Sunday, August 19, 2012

All the news that's fit to....

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Jonathan Haidt's book The Righteous Mind, in which he uses some very persuasive experiments to illustrate the fact that most of the time we don't make rational decisions.  Here are the terms of his metaphor:  we're 90% elephant and 10% rider.  When we're faced with a decision, our first response is probably coloured by our feelings at the moment and by our intuitions.  Using evolutionary psychology (along with many other methodologies and points of view), Haidt explains that for most of humanity's history we have had to evaluate threats or benefits in our surroundings very quickly, so most of the time we go with our guts.  Sometimes this is literal.  Experiments have shown that when we are asked by a clever  graduate student to take a brief questionnaire that asks us to respond to stories with moral dilemmas, we will make a much harsher judgements if we belong to the half of the subjects who stood next to a trash can in which "fart spray" had been released.  In an attempt to measure the way our feelings colour our judgments that was a little less sensational, experimenters showed subjects pairs of words like flower-happiness, hate--sunshine, love--cancer, cockroach--lonely.  Subjects saw the first word for about a quarter of a second before the second word appeared.  Our task was to say whether the pairing was "good" or "bad."   The first word essentially primed us, so that we turned our elephant in a particular direction.  In the case where the second word had the same valence, we responded very quickly.  When the second word changed our affective response, it took us longer to make decisions.  Our elephants are easily led by fart spray (or our olfactory responses of disgust) or by the affective charge we prepare in a quarter-second glimpse of a single word. 

Insofar as "reason" takes part in these decisions, it is largely put to work defending and justifying the affective reasons for our elephant's decisions. But there are three main ways that the rational rider can gain control.  The least used is reflection:  sitting down with ourselves with the express purpose of examining our beliefs and seeking evidence both for and against their effectiveness, their accuracy, their rightness. The second way the elephant's path can be influenced by riders is through the questions and challenges of friends for whom we have affection and respect.  The third is through subtle social pressures at large in our culture.  While few of us undertake the route of self-examination very often, most of us are influenced by the wider culture in ways we're not really conscious of.  It's those passionate conversations with friends (and perhaps even with books or art, if we also consider them our friends) that have the most meaningful effects on the growth (or stagnation) of our belief systems.

Daniel Kahneman, who won a Nobel Prize for his work in behavioural economics, has essentially spent his life studying the elephant. Among his many accomplishments, detailed in Thinking, Fast and Slow, has been the elucidation of heuristics--procedures or habits that help us identify simple, seemingly adequate but often imperfect answers to difficult questions.  The first heuristic that he names is substitution.  Faced with a difficult question we can't answer except with quite a lot of time and more information than we have at our fingertips, we often substitute an easier question.  For example, faced with the question "How much would you contribute to save an endangered species?" the intuitive elephant instead asks our lazy brain "How much emotion do I feel when I think of dying dolphins?"  If circumstances in our lives confront us with the question "How happy are you with your life these days?" and you are in the car driving four kids to soccer practice rather than taking a long solitary walk, you are more likely to ask "What is my mood right now?" 

I'll admit that I haven't finished Kahneman's book, which is much dryer than Haidt's, but which also seems to crucial to a society that wants to make better public policy decisions.  (I will finish it, I promise.)  But the heuristic that grabbed my attention is called the "availability heuristic."  Using this heuristic, we judge the frequency with which an event will occur by the ease with which our lazy minds deliver up examples.  If, like me, you can't resist reading the headlines on the celebrity magazines and the tabloids while you wait to buy your groceries (even to mock them), you probably think that the divorce rate and the amount of sexual scandal is higher among politicians and celebrities than it is in the general public.  News coverage of plane crashes might make you fear flying, even if you know are safer in a plane.  Reports of car crashes in Saskatchewan during the slow news month of August make you wonder about the safety of driving on your holiday.  Between these two fears, plus the uncertain economy, you decide to have a staycation.

For a whole range of improbable reasons ranging from visits to family and riding the elliptical bike at odd hours, I've been watching an unusually large amount of (non CBC) news.  One night, chained to the elliptical for another twenty minutes, I witnessed horror story after horror story.  Hands and heads found in Toronto.  Burst pipelines.  Automobile accidents.  Strange diseases.  I realized that the news media, purposefully or not, was creating an availability heuristic whose main automatic conclusion was "This is a scary time."  Stories about car crashes and bizarre murders actually have political implications, as Haidt points out.  When we are fearful, we tend to vote small c conservative, regardless of the particularities of their platform of the day.  We just think that people with conservative tendencies are the ones who will stop all this craziness.

