A False Sense of Insecurity

The human mind is subject to a lot of cognitive errors and illusions. One cognitive error that we often fall into is a misperception of the frequency of events. If you have ever purchased a new car, you have likely experienced this. Prior to buying a new car, your eye probably wasn’t on the lookout for vehicles of the same make, model, year, and color. But suddenly, once you own a blue Ford Expedition, an orange Mini Cooper, or a silver Camaro, you will feel as though you are seeing more of those cars on the road. A cognitive illusion will make you feel as though suddenly everyone else has purchased the same car as you and that your particular year, make, model, and color of vehicle is growing in popularity (this has even happened to me with rental cars).
 
 
The reality is that other people didn’t all suddenly buy the same car as you. You are not that big of a trend setter. All that happened is that your focus while driving has shifted. You previously never paid attention to similar vehicles when you passed them on the road. You had no reason to think twice about a green Subaru, but now that you drive a green Subaru, every other green Subaru stands out. You remember seeing a car or it at least becomes salient to your mind, where previously you would not have actually thought about the other car. You would have seen it, but you wouldn’t have logged the occurrence in your mind.
 
 
Steven Pinker shows that this same phenomenon happens when we think about violence in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. News headlines easily mislead us and create a false sense of insecurity. We don’t actually have a real sense or a good understanding of the trends of violence and crime in a given area, but we do have a good sense of what kinds of stories have been on the news lately. As Pinker writes, “if we don’t keep an eye on the numbers, the programing policy if it bleed it leads will feed the cognitive shortcut the more memorable, the more frequent, and we will end up with what has been called a false sense of insecurity.”
 
 
The cognitive shortcut that Pinker mentions is something Daniel Kahneman writes about in his book Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow. When we are asked a difficult question, like how common are gold BMWs or how do crime trends today compare with crime trends of five years ago, we take a cognitive shortcut to come up with an answer. Instead of diving into statistics and historical records, which is hard work, we substitute an easier question and provide an answer to that question. The question we answer is, “can I think of memorable instances of this thing?”
 
 
When we ask ourselves that question, our perception and what we happen to have thought about or noticed recently matters a lot. If we never think about Dodge trucks, we won’t think they are very common on the roads. But if we happen to own a Dodge truck, then we are more likely to pay attention to other Dodge trucks on the road meaning that we will answer the substitute question about their frequency with an overestimation of their actual commonness on the roads. The same happens with news reports of violence. Instead of answer the question about trends in violence, we answer the question, “can I remember instances of violence in my city, state, country, or in the world?” If we watch a lot of news, then we are going to hear about every school shooting in the country. We are going to hear about all the robberies and assaults in our city, and we are going to hear about violent acts from across the globe. We are going to remember these events and consequently feel that the world is a dangerous and violent place, even if actual trends in violence and crime are decreasing. This cognitive error, based on a cognitive shortcut, creates a false sense of insecurity about the true nature of violence in our world.

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