This short blog post was originally written for the Colorado Free University website. Enjoy!
We’ve all been there: you create a new profile in your family tree on Ancestry.com, and watch with delight as the little green leaf appears, indicating that Ancestry has record/family tree hints that it thinks might be related to your ancestor’s profile (for simplicity’s sake, let’s call him Doug). Sometimes as many as 20 or 30 hints will show up for Doug! As tempting as it might be to click on those green hints and start absorbing information into his profile, here are 4 reasons why you shouldn’t start integrating those hints into your tree right away, and maybe shouldn’t even look at them right away.
The Ancestry leaf looks pretty similar too, but, for copyright reasons, is legally distinct from, the above leaf. I'm very clever.
1. The right name and right location don’t necessarily mean it’s the right person. Even if Doug had a fairly uncommon name, that doesn’t mean it was unique. Right now, I’m working on a problem that involves untangling the various men named William Cochran who lived in Pennsylvania in the second half of the 1800s, and there are at least 25 of them (probably more, because there were also quite a few men who just went by “W. Cochran…”). That alone should give you pause the next time you see a record containing Doug’s name. Is it the right Doug? Or is it the Doug who lived down the street, or the Doug in the next neighborhood over? Don’t get complacent. It’s worth finding some information that’s verifiably about your Doug first, and then see how many of those hints still fit.
2. Other people’s Ancestry.com family trees are full of silly mistakes. Folks get so excited upon finding a record with the right name that they don’t stop to do a common-sense check and see if what they’re adding to their tree even makes sense within the story of Doug’s life. I’ve seen Dougs who died on the wrong side of the country ten years after their widows remarried; I’ve seen Dougs who fathered children before they were born; I’ve seen Dougs in an 1880s Detroit City Directory despite having died 50 years earlier in New York; and so on. Far too many Dougs in far too many trees defy the laws of biology. Don’t add anything to your tree that you can’t verify yourself, because you can’t trust that some random user has done their due diligence for Doug’s sake.
3. Looking at the hints makes it more likely you’ll succumb to confirmation bias (I.E., interpreting new information through the lens of what you were expecting to see). If you take a peek at those hints, even if you don’t integrate those records into your tree right away, your brain is going to seek out information that would seem to confirm the data that it saw in the hints. It’s going to want that information to be right so that you can use it. You’ll be more likely to avoid mistakes if you keep yourself open-minded to whatever evidence you turn up without being led to it (or expecting to be led to it).
4. Figuring it out yourself is more satisfying. I know, I probably sound like an annoying old school marm, rambling on about how the work is its own reward while angrily waving a ruler in the air. Truth be told, though, doesn’t that cookie taste better if you run a mile before rewarding yourself with it? And isn’t a puzzle more satisfying if you solve it yourself? If you’re the sort of person to think that family history research is at least somewhat enjoyable, then doing the ground work yourself to figure out, say, who Doug’s parents were won’t be a big hardship, and that moment of pride and satisfaction when you find those names on his marriage record (or birth record, or obituary, or his father’s naturalization papers, or any of the other types of records that might give you that information) makes it completely worth it.
So the next time you see that little green leaf and get excited, take a deep breath and consider: do you really need to click on it?