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Illusory Truth Effect and Sea Kayaking (Sort of Off-Topic)

kayak and a seagull

In a recent Facebook post, a person that I’ve known for over 10 years and someone who has authored several articles for this website, said, I don’t need to support my views with facts because I know that they are true. It was as if Stephen Colbert’s truthiness joke was manifest in reality. This person was arguing something that had no real evidence, but had been said over and over and over again — heck, it has been said enough times that I believe it, too, even though I’ve never seen any real evidence that could be used in court to prove it or convict the people involved. There’s a cognitive bias that shows when people hear something over and over enough — even when it isn’t true — that they start to believe it. This is called the illusory truth effect.

We see this in sea kayaking and the outdoor world as well.

Defined by Wikipedia:

The illusory truth effect (also known as the truth effect or the illusion-of-truth effect) is the tendency to believe information to be correct after repeated exposure.

One example from the sea kayaking world is: when asked what length of kayak is best for the ocean or the Great Lakes, the common answer is 16 feet minimum. It’s repeated often all over the Internets and is often believed as truth. The problem is that it isn’t true. The right answer is: it depends. And in sea kayaking it really does depend. I recently saw this play out in an online discussion group. Someone stated that you’d want a minimum of 16 feet and when I pointed out that I like to use my 14-foot Dagger Alchemy for those types of conditions, the person stated:

Bet you aren’t far off shore. Just saying it easier and safer to be in a bigger boat, especially if you are a ways off shore… My definition of chop is when the waves are big enough to swamp your boat if you are not an experienced paddler or drains your energy.

I’m not sure if there was a bit of confirmation bias going on there as well. Maybe?

Confirmation bias defined by Wikipedia:

Confirmation bias, also called confirmatory bias or myside bias, is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities.

The thing is: it depends.

My answer for the length of a kayak, and I don’t think this is a complete answer, was:  I wouldn’t say there is a specific length so much as features that you’ll want (assuming you have the right skills) such as bulkheads or float bags with enough float to make rescues and reentries easy, full perimeter deck lines, a cockpit that you can easily seal with a skirt, bow and stern toggles, a hull design appropriate for the conditions, etc… And this answer, shows my biases. Certainly, a recreational kayak could be used safely on the Great Lakes or ocean in the right conditions.

And in sea kayaking, it really does depend. There are so many quick answers that people have heard and given that those answers are often just repeated even if they aren’t true. It depends so much on the situation in sea kayaking that it’s hard to give a pithy answer. For example, what is the best rescue to use in sea kayak? What is the best rescue to use when you are alone in sea kayaking? It depends. But to common answers are going to be: t-rescue and paddle float rescue. The later is one that many who read this website would disagree with and have good evidence on why even though it is repeated in every book on the subject, taught in many courses and repeated over and over as the best solo rescue. A British coach and experienced expedition paddler was once asked to demo the paddle float rescue and she had no idea how it was done and she had successfully completed major expeditions. But due to the illusory truth effect, many believe that it is the best without overcoming their confirmation bias to figure out whether or not that is actually true.

Another cognitive bias is known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Wikipedia says that it’s “the tendency for unskilled individuals to overestimate their own ability and the tendency for experts to underestimate their own ability.”

This is something that kayaking instructors see all the time and something that I’ve written about as well. Check out What’s Our Burden as More Experienced Kayakers? to see an example of a person suffering from Dunning-Kruger. Heck, there’s a presidential candidate suffering from it as well. Chances are that you know someone suffering from it, too.

Heck, we probably all suffer from some type of cognitive bias, and it’s really apparent in online conversations. Luckily, the readers of PaddlingLight tend to comment after thinking deeply about a subject. I can’t say as much for some of PaddlingLight’s Facebook fans. It seems like if someone is going to display the illusory truth effect, confirmation bias or Dunning-Kruger it’ll probably be on Facebook and not directly on this website.

Next time while discussing sea kayaking or any other topic, perhaps, it’s time to think about the illusory truth effect, confirmation bias and Dunning-Kruger. We might not think we have the skills that we have or we might think we are more skilled than we are, we might only be repeating a “truth” because we’ve heard it over and over, and we might only be commenting or listening or reading in a way that supports our confirmation bias. In a discussion group, that might only mean hurt feelings, but in sea kayaking, a sport in which you are surrounded by danger and risk, your biases might get you killed.


