Thinking fast and slow 13. Availability, Emotion and Risk

Following the schedule of our reading calendar.

This chapter presents a variation of the availability bias, the affect bias, by which emotions -positive or negative- make  certain ideas more available to us, and we play the classical substitution game: we can’t really solve a complex problem -like: would X be a good president?- so we substitute it for a simpler problem that system 1 can easily process -like: what are my feelings about X?

Here we see how humans receive and process risk deeply influenced by how the media turn very improbable events like getting botulism or being killed in a terrorist attack as very relevant. It also presents empirical evidence on how messages about the benefits of a certain technology make most people think that those technologies are less risky than they thought before. Nassim Taleb argues a similar position, showing how advocates of GMO when they have to argue that GMO are not risky, they start instead of explaining all the benefits that GMO will bring to humankind.

We are also introduced to the concept of “availability cascade”in which a series of connected availability and affect biases -usually generated by mass media- “lead up to public panic and large-scale government action”

The main point of this chapter, in Kahneman’s own words: there is “a basic limitation in the ability of our mind to deal with small risks: we either ignore them altogether or give them far too much weight- nothing in between.”

This chapter was -for me- less surprising than what I’ve been reading so far. It is a well known fact how emotional impact makes us evaluate small risks as a lot greater than they are, how media actively feeds such fears, and how easy is to create public panic.

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2 thoughts on “Thinking fast and slow 13. Availability, Emotion and Risk

  1. Half the ideas in this chapter are fascism.

    Slovic rightly stresses the resistance of the public to the idea of decisions being made by unelected and unaccountable experts

    No wonder. Any time you here the word ‘expert’ you should run as fast as you can.

  2. There is more about the ineficiency of experts in next chapters, if I remember correctly.
    And that reminds me a conversation we had like 20 years ago in which you said something that impressed me: that one of the most important things one learns in the university is to be critical about books. In high school you are told that if you read a book about the Crimean War, what the book says has to be right. An expert wrote it. Then in university -if lucky- you’ll realize that most books about any subject are rubish.
    Most people seem to be stuck in high school and still have this mindset about experts that are 100% trustable.

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