Monday, November 25, 2013

Availability Heuristic (TFS part 7)

I am reading Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. In this series I will summarize key parts of the book and supply some comments and reflections on the material.

Part II: Heuristics and Biases
Chapters 12-13


These chapters are all about the availability heuristic: the process of judging the frequency of something by the ease with which instances of the thing come to mind. This is an example of substitution: people substitute the easy question "how do I feel about it?" for the hard question "what do I think about it?"

Examples: the perceived number of divorces among celebrities versus the population at large, frequency of infidelity among politicians versus the population at large, the perceived safety of flying after the news reports a plane crash, people purchasing more insurance AFTER an accident or disaster, and the estimates of the main causes and probability of death being warped by media coverage.

Media coverage could lead to an availability cascade, a "self-sustaining chain of events, which may start from media reports of a relatively minor event and lead up to public panic and large-scale government action" (e.g. Love Canal, Alar scare of 1989, acts of terror).

How do you correct for this bias? Be aware of your own biases; focus on content, not feelings; be on the lookout for bias ("maintain high vigilance").

Some more interesting studies highlighted in these two chapters:

One study showed that the "awareness of your own biases can contribute to peace in marriages, and probably other joint projects." The study asked each member of a couple how much they contributed to keeping the place tidy in percentage terms. The total was larger than 100%. But then the observation that the total was greater than 100% was often enough to make people aware of their own bias and diffuse arguments.

Another study showed that people in power are much more likely to fall victim to this bias. In addition, "merely remembering a time when they had power increases trust in their own intuition."

Kahneman issues one word of caution: the error can go the other direction, too. A study by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio showed that "people who do not display the appropriate emotions before they decide, sometimes because of brain damage, also have an impaired ability to make good decisions. An inability to be guided by a 'healthy fear' of bad consequences is a disastrous flaw."

My Thoughts:

Kahneman's choice of examples of availability cascades is very interesting. Acts of terror can definitely lead to a cascade, and I believe the government has gone too far because of one. That is why I Opt Out. For more modern examples of availability cascades, I would have included the perceived importance of the federal response to Huricane Katrina and the perceived safety of schools in light of recent shootings (At least some media outlets are aware of the latter. USA Today reports: Schools are actually safer now by almost every measure than they were 20 years ago). The inclusion of Love Canal as a cascade is very jarring for me. I was taught this was one of the most disastrous environmental events in US history.

There is a big exposition in these chapters about experts and citizens which I think is clunky and not really very good. But there is one quotation which is good: "Every policy question involves assumptions about human nature, in particular the choices that people may make and the consequences of their choices for themselves and for society." If there was an award for the social science that does the best job of explaining its assumptions about human nature when recommending policy, economics would win the Gold Medal hands down. While being transparent allows all sorts of justified and unjustified mocking of the field, stating assumptions is much better than letting the assumptions go unsaid, which is often the case elsewhere. I get the feeling Kahneman is making hidden assumptions about human nature that he is not being explicit about when he makes policy recommendations in these chapters, but even so, psychology would probably take the silver medal -- but only when it acts like economics.

One last thing: Even though it's nice to think that our country is run by experts (it's their job to spend all day researching and debating on whether a law is good or not), our representatives are people, too. They can exhibit these biases and fail in representing us. One of my biggest pet peeves is when a politician either makes a policy or changes a policy stance FOR THE WHOLE COUNTRY based on ONE PERSONAL EXAMPLE that comes easily to mind. One of the more egregious recent examples of this was when Rob Portman changed his stance on gay marriage because his son came out as gay. All of a sudden, it was okay because of one personal experience.  No cost and benefit analysis; no talk of freedoms or rights or the role of the government in legislating morality. He even acknowledged he never really thought about the issue before. And based on the interview, he clearly he STILL hasn't thought about the issue since. Hopefully, Portman isn't put in charge of making any critical decisions for the country. This is not they way to make policy on ANYTHING (to be fair, Portman only talks about economic issues -- social issues are completely off his radar -- so he may make actual decisions on economic issues; but I wouldn't bet the house on it).

Food for Thought:

1) Kahneman closes these chapters with this observation: "Rational or not, fear is painful and debilitating, and policy makers must endeavor to protect the public from fear, not only from real dangers." Do you agree? Why or why not?

2) Given that our perceptions of the frequency of events comes mainly from memory and the media and that biased presentations in the media distort our perceptions of important frequencies in reality, is there a role for a "Fairness Act" to control the content of the media? What are the pluses and minus of unfettered freedom of the press?

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