Sharks, The Navy, & The Availability Heuristic

Sharks, The Navy, And the Availability Heuristic

In the book Grunt, Mary Roach investigates what Navies across the globe do to keep their sailors, pilots, and personnel safe from shark attacks. To some extent, Roach’s findings can be summed up by describing the availability heuristic. Our minds make predictable cognitive errors, and our fear of sharks, and Roach’s subsequent curiosity about how navies protect their personnel from sharks, is in more ways inspired by cognitive error rather than real threat and danger.
In Thinking Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman writes, “We defined the availability heuristic as the process of judging frequency by the ease with which instances come to mind.” That is to say that we don’t actually have a good mental database of shark attack frequencies relative to other nautical maladies. Neither do we have a great mental database of times when we were successful on the job, the number of electric vehicles on the road, or how many Asian-American actors have been in major motion pictures. We rely on availability. The easier it is for us to think of instances of a shark attack, instances of us doing something good at work, times we saw Teslas in the neighborhood, or whether we just saw Shang-Chi, the more we will think that each of these things occurs with high frequency.
Naval Special Warfare Command communications specialist Joe Kane is quoted as saying the following in Grunt, “You’re coming at this the wrong way. The Question is not do Navy SEALs need shark repellant? The question is, Do sharks need Navy SEAL repellent?”
Shark attacks are sensationalized and make headlines around the world.  Its easy to think of times when we have seen a shark bite victim on the news or when we can remember seeing a news headline about a shark attack. These stories are highly available, so we think they are more common than they really are, and we think they are more dangerous than they really are. After all, a shark encounter that ended with a shark being scared away without trying to bit anyone doesn’t make the news to become available to our minds. Roach writes, “a floating sailor could dispatch a curious shark by hitting it churning the water with his legs. (Baldridge [a researcher Roach spoke with] observed that even a kick to a shark’s nose from the rear leg of a swimming rat was enough to cause a startled response and rapid departure from the vicinity.)”
It is probably still a good idea for naval personnel to think about sharks and how to best train personnel to respond to sharks. However, our fear of sharks is overblown, a consequence of the availability heuristic. Sharks should only be considered to a certain extent, and beyond that, navies will face diminishing marginal returns and unnecessary expenses to try to keep their personnel safe from a minimal threat. It is the availability heuristic they may have to worry about more than sharks.
Why Terrorism Works

Why Terrorism Works

In the wake of terrorism attacks, deadly shootings, or bizarre accidents I often find myself trying to talk down the threat and trying to act as if my daily life shouldn’t be changed. I live in Reno, NV, and my city has experienced school shootings while my state experienced the worst mass shooting in the United States, but I personally have never been close to any of these extreme yet rare events.  Nevertheless, despite efforts to talk down any risk, I do psychologically notice the fear that I feel following such events.

 

This fear is part of why terrorism works. Despite trying to rationally and logically talk myself through the post-terrorism incident and remind myself that I am in more danger on the freeway than I am near a school or at a concert, there is still some apprehension under the surface, no matter how cool I make myself look on the outside. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman examines why we behave this way following such attacks. Terrorism, he writes, “induces an availability cascade. An extremely vivid image of death and damage, constantly reinforced by media attention and frequent conversations becomes highly accessible, especially if it is associated with a specific situation.”

 

Availability is more powerful in our mind than statistics. If we know that a given event is incredibly rare, but have strong mental images of such an event, then we will overweight the likelihood of that event occurring again. The more easily an idea or possibility comes to mind, the more likely it will feel to us that it could happen again. On the other hand, if we have trouble recalling experiences or instances where rare outcomes did not happen, then we will discount the possibility that they could occur. Where terrorism succeeds is because it shifts deadly events from feeling as if they were impossible to making them easily accessible in the mind, and making them feel as though they could happen again at any time. If our brains were coldly rational, then terrorism wouldn’t work as well as it does. As it is, however, our brains respond to powerful mental images and memories, and the fluidity of those mental images and memories shapes what we expect and what we think is likely or possible.
Availability Cascades

Availability Cascades

This morning, while reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, I came across an idea that was new to me. Harari writes, “Chaotic systems come in two shapes. Level one chaos is chaos that does not react to predictions about it. … Level two chaos is chaos that reacts to predictions about it.”  The idea is that chaotic systems, like societies and cultures, are distinct from chaotic systems like the weather. We can model the weather, and it won’t change based on what we forecast. When we model elections, on the other hand, there is a chance that people, and ultimately the outcome of the election, will be influenced by the predictions we make.  The chaos is responsive to the way we think about that chaos. A hurricane doesn’t care where we think it is going to make landfall, but voters in a state may care quite a bit and potentially change their behavior if they think their state could change the outcome of an election.

 

This ties in with the note from Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow which I had selected to write about today. Kahneman writes about availability cascades in his book, and they are a piece of the feedback mechanism described by Harari in level two chaos systems. Kaneman 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. One some occasions, a media story about a risk catches the attention of a segment of the public, which becomes aroused and worried.”

 

We can think about any action or event that people and governments might take as requiring a certain action potential in order to take place. A certain amount of energy, interest, and attention is required for social action to take place. The action potential can be small, such as a red light being enough of an impetus to cause multiple people to stop their cars at an intersection, or monumental, such as a major health crisis being necessary to spur emergency financial actions from the Federal Government. Availability cascades create a set of triggers which can enhance the energy, interest, and attention provided to certain events and bolster the likelihood of a public response.

 

2020 has been a series of extreme availability cascades. With a global pandemic, more people are watching news more closely than before. This allows for the increased salience of incident of police brutality, and increases the energy in the public response to such incidents. As a result, more attention has been paid to racial injustice, and large companies have begun to respond in new ways to issues of race and equality, again heightening the energy and interest of the public in demanding action regarding both racial justice and police policy. There are other ways that events could have played out, but availability cascades created feedback mechanisms within a level two chaotic system, opening certain avenues for public and societal action.

 

It is easy to look back and make assessments on what happened, but in the chaos of the moment it is hard to understand what is going on. Availability cascades help describe what we see, and help us think about what might be possible in the future.