When you are in Virginia, think ______, not ______.

A well-known adage is “When you are in Virginia (or some other North American location) and you hear hoof beats, think horses, not zebras.” This is a very useful approach in medicine and other areas where, when presented with a certain set of information, the impulse may be to jump to an exotic conclusion rather than to a more logical, perhaps less interesting but more likely conclusion. As a professional hypochondriac, I heard this adage many times when visiting the ER.

So last week I found this in a bag of leaves in my back yard.


Not knowing what it was, I surveyed the Facebooksphere. The responses were interesting. About half guessed it was a Horned Lizard, also known as the Great Horned Toad, made famous by the great naturalist, Yosemite Sam.


This is an understandable guess – the Horned Lizard is native of North America (note found east of Missouri, but North America nonetheless). When you are in North America and you find a relatively large lizard, think Horned Toads, not, say, Bearded Dragons.

“Bearded Dragon” was the guess of the other 50% or so. This is definitely the zebra of this example. The Bearded Dragon, apart from having “dragon” in the name and therefore not likely from these here parts, is native of the Australian desert.


Interesting, exotic, but not bloody likely.


The problem with the adage is that it can easily lead you to examine only one contextual framework for a problem. I found a weird animal; I live in Virginia; therefore, it must be a weird animal from Virginia (or close to it), like a Horned Lizard. Once you have arrived at the contextually likely answer, your work is done. But it’s not.

The trick is to then go on to consider other contextual frameworks – in this case, like pets: I found a weird animal; I live in Virginia; therefore, it must be the kind of weird animal that ends up in Virginia, for example, as a pet. For many of you, Bearded Dragon came to mind.

And in fact, when you compare a Bearded Dragon to a Horned Lizard, they are not all that similar looking. Ignore the contextual framework of location, and it becomes pretty obvious that the weird animal is not a Horned Lizard – it really doesn’t look like one.

I don’t know how many of the correct guesses of Bearded Dragon were the product of one contextual framework analysis (pets) or how many considered both contexts of pets and location (or other contexts). But the more contextual frameworks (within reason) you consider when examining a problem or mystery, the more likely it will be that you come to the correct answer, whether it is an exotic answer or not.

Of course, my first guess was a Gila Monster, so my contextual framework was “terror.”.