Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Availability Heuristic

When the devastating Tsunami (Indian Ocean Earthquake) happened in 2004, it was our number one fear that time as we had that feeling of happening something similar or worse again. Now we don't have the same level of concern over it, do we?

When that horrible shooting incident happened at VTech, we were more fearful at that time than now as we had that feeling of increased probability of being a victim of such an incident.

When there is a suicide bomb attack, we see extra check points and increased security measures which tend to fade off as the time pass by. Why is that we have more concern immediately after the attack? Again, we get that feeling of happing something similar or worse.

We use availability heuristic to estimate the frequency of something (good or bad) happening. Often we don't have or bother find solid evidence to base our estimation. "For example, what is the probability that the next plane you fly on will crash? The true probability of any particular plane crashing depends on a huge number of factors, most of which you're not aware of and/or don't have reliable data on. What type of plane is it? What time of day is the flight? What is the weather like? What is the safety history of this particular plane? When was the last time the plane was examined for problems? Who did the examination and how thorough was it? Who is flying the plane? How much sleep did they get last night? How old are they? Are they taking any medications? You get the idea." Our cognitive decision is based other no rationale factors!

Usually, our estimation is shaped by our recent memory. It is easier for us to recall events happened in the recent past than those in distant past.

The availability heuristic often leads people to loose sight of "real" dangers: " Psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, for example, conducted a fascinating study that showed in the months following September 11, 2001, Americans were less likely to travel by air and more likely to instead travel by car. While it is understandable why Americans would have been fearful of air travel following the incredibly high profile attacks on New York and Washington, the unfortunate result is that Americans died on the highways at alarming rates following 9/11. This is because highway travel is far more dangerous than air travel. More than 40,000 Americans are killed every year on America's roads. Fewer than 1,000 people die in airplane accidents, and even fewer people are killed aboard commercial airlines. The bottom line is that being a passenger on a plane being flown by trained professionals who are being guided by a team of professionals (i.e., air traffic control) is much safer than driving your own car on streets surrounded by other amateur drivers who may or may not follow the rules of the road (and whose cars may or may not be fit to drive)."

Another interesting fact:
"Consider, for example, that the 2009 budget for homeland security (the folks that protect us from terrorists) will likely be about $50 billion. Don't get us wrong, we like the fact that people are trying to prevent terrorism, but even at its absolute worst, terrorists killed about 3,000 Americans in a single year. And less than 100 Americans are killed by terrorists in most years. By contrast, the budget for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (the folks who protect us on the road) is about $1 billion, even though more than 40,000 people will die this year on the nation's roads. In terms of dollars spent per fatality, we fund terrorism prevention at about $17,000,000/fatality (i.e., $50 billion/3,000 fatalities) and accident prevention at about $25,000/fatality (i.e., $1 billion/40,000 fatalities). This huge imbalance tells us that our priorities are seriously out of whack. (And don't even get us started on bigger killers like heart disease!)"

Is our risk assessment model flawed? IMHO it is not the model that is problematic here, but we as a society have failed in the first place (why do we have terrorists attacks? why are there mass shooting incidents?) barring the natural disasters. Why do we allocate more resources to those possible events that has a low frequency but a high impact? I argue that this is due to the true human nature; we, human beings, feel a higher impact if something happens in burst rather than gradually even if the latter is causing more damage in the long run. Can we (as citizens or as governments) change our perceptions (be a lot less afraid of recent bad incidents) and focus on the latter? I think the real problem is not the fear factor or the accrual damage caused but the fact that most of the burst incidents are caused by extremist elements and the victims have neither control nor any involvement (in other words, there are unfortunate reactions without any actions (involvement) - is this what we call "fate"?). We can make a similar argument about natural disasters.

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