Monday, January 18, 2010

The Way We Think

There are about 40,000 traffic fatalities per year in the U.S., the equivalent of about one jumbo jet crash every two or three days. Can you imagine the level of panic if planes started crashing at that rate? Or the extreme panic if these planes were being brought down by terrorists rather than mechanical problems?

A person making 50K a year whose salary is suddenly cut to 40K will bemoan his fate, while a person making 30K suddenly making 40 will party it up. Shouldn't they feel the same, since they make the same amount of money?

An earthquake in Haiti or a tsunami in Southeast Asia, each taking thousands of lives, prompt non-stop news coverage and donations of millions of dollars. A genocide in Rwanda that kills nearly a million, or a government-assisted North Korean famine killing millions, get modest coverage and no telethons. Why?

An article a student brought in the other day mentioned the concept of anchoring, which is apparently a word psychologists use to describe the fact that we sometimes rely too heavily on one piece of information (of questionable relevance) when making judgments. It was mentioned in the context of buying stock: many stockholders sell or don't sell based on what they paid for it, which in fact has no relevance at a later time: the only consideration for selling or holding should be expectations of the stock's future value, not its past value. Yet many people consider this fact. While not the same thing, this brings to mind the fact that there are many people who think that if a flipped coin comes up heads ten times in a row, the eleventh is bound to be tails. The irrelevant past events color our judgment of the future event.

The first question above is one I've always thought was interesting. We freak out when a plane crashes, but the same number of people dying on the roads in a single day would be so ordinary it wouldn't even be reported in the national media. Granted, more people are on the roads every day than are in planes (I assume), so absolute numbers may not be a fair comparison, but the point is valid, I think. We have gotten used to the carnage on the streets and highways. It's the price we pay to drive, the cost of doing business. I guess part of the situation here is that traffic fatalities happen every day, at a fairly predictable rate, and only one or two tend to die at a time. Plane crashes are unpredictable, happen irregularly, and have death tolls in the hundreds; this seems to make crashes more attention-getting. I'd bet that if three planes crashed in a week it would be a crisis; many questions would be asked. But few note the toll on the roads. Could this number be reduced? If we put more cop cars on the roads and cut speed limits by a third, would it save lives? It would almost have to, though I can't know how many. If experts agreed that it would save 10,000 lives a year, would people agree to it? Not a chance in hell. 40 mph on the freeway? Yeah, right. My feelings about this may be colored by the fact that a very close friend (best man at each other's weddings) was killed in a traffic accident 15 years ago. Our experiences cause us to look at the same events or ideas in different ways.

The second sentence at the top of the post, about the salary, is a good example of anchoring. Is 40K a good salary, or not? If so, but we got a cut from 50, shouldn't we just say, 'well, 40 is still good, so I'm not going to sweat it'? Our idea of what is a good salary tends to depend on what our salary is right now. (I haven't seen any research, but I'd bet money that people who make 100K have a very different idea of what a 'good salary' is than those who make 30K.) It seems very natural to see things this way, but I wonder why we do, or rather, why we can't 'not sweat' a drop from 50K to 40K. Does someone who made 200K last year moan and whine about this year's 150K? I'm sure he does, even though he knows perfectly well that 95% of Americans would love to have his salary; 200K is simply his anchor. Similarly, a cut from 50K to 40K would feel devastating, even though plenty in Africa, India, China, etc. would feel rich if they had 40K. Thinking like that doesn't seem to help.

The third sentence is inspired by recent events. Of course, the Haiti earthquake is terrible and has caused enormous human suffering, as did the tsunami a few years ago. People saw the images, read the stories, and opened their wallets both times. But there's always great suffering in the world, usually preventable, at the hands of corrupt and despotic governments that prioritize gold-fixtured mansions for the rich over basic services for the desperately poor. Why are we not moved by this, why do we not insist that our government do something? Because it's due to a government's actions rather than nature? Why is the suffering of a tsunami victim more worthy of help than one of the many Zimbabwean citizens scrounging through garbage for food? I guess, because we've gotten used to that, as we've gotten used to the 40,000 traffic deaths per year. Tsunamis and earthquakes, like airplane crashes, are exceptional and startling events. It's true, also, that due to national sovereignty, the million who died in Rwanda or the million-plus who preventably starved in North Korea are widely seen as things we can do nothing about. But even if we could...

Bill Clinton has said that the biggest regret of his presidency is that he didn't send U.S. troops to Rwanda to prevent what happened, and it's easy to see why he regrets that. But the reason he didn't do it was that it was politically dangerous; U.S. citizens wouldn't have stood for our soldiers dying to prevent Rwandan deaths. 4,000 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq, and we stood for that because Bush 43 persuaded Americans that our interests were at stake. Probably he should have gambled his second term and sent the troops anyway, but more importantly, ordinary Americans should have read articles about what was going on, realized that our troops could save many lives, and urged Clinton to send them. But hey, there's always some African war going on somewhere, and we can't get involved in all of them, right? Even as the slaughter happened, public opinion about sending troops didn't change. The Rwandans who died would have gotten a lot more sympathy and help if they'd died in a tsunami instead of being macheted to death.

I don't mean that people shouldn't send money to the Haiti relief charities. But it would be nice if we looked around the world to see what was going on all the time, not only when something big happens, and made it easier for our leaders to do the right thing when they have a chance.

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