Monday, January 25, 2010


By nature, the human brain puts more emphasis on the what is immediately around the person- the things that they can actually touch and see. Those things are much more concrete to the person than other things, even with the knowledge that what they can't see exists.

For example, people use anecdotes and personal stories to persuade others because they know that the story of this specific little girl who lost her mother in a car crash will resonate more with people than hard facts and statistics about deaths due to car crashes.  All these numbers might be more representative of the overall situation than the anecdote, but people have a hard time grasping the numbers because they are abstract- the story is much more concrete, and people respond to that accordingly.

Mental illness doesn't get the attention it deserves because of its non-concreteness in comparison to other conditions. If you were to ask people what the most disabling illnesses are, in my experience people are most likely to guess illnesses that cause significant physical degradation- something that the person doing the guessing can clearly see- even though the mind is a at the center of all experience, mental illnesses aren't as visible to others as other diseases that affect the person physically, even though they make up a large part of the top ten most disabling illnesses as defined by the W.H.O.

A study cited in Fooled By Randomness showed that people will pay more for an insurance policy that covers everything plus terror attacks than a policy that simply covers everything. People are often more afraid of dangers like terrorism or shootings than smoking or eating unhealthily, even though you are more likely to die (and many more people do in fact die) from smoking and eating unhealthily. If you asked people what they fear might take their life they would be more likely to come up with guns or terrorists as their first response. Why? Because terrorism and shootings seem more concrete. They are more easily imaginable than heart disease or lung cancer and when a shooting happens, it’s all over the news- you see it everywhere. You turn on the news and there are hours of coverage dedicated to the 13 people dead in a shooting. You don’t see the multiple of that who have died that day because of smoking. Shootings and terrorism seem more concrete because they’re right there. They're in front of our eyes and are easier to see. The things that are unmistakably right there in front of you garner higher mindshare than anything abstract.

This tendency most likely stems from our simple brains used in a comparatively simple environment on the Savannah. The things that you needed to worry about were right there in front of you, like predators or a fire- there was very little abstraction that needed to happen in our brains back then. Our environment has rapidly changed, but our brains haven't changed fast enough and we are unfortunately still stuck with this capacity to unconsciously make decisions on the value of information without the involvement of our conscious brain. It is very hard to keep this in mind and to actually take steps to counteract it on an ongoing, constant basis- near impossible, I think.

I believe that an understanding of cognitive biases (what I've described above is part of the availability heuristic) and the way that they shape our thinking without any say on our part is invaluable.

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