How Psychological Biases Make Good Government Unlikely

Answer this question on paper without looking up the answer:

Q:  Which kills more people: guns or diabetes?

Here’s what your brain is doing. It’s searching your memory for mentions of the keywords: “guns,” “diabetes,” and “kill.”

For most of us, one of the variables—guns or diabetes—carries a significantly heavier emotional weighting than the other. A paid-up-for-life member of the NRA might attach powerful positive emotions to “guns.” The parent of a child who died of complications of diabetes will attach high negative emotions to “diabetes.”

For the rest, the mind will generate a feeling about the words based on many factors, one of which involves the frequency and emotional intensity of recent references. This all happens in an instant. You’ve already arrived at your answer, and you should have written it down.

What’s Available?

People are now freaking out the fiscal cliff. That includes John Boehner and Barack Obama. We’re all estimating how bad our lives will be if Washington doesn’t do something to avert the “fiscal cliff.”  For many of us, nothing is more important. We are convinced that we will be miserable if no deal is struck. We are convinced that our lives will be permanently and unalterably damaged if America sails off the cliff.

Yet few of us—I’d estimate less than 5 percent—understand the first thing about the cliff. We’re mostly reacting to the vague fears raised by media and politicians, each of whom willfully manipulates the story to advance a different agenda.

In other words, they’re playing with your mind.

Because 95 percent of us have no deep understanding of what “fiscal cliff” means, and 100 percent of us do not for certain what will happen if we simply fly off the cliff, any deal said to “avert the fiscal cliff” will result in a big sigh of relief. Most people will credit Barack Obama for averting the cliff. Some with credit John Boehner. Smaller numbers will credit other people or factors—the Tea Party, the media, Starbucks, sun spots.  They will all be wrong. They have no way of knowing whether the deal struck–and one will be struck–is better than no deal at all. But a psychological bias will drive us to cheer up and assign responsibility.

Diabetes kills 7 people for every one killed by a gun.

Chances are, most people answered “gun” to the question at the top. But in 2011, 8,583 people died of gun violence in the United States (see note at end) while nearly 68,705 died from diabetes. And diabetes is nowhere near the leading killer. According to the CDC, in 2011 the leading killers were:

  • Heart disease: 599,413
  • Cancer: 567,628
  • Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 137,353
  • Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 128,842
  • Accidents (unintentional injuries): 118,021
  • Alzheimer’s disease: 79,003
  • Diabetes: 68,705
  • Influenza and Pneumonia: 53,692
  • Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 48,935
  • Intentional self-harm (suicide): 36,909

Notice that gun violence failed to crack the Top 10 list. But the flu and pneumonia did. Five people die of the flu or pneumonia in the US for every one who dies from a bullet.

Whether we’re talking about guns or the fiscal cliff, availability bias clouds our judgment, leading to both irrational decisions and inappropriate reactions to events. The media want to create a public outcry to repeal the Second Amendment. So they mention “gun violence” as often as possible. This raises the availability of “gun violence” in our memories. When we’re asked what causes more deaths and one of the options is “gun violence,” the brain, being lazy, grabs the  most available answer. The brain doesn’t really care if it’s right or wrong—it just wants to answer the question and move on.

Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking, Fast and Slow, explained the bias:

Biases due to the retrievability of instances. When the size of a class is judged by the availability of its instances, a class whose instances are easily retrieved will appear more numerous than a class of equal frequency whose instances are less retrievable. In an elementary demonstration of this effect, subjects heard a list of well-known personalities of both sexes and were subsequently asked to judge whether the list contained more names of men than of women. Different lists were presented to different groups of subjects. In some of the lists the men were relatively more famous than the women, and in others the women were relatively more famous than the men. In each of the lists, the subjects erroneously judged that the class (sex) that had the more famous personalities was the more numerous.

Kahneman, Daniel (2011-10-25). Thinking, Fast and Slow (p. 425). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.

When it comes to the fiscal cliff, the media want you to think that any deal to avert the cliff is better than no deal. Those rational men and women of Wall Street who believe the markets are perfectly efficient show availability bias so clearly. When the media report that a cliff deal is near, markets rise. When the media report a deal is unlikely, markets fall. Yet none of the traders has any idea about anything. He doesn’t know if a deal is actually more or less likely based on news reports, because news reports on cliff deals have been wrong more often than they’ve been right. Nor does the trader know if the cliff will be good or bad for the economy. Nor does he know, or care, whether this particular deal will be better or worse for the economy or for specific sectors or particular companies. He can’t know any of these things because he trades before he has time to check the deals supposedly on the table.

In both the fiscal cliff and gun control debates, people use availability bias to decide, then seek out facts that support their knee-jerk reactions. This is called confirmation bias, and it drives us to look for facts that support our emotional reaction while ignoring or manipulating evidence to the contrary.

In a country run by the uninformed reacting irrationally to manipulations by biased agents, the chances of the government choosing the best decision are extremely low.

Note: How I arrived at the gun violence number.  According to the FBI, there were 14,612 murders in 2011, and 67.8% involved guns, for a total of 8,583 deaths by gun violence.

Kahneman, Daniel (2011-10-25). Thinking, Fast and Slow (p. 425). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.

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One response to “How Psychological Biases Make Good Government Unlikely

  1. Pingback: How We Fool Ourselves With Numbers | Hennessy's View·

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