The availability heuristic can also snowball into an availability cascade.  If a relatively minor event is over-reported, it can lead to public panic which becomes the story itself.  Think of how many times a "news report" consists of sticking a microphone in the face of a bystander and asking them how they feel.  As a result of the media's exaggeration of danger, politicians can feel bound to address the issue with multiple, expensive  inquiries and with funds.  We might become fearful, for example, after two gory stories on murders that involve decapitated bodies.  This might prompt us, especially now that the days are getting shorter and the sun sets earlier, to give up our evening run when we can't get out on the street before dusk.  But the availability cascade has prompted us to reset our priorities in a way that isn't good for us.  We're more likely to die of heart disease because we've given up exercise than we are to be murdered.  We're seeing some of this heuristic affecting the lives of our children.  Because parents are worried about their children playing outside without adult supervision, but feel that they're safe if they're indoors attached to a computer or a TV, we're seeing more and more obesity in our kids.  We're also seeing much more nature deficit disorder--an inability to concentrate that comes from childrens' lack of time in an environment that asks for or invites their engagement rather than demanding it.

Here's my hypothetical availability cascade.  First let me say that Kahneman admits that the science on availability cascades is relatively new and still open to debate.  We aren't sure, for example, whether "experts" make more informed decisions than citizens.  Nevertheless, I don't think my concerns are entirely silly.  In a blog post written in January of 2011, after John Allemang reported that more people had died in 2010 of "weather events" than had died of terrorist attacked since the late sixties, I wondered why we were putting so much more money into airport security and so little into finding ways of reducing the level of CO2 we spew into the air.  The availability cascade might explain our decision. Terrorism is always a big story, particularly after September 11.  While I don't mean to belittle the lives of those people who died that day, or to mitigate the horror we all felt, I wonder if we've made some policy decisions based on the perception of threat rather than on the likelihood of it.  In Canada, we're used to crazy weather events, and to complicate the issue honest scientists remind us that while we can't blame a particular event on climate change, we can infer that the rise in the number of floods, droughts, tornadoes, and hurricanes is caused by global warming.  Yet we continue to take minimal steps, largely because our government argues that doing so will harm the economy.  The weather isn't already harming the economy????

On our return from a visit to Bill's family in Calgary, in a very grotty restroom in Swift Current, my mother's voice began to repeat all the things she said in the fifties about the diseases you could get in dirty bathrooms.  And then tumbled out all the warnings and fears of the time:  the atomic bomb safety drills we spent huddled under our desks, the TV programs that explained how to build and provision your bomb shelter, the warnings about crowds and polio, the less articulated fears about dirty old men.  And suddenly I realize that the fifties and early sixties were times of fear. We feared the Soviet Union as much as we feared McCarthy's HUAC hearings, and writers like Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible about our fears.

Over the next couple of days, I attempted a kind of "fear index," thinking through the last sixty decades and trying to see whether fear was in the ascendant.  Historians would be horrified, particularly since I was lazily thinking in decades.  And of course the availability heuristic played an important role.  What I had seen and thought and witnessed was, in all probability, not reflective of the zeitgeist.  Nevertheless, I could see moments when we were less fearful, sometimes wisely, sometimes stupidly.  Anger and irrational joy seemed to infuse the sixties and seventies--sometimes, as in Beatles' songs--in the same moment.  We got excited again when the Berlin Wall came down, and  perhaps celebrated prematurely when the Soviet Union disintegrated.  The nineties brought an economic reality check, but not as brutal as the one we are now coping with.

Because there's no doubt about it:  we are in a fearful time.  The economy, unless you live in China, is in tatters world-wide, our generation having over-extended its credit.  We are embroiled in a guerrilla conflict that bursts out now here, now there, with Muslim attitudes and ways of life--neither of which we understand adequately.  (In turn, Muslims are horrified, I suspect, by post-modern life and are desperately trying to turn back the clock.)  We are enthusiastically adopting a whole host of technologies without any clear sense of how they are going to influence our social practices and social institutions.  But the media is, particularly during the slow news month of August, exploiting our anxiety and grabbing our attention by offering us a vision of a frightening, threatening world where danger looms and disaster is impending.

What we need to recognize is that playing to our fears disempowers us.  Rather than being given information that allows us to make informed decisions, the evening news is prompting us to huddle in our caves in front of a smoky fire.

And then, on the other hand, citizens are joining together to gather the signatures necessary to force a referendum on a new stadium for Regina.  The Occupy Movement, regardless of where it is manifested now--perhaps in Quebec over tuition or in Regina over a stadium and affordable housing, has inspired us to find ways of showing that we are committed to democracy.  (Do we think the local nightly news would offer a Friday night tally of the number of signature we've attained so far?)  My friend Katherine and her various crews have a garden at the university that will provide fresh food for Carmichael Outreach and are busy picking fruit off trees in Regina to preserve or donate to the Food Bank.  Good things happen.  Good people go on making good things happen.  And no historical period, in spite of my attempt at a fear index, is uniform.  But fear is a far less effective rallying cry than the hope that leads to creativity, innovation, and justice.  Guess I'll have to quit watching the news.  And you're welcome to stop by my office next week to sign the referendum petition.

1 comment:

  1. Very well put! You summarize essential core discoveries of my discipline in a way that puts those of use who practice the craft to shame. Thanks for your clear thinking, Kathleen, and thanks for challenging us with it.