by Tim Cushing

Filed Under:
overreaction, risk analysis

Why Tragedies Result In Overreactions: 'Our Brains Aren't Very Good At Risk Analysis'

from the sold-down-the-river-by-our-own-intellect dept

Bruce Schneier has an excellent post over at CNN discussing why it's so easy for everyone from the general public to earnest politicians to draw the wrong conclusions after major tragedies, like the recent shooting in Aurora. Occasionally, a horrific incident will result in a positive change in existing laws or some much-needed rethinking of current policies and procedures. More often than not, though, the conclusions and lessons drawn from the experience are just flat out wrong. It's not as if anyone truly aims to make the world worse post-tragedy, it's just that the human brain is more than happy to sabotage better rationale, thanks to its inherent limitations.
The problem is that fear can cloud our reasoning, causing us to overreact and to overly focus on the specifics. And the key is to steer our desire for change in that time of fear.

Our brains aren't very good at probability and risk analysis. We tend to exaggerate spectacular, strange and rare events, and downplay ordinary, familiar and common ones. We think rare risks are more common than they are. We fear them more than probability indicates we should.

There is a lot of psychological research that tries to explain this, but one of the key findings is this: People tend to base risk analysis more on stories than on data. Stories engage us at a much more visceral level, especially stories that are vivid, exciting or personally involving.
Schneier puts it more simply:
If a friend tells you about getting mugged in a foreign country, that story is more likely to affect how safe you feel traveling to that country than reading a page of abstract crime statistics will.

Novelty plus dread plus a good story equals overreaction.
While people might be swayed (through no fault of their own) by little more than anecdotal evidence, the real danger lies in legislators drawing the same bad conclusions from the same limited data. This knee-jerk legislative reaction is so common by now that it has its own truism: laws named after crime victims and dead people are usually a bad idea. Beyond simply being an under-thought effort to "do something," the laws conflate the victim with the law itself, leading the public to believe that voting against the law is the same thing as voting against an innocent person.

Because of these factors, bad laws are pushed through with a minimum of resistance. In the aftermath of a tragedy, public opinion is usually on the side of the politicians looking to "do something." It's inconceivable to many people for a horrifying event like this to pass without some sort of reaction from their elected officials. Will bad laws follow the Aurora shooting? Well, it remains to be seen how "bad" any legislative attempts will be, but it's pretty much guaranteed that these attempts won't result in good laws or even necessary laws.

Public opinion is already on the side of legislators interested in reacting through legislation. A recent Rasmussen poll showed that more than half of those surveyed feel that violence in movies and video games leads to more violence in society. Another 14% were undecided.

The first politician to take a swing at "doing something," Senator Frank Lautenberg, is using the Aurora shooting to revive his dormant gun control bill (which was introduced after another rare occurrence -- the Tuscon, AZ shooting that wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords), going so far as to have his bill grafted onto CISPA as an amendment in order to expedite its passage. His bill/amendment adds an ID requirement to the purchase of ammo in hopes of preventing a singular incident (a person purchasing 6,000 rounds of ammo via the internet and opening fire in a crowded movie theater) from happening again.
Lautenberg says his bill could help to prevent the sale of ammunition "to a terrorist or the next would-be mass murderer."

"If someone wants to purchase deadly ammunition, they should have to come face-to-face with the seller,” Lautenberg said in a statement. “It's one thing to buy a pair of shoes online, but it should take more than a click of the mouse to amass thousands of rounds of ammunition."
While it's a given that the bill won't actually keep ammunition out of the hands of "terrorists" or "mass murderers," one thing is certain: it will be heralded as a success by its supporters if another mass killing involving a gunman with thousands of rounds of internet-purchased, stockpiled ammo fails to materialize. This sort of post-hoc justification echoes the empty rationale surrounding post-9/11 legislation, as explained by Schneier:
Our greatest recent overreaction to a rare event was our response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. I remember then-Attorney General John Ashcroft giving a speech in Minnesota -- where I live -- in 2003 in which he claimed that the fact there were no new terrorist attacks since 9/11 was proof that his policies were working. I remember thinking: "There were no terrorist attacks in the two years preceding 9/11, and you didn't have any policies. What does that prove?"
Well, it proves that questionable legislation, given the right political climate, can sail through nearly uncontested. In Lautenberg's case, it simply proves that no pet legislation ever really dies. It just stays on life support until it's passed or the pet owner leaves office. Of all the possible legislative overreactions to a tragedy like this, Lautenberg's is rather tame. With Holmes failing to provide a more easily attacked target like video games or music, all that's left is Hollywood, and it appears that most politicians are wisely reluctant to invoke charges of censorship while simultaneously angering one of their greatest benefactors.

