Last week a man was swallowed by a sinkhole while sleeping in Florida. This week, I’m more worried about sinkholes in Florida than I am about driving on icy roads in Colorado. Is that logical?
It’s not logical but it’s very real. Sometimes a story is so vivid, so unexpected, so emotionally fraught, and so available that it dominates our thinking. Even though it’s extremely unlikely, it becomes possible, maybe even probable in our imaginations. As Daniel Kahneman points out, “The world in our heads is not a precise replica of reality.”
What makes a phenomenon more real in our heads than it is in reality? Several things. It’s vivid — it creates a very clear image in our mind. It’s creepy — the vivid image is unpleasant and scary. It’s a “bad” death as opposed to a “good” death. We read about deaths every day. When we read about a kindly old nonagenarian dying peacefully after a lifetime of doing good works, it seems natural and honorable. It’s a good death. When we read about someone killed in the prime of life in bizarre or malevolent circumstances, it’s a “bad” death. A bad death is much more vivid than a good death.
But what really makes an image dominate our minds is availability. How easy is it to bring an instance to mind? If the thought is readily available to us, we deem it to be likely. What’s readily available? Anything that’s in the popular media and the topic of discussion with friends and colleagues. If your colleagues around the water cooler say, “Hey, did you hear about the guy in the sinkhole?” you’ve already begun to blow it out of proportion.
Availability can also compound itself in what Kahneman calls an availability cascade. The story itself becomes the story. Suppose that a suspicious compound — let’s call it chenesium — is found in the food supply. Someone writes that chenesium causes cancer in rats when administered in huge doses. Plus, it’s a vividly scary form of cancer — it affects the eyeballs and makes you look like a zombie. People start writing letters to the editor about the grave danger. Now it’s in the media. People start marching on state capitals, demanding action. The media write about the marching. People read about the marching and assume that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. The Surgeon General issues a statement saying the danger is minimal. But the populace — now worked into a frenzy — denounce her as a lackey of chenesium producers. Note that the media is no longer writing about chenesium. Rather, they’re writing about the controversy surrounding chenesium. The story keeps growing because it’s a good story. It’s a perfect storm.
So, what to do? Unfortunately, facts don’t matter a whole lot by this point. As Kahneman notes (quoting Jonathan Haidt), “The emotional tail wags the rational dog.” The only thing to do is to let it play out … sooner or later, another controversy will arise to take chenesium’s place.
At the personal level, we can spare ourselves a lot of worry by pondering the availability bias and remembering that facts do matter. We can look up the probability of succumbing to a sinkhole. If we do, we’ll realize that the danger is vanishingly small. There’s nothing to worry about. Still, I’m not going to Florida anytime soon.