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.