Beware of "Umbrella Man" Thinking

The sun shined warm and brightly on Dealey Plaza in Dallas the afternoon President Kennedy was assassinated.  

If you scan photos of the event, most spectators on the parade route were wearing light jackets or sweaters. Many were in shirt sleeves. You won't spy any rain coats or bright yellow slickers. 

But at virtually the exact spot that Kennedy was shot, you'll see a mysterious man waving an open black umbrella, who became the the focus of countless conspiracy theories. He even showed up in an episode of "The X-Files." 

Unquestionably, the so-called "umbrella man" was signaling the shooter (or shooters). Or the umbrella itself shot poison darts! This all sounded plausible, even probable to some, because "what other possible explanation could there be?" 

You probably know the punchline: The umbrella man turned out to be an urbane protestor, not an evil conspirator, as Josiah "Tink" Thompson explains in this quirky six-minute video by the even quirkier Errol Morris.  

It's rare that a week—or even a day—goes by that I don't hear "what other possible explanation could there be?" as the rationale for everything from who hit my car in the parking lot to why a formerly unremarkable baseball player hit 50 home runs. 

Perhaps the worst of these conjectures are marketing-related: Why are sales down? Why didn't anyone show up at the event? Why didn't the campaign work? 

Next time you're embroiled in one of these discussions, keep your eyes peeled for "the umbrella man"—the obvious answer that, more often than not, will be wrong. Because human behavior is far too complicated to explain so easily. As "Tink" Thompson explains in the Morris video: 

"If you put any event under a microscope, you'll find a whole dimension of completely weird, incredible things going on." 

I'd add: Before you can see what's really happening in any given situation, you have to "unsee" what you think is happening.