This is part two of a eight part series on the book, the Science of Fear, by Daniel Gardner. Most of part two is based on scientific information in the book. I don’t site most of his sources here – but all of the ideas from this are solely from
In order to understand most of the premises of the book, it is essential for us to understand a few basic premises on how the brain works.
Head is our conscious thought. Head is our best source of making rational decisions because it is analytical. It has the ability to process information and make rational decisions. But it has limitations. In order to make good decisions, head has to be educated on the topic. It has to have a good knowledge on the basics of math, statistics and logic. Without this, head can make bad decisions. Head also is slow to process information.
On the other hand, there is Gut. Gut is our unconscious mind. Its defining quality is speed – it has the ability to make snap decisions and sound the alarm instantly. If you’ve ever read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, you’ve read a lot about our natural system to make snap judgments and decisions.
Now, scientifically, gut gathers its information differently than head. It’s subconscious – so we by definition don’t have control of how it intakes information – and how it processes it for our snap decisions. Thus, to understand half of how we process information, we have to understand how our subconscious mind processes information. In Science of Fear,
The Anchoring Rule
The Anchoring Rules is essentially the idea that whenever we are uncertain about a number – gut grabs ahold of the nearest number it can find and use that as a base. While our head will make adjustments to the number, usually the adjustments “tend to be insufficient, leaving people’s final estimates biased toward the initial anchor value” (psychologists Nicholas Epley and Thomas Gliovich.
Marketers and pollsters use the anchoring rule all the time. If you go to the grocery store and there is a sign that says “Limit 12 per customer” or “Buy 18 for your cupboard” – it turns out, physcologically, that what the sign says is completely insignificant, only the number matters. Gut will use the anchoring rule and look at the number and adjust downward with the people seeing the “12” buying fewer items than the people seeing the “18”.
Pollsters use this also. Say you’re the head of an environmental group and want to show that the public wants supports spending a considerable amount of money to clean up a lake. According to
"You do this by conducting a survey that begins with a question about whether the respondent would be willing to contribute some money – say $200 – to clean up the lake. Whether people say yes or no doesn’t matter. You’re asking the question to get the figure $200 into people’s heads. It’s the next question that counts: you ask the respondent to estimate how much the average person would be willing to pay to clean up the lake. Thanks to the Anchoring Rule, you can be sure the respondent’s Gut will start at $200 and adjust downward, arriving at a figure that will still be higher than it would have been if that figure hadn’t been handed to gut. In a study that did precisely this, psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Jack Knetsch found the average guess about how much people would be willing to pay to clean up the lake was $36. But in a second trial, the $200 figure was replaced with $25. When people were asked how much others would be willing to pay to clean up the lake, the average guess was a mere $14."
This is the anchoring rule at work.
The Rule of Typical Things
The rule of typical things is the fact that our gut often makes snap decisions based on what it deems to be “typical”. As always with intuitive feelings, we tend to go with these judgments of what is “typical” even when it flies in the face of logic and evidence. Also, the rule is only as good as our own knowledge of what is, indeed, typical. Here,
"One belief about a typicality that is unfortunately common in Western countries, particularly in the
The other interesting thing about the Rule of Typical things is that it generally favors outcomes that make good stories or good hypothesis. As phsychologists Kahneman and Tversky wrote, “A detailed scenario consisting of causally linked and representative events may appear more probably than a subset of those individual events.”
This biased belief in causally linked ideas is often why people are more likely to believe a good story than one individual fact.
The Example Rule
One of gut’s most basic rules is that the easier it is to recall examples of something, the more likely that something is. Note one important distinction here. According to the research, it is not the examples themselves that influence gut’s judgment, nor even the number of examples that are recalled, it is merely about how EASILY these examples are recalled.
The example rule is particularly good for us at helping us learn from the very worst sort of experiences. Say someone is involved in a tragic automobile accident, or, the fear of a rattle snake recoiling near us, or someone is attacked by a dog. These threats can often contain a very lasting effect because when they happen, the amygdale, a tiny section of our brain, releases hormones that temporarily enhance memory function, and the memories of the event are vividly encoded and the memories last.
The example rule is very biased. It turns out that recent, emotional, vivid or novel events are all more likely to be remembered than common, every day events. So often, using the example rule, we can more easily recall very odd incidents than we can very common ones that don’t stick out in our minds as much – which often makes us dramatically overestimate the commonality of such an event.
Over the last 20 years, how we are exposed to visually striking images has very much changed how we internalize the Example Rule. Where only a generation ago, we would read about dramatic events in newspapers, or newscasters would explain them to us on television, now, we are flooded by dramatic visual images that shape how easily we can recall examples of dramatic events. Over the last 2 decades, there has been a huge growth in 24-hour cable news networks, newspapers have dramatically increased the use of pictures, and the internet with high speed downloading capabilities makes it almost instant that we can see dramatic pictures of tragedies from around the globe. And this shapes what we view is dangerous. According to
“Occasionally there will be particularly horrible incidents in which many people will die. And thanks to the torrent of instantaneous communications, we will all know about it. So, should we fear these things? Inevitably, gut will attempt to answer that question using the Example Rule. The answer will be clear: Yes. Be afraid. One of the most consistent findings of risk-perception research is that we overestimate the likelihood of being killed by things that make the evening news and underestimate those that don’t. What makes the evening news? The rare, vivid, catastrophic killers….Most sociologists trace the beginnings of the Western Countries’ obsession with risk and safety to the 1970s. That was when the near-exponential growth in media began and the information floodwaters started to rise.”
Over the coming days, we’ll look at examples of these rules in action and what is driving the overall coverage of these fears.