-oriented mindset stems from the psychological principle of What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI). It means that you can only process the information that’s in front of you at the moment and that this is the only information you take into account when coming up with your conclusion.
People tend to make sense of things by constructing causal stories, and you can only produce these narratives by using the information you have in front of you, not the information you don’t have access to. This means that your causal explanation, the one that sounds bulletproof, is based on evidence that you see, and doesn’t take into account that there is evidence you miss. This story is conceived from the information in front of you, previous experiences and knowledge associated with it, and your own cognitive biases.
What WYSIATI means to the big picture, is that you can’t pay attention to it once you’re solely invested in looking at the details. When you are fully immersed in the details of a story, that is all you see, and in the moment it is all the information that you’ll base your story on.
This all means that you will largely exaggerate the influence of the small things in relation to the big picture. Now you believe that one fake news report means that the whole thing is completely fabricated. Getting caught up in the details makes you come up with faulted, incomplete, and rash conclusions about subjects that are always much more nuanced, and always have more components to them that are interacting with each other. The problem is not always as simple as it seems, one thing doesn’t explain an entire narrative. There’s always more to the story, everything works together to create the bigger picture.
Look at the big picture:
The details are incredibly important because the sum of those details and the interactions they have creates the whole, but this doesn’t mean that you should be too invested in these details, and it’s especially important that you don’t get caught up in one, and forget that there is much more going on. By focusing too much on the specifics, you tend to forget that the details are interconnected and that they work together to create the whole.
So what really matters, is the bigger picture. It’s how the small parts connect to each other, and what result they create. The larger movement that the small things create, that’s the big picture. It sounds very reasonable to think that the whole is just the sum of its parts, that you can research the details, and you’ll find out what the whole is. This is sadly not true, the whole is much more than the sum of its parts. What matters is how the details connect, how they are intertwined, what results they create, and what reactions they provoke in the next piece of the puzzle.
There’s much more to a problem than just one thing or the sum of a couple of things. Matters are quite complicated in the real world, they are not as simple or black and white as you’d like them to be. You need to pay more attention to this whole, the gestalt. It’s what really matters, and it’s what’s really happening. By putting too much emphasis on the details, you tend to forget what the whole problem really is about and why it occurs. There is much more to a problem than the detail you see at the moment, it’s all intertwined.
How to avoid getting lost in a forest of details:
So how can you avoid getting lost in the forest of details, putting too much emphasis on them, and forgetting the big picture as a result?
What you must do is look at the details, research them, see what they are all about, and then always come back to the big picture. Look back at the whole, how it works, and how other things interact with each other. You have to look at the problem on a large scale and look at what is really happening. Keep it simple: what was the result and how did it come about? Describe this in the simplest way possible, and you have your big picture.
Now with each amount of research you do on the details, reflect back on the whole, see how it would influence this whole, and what other factors could be making a difference.
You can’t only look at the smaller wheels. While they are important, they don’t explain the full story. You need to look at the whole machine, with all of its parts. Look at one gear, research it, see what it is all about, and then get back again to the whole machine, the big picture.