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The Availability Heuristic and Mass Shooting Fears

Understanding this mental tick, and how it operates, provides us with a clear picture of the process that turns outlier events into sources of persistent worry.

· 6 min read
The Availability Heuristic and Mass Shooting Fears
hoto by Fabrizio Verrecchia/Wikimedia Commons.

Fear of mass shootings is becoming a source of pervasive anxiety for an increasing number of people in the United States. A recent APA survey of American adults found that 79 percent of respondents reported experiencing stress because of the possibility of a mass shooting; a third of the sample even said that this fear held them back from going to certain places and attending events.

This widespread anxiety is starkly out of step with the level of risk presented by these events, but that doesn’t mean we should dismiss it. It’s easy to cite statistics about the number of people who die in mass shootings each year (372 in 2018 according to the Gun Violence Archive) and to reassure people that their actual risk of falling victim to a mass shooting is exceedingly low, yet, on its own, this sort of thinking does little to assuage fears. But why? Why doesn’t focusing on the numbers alleviate fear? And why are people so frightened of an event that poses such a minor overall risk?

Part of the answer to these questions lies in a mental shortcut that we use to make judgments under uncertainty called the availability heuristic. Understanding this mental tick, and how it operates, provides us with a clear picture of the process that turns outlier events into sources of persistent worry. Furthermore, recognizing our own availability-driven thinking may be one of the few levers available to us when we want to think our way out of fear.

It’s important to note that these arguments address individual anxiety, not societal level concerns. There are reasons to be very concerned about mass shootings, and some other low probability events, that extend beyond death toll. For one, these risks are potentially multiplicative in a way that many other types of personal risk are not. The number of people killed in mass shootings, for example, might plausibly double in a single year—the same is not true of the number of people who die from falling off of rooftops. Additionally, the social factors which drive mass shootings and other forms of violence have the potential to damage our system in ways that extend well beyond the events themselves. They should be a major part of the public and political conversation. But we can have that conversation without giving in to life-altering levels of personal fear on an individual level. Understanding the way that availability impacts our judgment can help us maintain that perspective.

First described by Tversky & Kahneman[1], the availability heuristic is a cognitive shortcut that we use to estimate the probability of an event based on the number of similar occurrences that can be easily called to mind. In everyday life, it’s a handy way of making quick probability judgments. Sometimes, though, it leads us to make drastic miscalculations—especially in cases that involve vivid events which are likely to stand out in our memory. Mass shootings are ideally positioned to take advantage of the pitfalls of availability thinking. One reason for this, and one of the scariest elements of mass shootings, is the random and unpredictable nature of these attacks. They have happened everywhere from shopping centers, to churches, to nightclubs and at recreational events like movies and concerts. As the mayor of Dayton, Ohio pointed out after a recent shooting in her city, there is no specific place that we can avoid to mitigate our risk. Given so many unknowns, we might find ourselves falling back on availability thinking to make sense of the situation, and that’s where things become problematic.

Few among us have experienced a mass shooting, an airplane crash, or any of the other low probability events that we spend our time worrying about; we get our information about such occurrences from the media. Mass shootings are big news; they generate a massive amount of news coverage, and in 2019, are often accompanied by live update pages which encourage the public to follow the tragedy as it unfolds. It makes sense; they represent significant events that have a profound effect on impacted communities and on the wider society. They also have the power to inspire fear, and fear drives engagement (and often inspires a storm of discussion on social media). Indeed, the same terrible vividness that makes shootings newsworthy also gives them an outsized place in our memories.

Fifty Years of Fear and Loathing
Sydney. London. Toronto.

I’m not immune to these effects myself. I can readily call to mind (without consulting Google) 19 mass shootings that have happened in recent years. This may not represent a very high proportion of the attacks that have occurred in the US, but it seems a large number given the rarity of these events. If I were to base a probability estimate on the availability of such instances in my memory, I would almost certainly think that shootings represented a significant source of personal risk. Fortunately, we aren’t trapped in this mode of thinking; understanding the cognitive mechanisms that drive these intuitions is the first step towards overcoming them.

Realizing how availability contributes to anxious thinking can have a calming effect, which is something I’ve experienced firsthand. I’ve struggled with lifelong flight anxiety and am ashamed to admit that I’ve allowed it to restrict my life in several past instances. I’ve backed out of trips at the last minute (too late for a refund on one occasion), declined invitations to events, chosen to drive for hours upon hours, even opted out of distant opportunities—all in the name of avoiding flying. Oh, I knew the statistics. I’d long accepted that driving was dangerous by comparison, but somehow that did little to ease my fear. I studied major airline crashes, reassuring myself that most resulted from human error or an equipment failure that the industry had already addressed. All the research that should have been reassuring to me just seemed to increase my anxiety when I faced the prospect of flying. Sure, I had flown before without incident, though I always had to fight the urge to back out at the airport.

Nothing seemed to reassure me until I began to add new context to my thinking. I wish I could report a single aha moment, but I can’t—the only insight that comes close is the realization that I didn’t know anyone who had been involved in a major airline incident. Not a single person. I knew many people who flew all the time (and had for decades in some cases) yet none of them had experienced a crash. By this time, I already knew about the availability heuristic, but I hadn’t connected it to my fear of flying. Doing so made it clear that my in-depth study of airline crashes conspired with their catastrophic nature to reinforce rather than assuage my anxiety. Understanding this process felt like taking a weight off my shoulders. Those statistics that failed to make me feel better in the past took on new meaning. Recognizing the way that my intuitions failed gave me the freedom to consider the numbers, and to give them the weight they deserved. It’s important to note that the personal experience angle could have broken in the opposite direction; I was fortunate in this case, but I might (nothing is impossible) have known several people who had fallen victim to airline disasters. Even in that case, knowledge of availability thinking would still have provided the context needed to step beyond my misleading intuitions.

Fear of flying is not a perfect parallel to the fear of mass shootings–plane crashes are rarely driven by malicious agency, but both are impacted by some of the same cognitive biases. Understanding why our intuitions run counter to the numbers allows us to step outside of those intuitions and consider our fears in a way that appropriately prioritizes facts. Even so, this suggestion is not a cure-all; catastrophic events are scary, even when they are outliers. The combination of context and data can make the situation more manageable from a personal perspective, but no amount of data can make disasters tolerable.

My intention is to help people contextualize their fear of outlier events, not to downplay the significance of those events. I do not intend any of these arguments to trivialize mass shootings (or air travel safety concerns) or attempts to prevent them. It’s possible to acknowledge the need to confront negative events without appealing to the fear that they may befall us personally. We cannot afford to allow bad actors and availability thinking to trap us into being afraid of low probability events. If they force us to change our lives based on their actions, they’ve won.

1 Tversky, A.; Kahneman, D. (1974). “Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases”. Science. 185 (4157): 1124–1131.

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