Standing up to the media boogeyman

I’m about halfway through through Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, which is more or less about how the human brain tends to think sometimes in quick, reactive ways, and other times in deliberate, calculated ways. Kahneman basically summarizes decades of research into how the human mind makes decisions, much of which he himself had a hand in.

One of the more interesting passages from the book is about how the human brain handles fear and risk. The thoughtful, rational aspect of our thinking — what the author abbreviates as “Type II” — can, actuary-style, do all the calculations necessary to estimate the true level of danger that something presents, as well as comparing the probability and severity of different possibilities side-by-side. But when confronted by real-life dangers, we humans don’t commonly tend to think like this. In reality, risks are assessed and our fears governed by our reactive, intuitive “Type I” brain, which tends to overweight the danger from things that are “available”, or in other words visible, easily conceptualized, and at the forefront of our attention.

This makes a lot of sense, given the inordinate amount of attention that we tend to pay on smaller risks that connect more easily to our emotions. I suppose the textbook example would be how we tend to fear plane crashes much more than car crashes, even though the former are much rarer and much less likely to kill us. But we could come up with countless other examples, I’m sure.

The fact that human beings are irrationally fearful of certain relatively benign things over much more dangerous ones is bad enough. Think, for instance, of our society’s obsession with the risk of terrorism, which has killed roughly 3,000 Americans this century, in comparison to our comparatively lukewarm reaction to drunk driving, which kills about 10,000 every year.

But this particular glitch in the way we think becomes much worse when it’s mixed with human selfishness and opportunism. One of the most memorable and funniest recent examples of this was a commercial for a home security system that aired a few years ago. In it, a single woman meets a seemingly nice man at a party, only for that man to break down her door minutes later in an apparent attempt to assault her. Her alarm system blares, and the would be assailant is scared away (phew!). I’m not sure which is funnier: the Saturday Night Live spoof, or the real thing.

Sometimes, the urge to profit from natural human fears is even more nefarious. The existence of fear in whatever form can mean an opportunity for political influence, simply by cultivating and directing these fears towards an intended goal. Again, I could probably list tons of examples here, but I prefer to leave it to the reader’s own imagination (as well as the comments section).

As is the case for so many other things, here I wonder if this problem has always been with us, and I just tend to notice more as I get older. Maybe, but that shouldn’t be cause for us to accept the status quo. Let’s put it this way: When voters feel the urgency to ban shariah law in their state in fear of an Islamic caliphate taking over Oklahoma, something has gone horribly wrong. (And I’m sure both of Oklahoma’s Muslims would agree.)

The power of the media to skew our sense of risk — whether motivated simply by the profit motive or by some deeper political goal — is described by Kahneman in the framework of the “availability cascade”. He writes:

An availability cascade is a self-sustaining chain of events, which may start from media reports of a relatively minor event and lead up to public panic and large-scale government action. On some occasions, a media story about a risk catches the attention of a segment of the public, which becomes aroused and worried. This emotional reaction becomes a story in itself, prompting additional coverage in the media, which in turn produces greater concern and involvement. The cycle is sometimes sped along deliberately by “availability entrepreneurs,”, individuals or organizations who work to ensure a continuous flow of worrying news. The danger is increasingly exaggerated as the media compete for attention-grabbing headlines. Scientists and others who try to dampen the increasing fears and revulsion attract little attention, most of it hostile: anyone who claims that the danger is overstated is suspected of association with a “heinous cover-up”. The issue becomes politically important because it is on everyone’s mind, and the response of the political system is guided by the intensity of public sentiment. The availability cascade has now reset priorities. Other risks, and other ways that resources could be applied for the public good, all have faded into the background.

How far the current state of affairs seems to be from Shoghi Effendi’s vision of a free but morally responsible press that will “cease to be mischievously manipulated by vested interests, whether private or public, and will be liberated from the influence of contending governments and peoples.” It’s not just human irrationality that is at issue here. The problem is also, in Kahneman’s words, the “availability entrepreneurs”, those who’ve discovered all the right buttons to push to translate fear into power, and seem to have no qualms about pushing them.

 

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