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  • Well said! Safe paddling!

  • Bryan,

    You are spot-on with your view of this topic. In this age of media saturation with built-in biases along with the death of true journalism, your friend who says he doesn’t need to support his views with facts is part of the majority. Everyone becomes an “expert” hearing things that are not necessarily true and are willing to defend the narrative as their own. No experience or critical thought required.T

    In kayaking there is an opportunity to verify by using the mantra- “Try it. Let’s find out.” Test the views rather than continue to debate them. If one is willing to try it then the truth becomes self-evident. And “depends” is valid in any discussion. The more experienced kayakers will use “depends” often! They’ve been there…

  • I was so happy to read your article because it is a great reminder to all of us that “it depends” (followed, of course, by examples) is almost always the right answer. I lead, as a volunteer, several paddles a month and because we do relatively short trips on local slow rivers, spring runs, and protected waters I get a lot of beginners. And I get a lot of folks who have taken one or more lessons from “pros” (generally exclusively off-shore sea kayakers who sneer at any other type of kayaking) suffering from this illusory truth effect. For many of my first-time participants I am sort of a last chance before giving up on kayaking because of these previous “lessons”. From them I hear a lot of really sad comments about what people are teaching in our sport. “He said my kayak was no good because it did not have bulkheads and I would need to buy a new one if I wanted to learn anything.” “She said I should stick to my backyard pond until I learned to roll.” “My instructor said I had to use a high angle but I’ve had shoulder surgery and just couldn’t manage that.” “He said my 12-foot boat wasn’t worth the money I paid for it if I really wanted to learn to kayak.” Sure a 12-foot boat is perhaps not a good choice for off-shore paddling, but it’s about perfect for exploring narrow coastal mangrove tunnels and fine for day trips on slow rivers. Sure, a boat with bulkheads is safer, but a boat without is fine when you paddle with others and are never far from shore. Teach people the limitations of their boat, don’t tell them it’s no good. Sure, a solid roll is a great safety tool, but pretty useless on shallow spring runs. What’s important is knowing a couple of good reentry methods that work for YOU and for YOUR BOAT and for WHERE you are paddling. And what’s wrong with paddling at a lower angle if that is what your body can comfortably manage and you can stay safe and have a good time? I’m afraid we are losing a lot of people right at the start due to a lot of “rules” with little or no substance and/or do not match the needs and desires of the students.

    • I suspect that there might also be a bit of Dunning-Kruger going on with your first-time participants as well. Some of the statements, such as the kayak would need bulkheads might be true depending on where the instructor is teaching, what the instructor is teaching as well as under what insurance the instructor is teaching. If a boat doesn’t have bulkhead, then float bags, even for rec boats on calm water, are never a bad idea. But, even though I’d use them regardless, it depends on the situation. For example, on Lake Superior where the water rarely gets above 45F, if you fall out of your kayak in a boat without bulkheads, it’s much more dangerous situation than if the kayak had bulkheads. There is a good chance that that kayak is going to do a Cleopatra’s Needle, which takes a lot of work to rescue even for experienced kayakers. In water that cold, even if you aren’t that far from shore and the water is dead calm, it now becomes a life threatening situation. Float bags or bulkheads help speed up rescues in every boat there is. Again, it depends.

      About the roll on a shallow spring run, it would depend how deep the water is. I’ve personally rolled in water where even when I was tucked forward my head was bouncing off the ground. It was much faster to get up by rolling (and safer) than wet exiting. In some situations it wouldn’t matter. Again, it depends.

      I’d just be careful that the people you’re talking to aren’t suffering Dunning-Kruger, and just make sure that there isn’t some confirmation bias about the offshore pros who “sneer” going on.

      One good question, and this isn’t directed to you, that most instructors are now being taught to ask is, “Is the method safe, efficient and effective?” And the answer to that is, “It depends.”

      Just like you said, “It depends.” And I’m glad that you’re helping keep people interested in kayaking kayaking after they had bad experiences. The more people we can get excited about the sport, the better.

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