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availability bias

Trumping The Press

I need my skeptical spectacles.

Is Donald Trump vilifying the press or playing the press?

Take a recent example: someone leaked a draft memo to the Washington Post suggesting that the government will activate 100,000 National Guard troops to arrest illegal aliens. The Post printed the story and the reactions from both sides were predictable. The left was outraged that the government might do such a thing. The right pitched a hissy fit over leaks.

But here’s another way to interpret the story. The Trump administration wants to rid the country of approximately 11 million illegal aliens. Deporting them all would be a difficult, expensive, and lengthy task. So here’s another way: scare at least some of them into leaving on their own. The National Guard story – though false – undoubtedly started rumors in immigrant neighborhoods that the Feds were about to launch massive sweeps. Better to depart sooner rather than later.

Seen in this light, the Trump administration wins in two ways. First, the story sows fear in immigrant communities and may lead to “self-deportations”. Second, the administration continues to build the narrative that the media promotes fake news and is the enemy of the people.

Another tactic to control the conversation is what academics call availability cascades. We humans estimate how risky something is based on information that’s available to us. An availability cascade makes a cascade of information – about one and only one topic – readily available to us.

The Ebola scare of 2014 provides a good example. Somebody gets sick with a dread disease. The press writes vivid stories about the illness and makes grim images easily available to us. It’s top of mind. Then people push the government to “do something” about the menace. The press writes about that. Then the government actually does something. The press writes about that. Then people protest what the government has done. The press writes about that. Soon, the entire world seems to be chattering about Ebola. If everybody’s talking about it, it must be dangerous.

The Trump administration creates an availability cascade when it lures the press into writing more about Islamic terrorism. The administration has accused the press of underreporting terrorist incidents. In response, the press has written numerous articles pointing out just how many stories they’ve written on terrorist incidents. The net effect? Terrorism is in the headlines every day. Everybody is talking about it. It must be dangerous.

Even fake news can help keep availability cascades in the headlines. The administration makes a far-fetched claim and the press naturally wants to set the record straight. By doing so, the press adds fuel to the availability fire. The story lingers on. As long as the press plays along, the administration will keep creating alternative facts. Think of it as the media equivalent of rope-a-dope.

Trump’s obsession with himself creates another availability cascade. Trump regularly talks about himself and his accomplishments – how smart he is, how many electoral votes he won, and so on. He often repeats himself; the news is no longer new. Yet the press keeps writing about it. Apparently, they want to show how self-obsessed he is. But the practical effect is that Trump dominates the headlines very day. If everybody is chattering about him, he must be very powerful.

Bernard Cohen wrote that, “The press may not be successful … in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling them what to think about.” The Trump administration is using the press to frame the discussion and tell us what to think about. Perhaps it’s time for the press to change the subject.

Reminiscence Bumps and Helicopter Parents

It's the reminiscence bump.

It’s the reminiscence bump.

If you ask someone over the age of thirty to tell you their life story, they’ll over-emphasize some portions and under-emphasize others. Most likely they’ll recall incidents in their late teens and early twenties much more vividly than other periods of their lives. What happens in our thirties stays in our thirties. What happens in our formative years stays with us forever.

It’s known as the reminiscence bump and social scientists have been researching it since the early 1980s. Activities and events that occur in late adolescence and early adulthood leave an indelible mark on our memories. As Katy Waldman puts it, …”there is something deeply, weirdly meaningful about this period.”

Nobody knows quite why the reminiscence bump occurs. Dan McAdams, writing in the Review of General Psychology, associates it with the formation of identity. As we enter adolescence, many different identities are available to us. We could become nerds. Or athletes. Or scholars. Or criminals (especially those with low heart rates). As McAdams points out, William James called this the “one-in-many-selves paradox”.

Yet we generally emerge form adolescence with one more-or-less integrated identity. We want that identity to be coherent. Indeed, there are multiple types of coherent, including biographical coherence, causal coherence, thematic coherence, and temporal coherence. McAdams surmises that integrating multiple potential stories into one coherent identity is a formative life experience that creates long lasting memories.

The articles I’ve read focus on what causes the reminiscence bump. I’m also interested in what the reminiscence bump causes. We believe that the bump is universal; we all have it. Does the fact that we remember our formative years better than other years affect our behavior in later life?

I’ve written previously about the availability bias. As Daniel Kahneman has pointed out, humans are not naturally good at statistics. We have difficulty answering questions dealing with probability. So we substitute a simpler question and answer it.

For instance, let’s say someone asks us, “How likely is it that someone will burglarize your house while you’re away for the weekend?” We have no idea what the probabilities are or even how to calculate them. So we answer a simpler question: “How easy is it for me to remember stories of friends’ houses being burglarized?” If it’s easy to remember such stories, we estimate that the probability is high. If it’s difficult, we estimate that the probability is low. (This is sometimes known as the vividness bias – vivid events are easy to recall from memory).

What events are easy for us to recall from our life histories? Compared to all other events, the reminiscence bump suggests that events from adolescence and early adulthood are easiest to recall. The availability bias suggests that we will overestimate the probability that similar events will happen in the future. We can recall them easily. Therefore, we assume they’re highly probable to recur.

