Confirmation bias sweeps in with a bad Cockney accent

Mary_Poppins3
Dick Van Dyke in “Mary Poppins,” via Wikipedia. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mary_Poppins3.jpg#file

A line from the book “Midnight Riot” brought a chuckle as I listened while on a walk.

The book, by Ben Aaronovitch, follows the exploits of a young London copper who finds that he can see ghosts. The ability disturbs him, but a detective chief inspector assures him he isn’t crazy and recruits him as an apprentice on “X-Files”-like cases as he learns magic. It’s a highly readable book.

At one point, the main character describes someone as having the “worst Cockney accent this side of Dick Van Dyke.”

That was, of course, a reference to Van Dyke’s role in “Mary Poppins,” the 1964 musical about a nanny with magical powers. After nearly 50 years, it still has a place in popular culture.

By coincidence, my sons watched “Mary Poppins” the same week in a film class that focused on musicals. When they told my wife and me about the movie, we broke into a chorus of “Chim Chim Cheree.” Our sons rolled their eyes.

I thought about that again this week as I read Sunday’s version of “Pearls Before Swine,” the marvelous comic by Stephan Pastis.

It was all a bit of confirmation bias, a psychological principle explaining how people tend to see what they want to see, and interpret the world based on their preconceptions.

In my case, one reference to “Mary Poppins” led to another and another. The same thing happens when you learn an unusual word and then hear it again soon after. It’s easy to think that fate is involved, or to see a trend. Really, though, the word or idea is simply fresh in your mind, so you’re more likely to notice it.  As I tell my students, be aware and be wary.

Of course, I can all but guarantee that you’ll see another reference to “Mary Poppins” relatively soon. Just think of it as a bit of luck rubbing off with a bad Cockney accent.

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