Psychology, Security, Top Stories

The Availability Heuristic and Mass Shooting Fears

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. 

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.

 

Evan Balkcom is originally from the US and currently a PhD candidate in psychology and science communication at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @EvanBalkcom

Feature photo by Fabrizio Verrecchia/Wikimedia Commons.

Reference:
1 Tversky, A.; Kahneman, D. (1974). “Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases”. Science185 (4157): 1124–1131.

Comments

  1. Hmm. I fully understand the points that this author is making, but I find reasoning of this sort less than comforting. Perversely, I think this appeal to the statistical probability of events commits a sampling error when trying to convince any individual of his or her individual risk.

    From a ten thousand feet view, as a disinterested observer, it is possible to fully see and appreciate that any given event has a minuscule probability of affecting any particular person or set of persons. However, when assessing individual risk, to oneself, one doesn’t view the situation from a ten thousand feet view, as a disinterested observer. One sees the recent stabbings on the London and Westminster bridges and thinks, “I regularly cross those bridges when I’m in London. I’m in London either on family visits or for work at least twice a year. There by the grace of God and work schedules go I.”

    My personal chances of being at the wrong place, at the wrong time have just increased substantially above the “ambient” chances of any other given individual who lacks the particular context from which I’m viewing such events.

  2. From the APA article:

    One-Third of US Adults Say Fear of Mass Shootings Prevents Them from Going to Certain Places or Events

    That can’t be true, I’m thinking.

    The current survey found that more than three-quarters of adults (79%) in the U.S. say they experience stress as a result of the possibility of a mass shooting.

    Where does this rubbish come from?

    To better understand the impact of mass shootings on stress and health in the aftermath of the recent tragic El Paso and Dayton shootings, APA commissioned the nationally representative survey. It was conducted online by The Harris Poll between Aug. 8 and 12 among 2,017 adults ages 18 and older who reside in the U.S.

    Oh, the Internet is where it comes from. 2,017 self-selected people who found the poll on the Internet and claim to reside in the U.S.

    Well, it doesn’t take a Master’s in Psychology to see how that could be a rubbish sort of study. Why would the APA push that on the public and pretend that it had any scientific validity?

    Maybe because the APA is more a political organization than a professional one. Maybe because the APA has been politically advocating for gun control for a long time. (A quick Google search will suffice for those wanting cites.) Maybe because the APA has been lobbying politicians to get them to stop publicly associating mass shootings with mental illness, even though anyone with a shred of common sense knows that they are associated.

    How better to distract the public from the fact that mentally ill people are committing mass shootings than to get politicians to claim that it’s normal people who are doing it.

    One has to wonder why a PhD candidate in psychology would use such a crude piece of political theater as the basis of an article.

  3. Lies, damned lies, statistics, and anything left-wing people say.

  4. Good article, imo. Events easily brought to mind (memorable because they are so unusual/unexpected and so negative) are (mis-)perceived as more likely than they actually are. As the author points out, the “availability heuristic” enhances worry/fear at a personal level that may affect an individual’s behavioural choices.

    Much of the research on cognitive heuristics points to ways our intuitions often lead us astray - there’s decades of experimental evidence on errors and biases in decision-making. Availability is one of the better-understood heuristics. I’ve thought about aspects of this cognitive shortcut often over the years, both in my professional and personal life. I get the author’s (or any psychologist’s) concern about helping people understand how the availability heuristic works and to recognize how it might be affecting decisions. And I like @TidyPrepster ‘s comment that sometimes the context of a catastrophic event is just too close to the details of our own life for us to be anything but fearful, even knowing such events are highly unlikely.

    One aspect the author didn’t mention is that outlier negative events should be memorable, and should affect emotion and motivation systems—that its an aspect of human perception and memory that makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. The way availability alters perceived likelihood makes sense (adaptively) when, for example, an outlier negative event occurs in a dangerous job (like firefighting), and its memorability produces changes to safety protocols. For some jobs, even a very unlikely negative event has to be prepared for. The same mechanism (availability heuristic) can help us (make us improve safety protocols) or hinder us (make us drive 700 miles to a conference rather than fly).

  5. Frenzied coverage by an activist media that is attempting to use hysteria to overturn the 2nd amendment?

  6. The Availability Heuristic is not the only distorting factor in relation to Mass Shootings- political polarisation also prevents discussion of the plethora of sensible proposals to help mitigate this phenomena. One motive in these shootings is nihilistic significance and infamy, and the “No Notoriety” campaign might be more successful, if given a chance- especially, if coupled with a concerted to take down these strange teenage fansites which seem to sprout up online (after all, a child possesses no inherent right to free speech, because they have no responsibilities to balance their rights).

    Dr Warren Farrell has pointed out the role of father-deprived circumstances in both Mass Shootings, and the online radicalisation of Homegrown Terrorists, as well as violent crime amongst teenage males and young men in general, with approximately 90% of all of these groups having experienced a lack of paternal parenting. Indeed, intelligence experts have noted remarkable similarities in key indicators between Mass Shooters and Homegrown Terrorists. Likewise the liberal attitudes of doctors, in over-prescribing to treat mental health issues is certainly a factor- it certainly didn’t do Roseanne Barr any favours.

    On mental health, a male-centred CBT-style system that promotes positive and traditional masculinity could have a profound influence on this phenomena. I also think that children are fed an unremitting line of complete bullshit in that teachers fail to articulate the amazing and incredibly positive ways that our world is improving, by almost every measure. Steven Pinker’s book ‘Enlightenment Now’ should be required reading for anyone considering entering the teaching profession- as it may help to disconfirm their own delusional views of world, based on the distorted view of the world that the media presents to everyone.

    And unfortunately this aspect of the green movement isn’t restricted to frightened and traumatised schoolgirls like Greta Thunberg… I believe in Climate Change and sensible market-based solutions- which is why I consider the Green Movements irrational fear-stoking over Nuclear Power so objectionable. But the darker side of this equation is that several of the more recent Mass Shooters believed they were doing the world a favour in relation to population control. Only a darkly-twisted mind could believe this crap, when all advanced economies are experiencing population shortages, brought about by women’s greater autonomy over their lives. The solution to population fears is to buy more goods from Africa, so that they can lift themselves out of poverty more rapidly, and experience the lower birth rates that greater wealth and less economic inequality naturally brings… Fair trade practices by consumers might also be a good idea, especially if it included a voluntary embargo on single use plastics, in these supply chains.

  7. “In the past 48hrs, the USA horrifically lost 34 people to mass shootings. On average, across any 48hrs, we also lose… 500 to Medical errors 300 to the Flu 250 to Suicide 200 to Car Accidents 40 to Homicide via Handgun Often our emotions respond more to spectacle than to data,” Neil deGrasse Tyson

    After a mass shooting in the U.S. this attempt to engage in heuristic thinking by Mr. Tyson was subject to a severe backlash. Mr. Tyson eventually felt obligated to distance himself from his own correct statement. In other words heuristic thinking is not favored because neurotic thinking and the reliance on irrational fears is often used to perpetuate the latest fad social policies.

  8. It is ironic that environmentalists made nuclear power evil many decades ago, which of course exacerbated the current CO2 emissions issues. If we have the same sorts of progress on nuclear power that we get with other technologies, we’d be so much better off today with cheaper, cleaner energy.

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