Now, consider the adolescent brain. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, it’s “…still under construction.” We tend to engage in riskier behaviors in our teenage years because our executive function is not fully developed. As most of us can well remember, we do stupid things.

What do we disproportionately remember about our lives? The risky and thoughtless behaviors of our formative years. If the availability bias is correct, we will overestimate the probability that these same behaviors will occur again, perhaps in our children. Could this be the root cause of the helicopter parenting that we seem so worried about today? It’s a complicated question but it’s certainly worth a good research project.

Ebola and Availability Cascades

We can't see it so it must be everywhere!

We can’t see it so it must be everywhere!

Which causes more deaths: strokes or accidents?

The way you consider this question speaks volumes about how humans think. When we don’t have data at our fingertips (i.e., most of the time), we make estimates. We do so by answering a question – but not the question we’re asked. Instead, we answer an easier question.

In fact, we make it personal and ask a question like this:

How easy is it for me to retrieve memories of people who died of strokes compared to memories of people who died by accidents?

Our logic is simple: if it’s easy to remember, there must be a lot of it. If it’s hard to remember, there must be less of it.

So, most people say that accidents cause more deaths than strokes. Actually, that’s dead wrong. As Daniel Kahneman points out, strokes cause twice as many deaths as all accidents combined.

Why would we guess wrong? Because accidents are more memorable than strokes. If you read this morning’s paper, you probably read about several accidental deaths. Can you recall reading about any deaths by stroke? Even if you read all the obituaries, it’s unlikely.

This is typically known as the availability bias – the memories are easily available to you. You can retrieve them easily and, therefore, you overestimate their frequency. Thus, we overestimate the frequency of violent crime, terrorist attacks, and government stupidity. We read about these things regularly so we assume that they’re common, everyday occurrences.

We all suffer from the availability bias. But when we suffer from it simultaneously and together, it can become an availability cascade – a form of mass hysteria. Here’s how it works. (Timur Kuran and Cass Sunstein coined the term availability cascade. I’m using Daniel Kahneman’s summary).

As Kahneman writes, an “… availability cascade is a self-sustaining chain of events, which may start from media reports of a relatively minor incident and lead up to public panic and large-scale government action.” Something goes wrong and the media reports it. It’s not an isolated incident; it could happen again. Perhaps it could affect a lot of people. Perhaps it’s an invisible killer whose effects are not evident for years. Perhaps you already have it. How would one know? Or perhaps it’s a gruesome killer that causes great suffering. Perhaps it’s not clear how one gets it. How can we protect ourselves?

Initially, the story is about the incident. But then it morphs into a meta-story. It’s about angry people who are demanding action; they’re marching in the streets and protesting in front of the White House. It’s about fear and loathing. Then experts get involved. But, of course, multiple experts never agree on anything. There are discrepancies in the stories they tell. Perhaps they don’t know what’s really going on. Perhaps they’re hiding something. Perhaps it’s a conspiracy. Perhaps we’re all going to die.

A story like this can spin out of control in a hurry. It goes viral. Since we hear about it every day, it’s easily available to our memories. Since it’s available, we assume that it’s very probable. As Kahneman points out, “…the response of the political system is guided by the intensity of public sentiment.”

Think it can’t happen in our age of instant communications? Go back and read the stories about ebola in America. It’s a classic availability cascade. Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, reacted quickly — not because he needed to but because of the intensity of public sentiment. Our 24-hour news cycle needs something awful to happen at least once a day. So availability cascades aren’t going to go away. They’ll just happen faster.

Are You The Boss Of You?

I am the master of my fate. Aren't I?

I am the master of my fate. Aren’t I?

Like so many teenagers, I once believed that “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” I could take control, think for myself, and guide my own destiny.

It’s a wonderful thought and I really want to believe it’s true. But I keep finding more and more hidden persuaders that manipulate our thinking in unseen ways. In some cases, we manipulate ourselves by mis-framing a situation. In other cases, other people do the work for us.

Consider these situations and ask yourself: Are you the boss of you?

  • When you eat potato chips, are you thinking for yourself? Or is some canny food scientist manipulating you by steering you towards your bliss point?
  • When you play the slot machines, are you deciding how much to spend or is a sophisticated algorithm dispensing just enough winnings to keep you hooked? Are you being addicted in the machine zone?
  • When you don’t eat fish for 20 years, is it because you’re allergic or did you just never think to test your own assumptions? Did you frame yourself?
  • When you vote for a political candidate, is it because you have carefully considered all the issues and chosen the best candidate or because a cynical communications expert has got your goat with attributed belittlement?
  • When you vote for stronger anti-crime laws, is it because you think they’ll actually work or are you succumbing to the vividness availability bias? (Vivid images of spectacular crimes are readily available to your memory so you vastly over-estimate their frequency).
  • When you buy something is it because you need it or because you want it? Perhaps you’re being manipulated by Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, the founder of public relations. Or perhaps you’ve been brandwashed.

In The Century of the Self, a British video documentary, Adam Curtis argues that we were hopelessly manipulated in the 20th century by slick followers of Freud who invented public relations. Of course, video is our most emotional and least logical medium. So perhaps Curtis is manipulating us to believe that we’ve been manipulated. It’s food for thought.

(The Century of the Self consists of four one-hour documentaries produced for the BBC. You can watch the first one, Happiness Machines, by clicking here).

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