While very much of what we fear is because of how we’ve internalized fear, we are social creatures, and what we fear, and how much we fear it, is usually shaped by those we surround ourselves by.
One such situation is the idea of confirmation bias. The idea here is that once we have a belief system in place, we tend to screen what we see and hear in a biased way that ensure our beliefs are “proven” correct.
This is one of the more dangerous things about the internet and search engines like Google. While they are very useful in helping us find information that we are looking for - but only valuable in helping us find what we type into it. For example, if someone has the belief that pit bulls are aggressive, they would likely go into Google, type “pit bulls aggressive” into the web browser. With such a search, they would no doubt find a wealth of information at their finger tips that would confirm this thought. Even though there is much information out there that would point to pit bulls NOT being aggressive, this information may go virtually ignored because of confirmation bias and the seeker ignoring information that didn’t ‘prove’ them right.
For this same reason, people who think ‘pit bulls’ are bad may go to the CDC Report from 2000, flip to the chart on page 2 that shows ‘pit bulls’ lead in dog bite fatalities, and “confirm” their belief, while someone with the opposing viewpoint will look at the conclusions of the study on page 1 that clearly states the problems with how the study was conducted as points to dog bite fatalities as being a non-breed-specific issue. It's the same 5 page document. Easy to understand. And yet, because people enter into it with their own bias, they may come away with completely different views of the same document.
One of other things that psychologists have discovered is that people are vulnerable to something called group polarization – which means, when people who share beliefs get together in groups, they become more convinced that their beliefs are right and they become more extreme in their views. This is one reason why many proponents of pit bull bans end up having such extreme views of how ‘bad’ pit bulls are (especially when they do not allow for open conversation and opposing viewpoints). They have let confirmation bias and group polarization take them down a road where they have such strong, opposing views of ‘pit bulls’ and never give an ounce of thought to other points of view. In fact, science shows that when people have a strong opinion of a topic, even when we stumble across evidence that runs contrary to our points of view, we tend to belittle and even ignore the information -- even if the information is rationally or scientically sound.
The power of group think can be even more powerful than you’d think. In many scientific studies, they have shown that people will answer questions incorrectly – even if they know the answer to be incorrect – if everyone in the room answered the question incorrectly too because of the fear of being different from the rest of the crowd.
In one very basic test, people were asked to sit in a cubicle and answer the question about which geometric shape was larger. In the beginning, when the test subject would respond as the 1st or 2nd subject to respond, they would get the answer correct. However, one slide was presented with five lines on it and people were asked to note which line was longer. The obvious answer was line number 4. However, when the first person answered it, they answered it as number 5. Then the second person did. Then the third. Then the fourth. When it was the test subject’s turn to answer, 1/3 of the test subjects answered the question incorrectly even though they knew the right answer because they conformed to the consensus of the other, planted, participants. Group think can be very powerful indeed.
If it can lead 1/3 of people to follow the pack when their answer is obviously wrong, what type of power can the power of the pack have when the correct answer is even less obvious?
There is one final element that needs to be understood is the reaction humans have to risk. Humans perceive risk and benefits on the opposite end of the spectrum. So if something is perceived as being beneficial, it is generally seen as low-risk. If something is seen as risky, it is usually also perceived as being bad.
The combination of these things often leads us to what
"The irony is that probability blindness is itself dangerous. It can easily lead people to overreact to risks and do something stupid."
This often leads people to create new, often costly programs. “If it saves just one life, it’s worth it” is something we often hear. Even if likelihood of such an event is improbable, and the solution is quite costly, people will often clamor for the solution. This is true even if the high costs could also be used save even more lives from more likely problems.
"The idea here is that regulations can inflict economic costs and economic costs can reduce health and safety. We have to account for that if we want to be rational about risk. We rarely do of course. As political scientist Howard Margolis describes in Dealing with Risk, the public often demands action on a risk without giving the slightest considerations to the cost of that action."
Our inability as a culture to assess risk and probability is even furthered by the reality that as a country, we’re really not very good with numbers. Most people – even many well educated ones – have difficulty answering fairly basic math problems. In
In another question, “imagine if we roll a fair, six-sided die 1,000 times. Out of 1,000 rolls, how many times do you think the die will come up with an even number? Only 61% of people got that question right. In another, they asked “In the Acme Publishing Sweepstakes, the chance of winning a car is one in 1,000, what percent of the tickets of Acme Publishing Sweepstakes win a car? Only 46% of those asked got this right.
When a nation’s university educated elite have such a weak grasp of the numbers that define risk, is it any wonder that our ability to assess risk, and make sound decisions based on the actual data, is at risk of going wrong? And is it any wonder that when we don’t have the ability to assess the numbers (or the numbers are only partially given to us), that Head cannot correct Gut’s emotionally based decisions. And so without Head’s involvement, Gut can get decisions very, very wrong.
In 1997, 58 year old minister Wilbur Billingsly was attacked by a pit bull in a back ally in
Probably a lot
These theories are real – and play a role in decision-making every day in different areas of our lives. And they’ve led to many cities passing bans on dog breeds in spite of so much rational evidence against the idea. The decisions were based solely on the strong emotion….the hysteria of the moment.
Tomorrow we’ll discuss who’s driving the hysteria.