When the next tragedy occurs, the cycle will begin again, not because people are stupid or politicians are evil (although there are plenty of both), but because humans are humans. The anomalous will always be more frightening than the mundane dangers of everyday existence. The more unforeseeable the event, the more we look for ways to prevent its recurrence. A recent plane crash will cause some to alter travel plans, but a deadly pileup on the freeway, while a more likely danger, never sends drivers scurrying for the safety of mass transit. The most we can hope for is to maintain a sense of perspective and apply some hindsight in order to prevent instinctive reactions from negatively affecting our future.

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  1. icon
    Capitalist Lion Tamer (profile), 4 Aug 2012 @ 3:34pm

    Re: Gun Violence Is Not Rare

    I wouldn't say gun violence is rare in America, either. (In fact, I'm pretty sure I didn't.) These mass slayings are, considering the amount of the population with easy access to guns. That there is an "equivalent" of a mass slaying happening across the country every day isn't nearly the same thing when it comes to reactions from citizens and their elected officials.

    It could be put rather cruelly that nobody cares about 100 dead individuals scattered across the country. It's cruel, but there it is. There are a few gun control advocates who truly walk that same path each and every day. But many politicians (and members of the public) only get this idea in their head after a large scale tragedy. That's what I'm calling out. (And calling "reactionary.")

    Lautenberg's first try at tighter gun control immediately followed a mass shooting. So did his second try. You can't tell me this guy cares deeply about gun control. I think it might be one of his "key" issues but he's pulled the same move twice. That's why I'm calling this legislation "reactionary."

    I don't disagree with the fact that gun violence in America is a serious problem. But before I argue any further along these lines, I just want to lay down my personal feelings on the subject so there's no misunderstanding my following statements or mistaking me for representing something I am not.

    1. I don't own a gun. I don't plan to. I've lived nearly 40 years without one and I don't see it changing. Even if I moved to an area with higher crime, I can't see purchasing a gun for safety reasons. I think I would spend more time worrying about my kids possibly getting ahold of it or having it used against me by a criminal who's likely much more comfortable around firearms than I am.

    2. I live in a state that has one of the highest gun ownership rates in America. (Number 7 on this list.) Despite that, gun violence in the state is very low. So it's more than just guns. It's other issues.

    3. Despite the fact that I don't have a horse in this race (so to speak), I'm greatly disinclined to start advising others on how many horses they have and their feed-purchasing habits (again, so to speak).

    3.a. I'd be more willing to support various forms of gun control if the US legislative process wasn't known for its "feature creep." You often start off at something that seems useful and in the proximity of common sense (no more ordering a lifetime supply of bullets via the internet) and find yourself passing a wordy omnibus full of privacy invasions and rights erosion. Once you start ceding logical inches, they seem to think you've granted them free reign to start rolling up the miles.

    4. I do agree, however, that letting more private citizens carry a weapon in public will do little to prevent mass acts of violence. In Holmes' case, he was covered in body armor, making the theoretical "armed citizen" largely useless. Of course, a few warning shots might have scared him off. Who knows?

    But by and large, the problem with the armed citizen isn't that they don't know how to use their weapons or might freeze up when that moment comes, but rather that the mass murder has a leg up, psychologically. He came to kill. Fight-or-flight responses will vary, but the killer's won't.

    The flipside of this is that these recent mass slayings have all been performed in places that shooters would very likely run into little or no armed resistance: schools, malls, theaters. I might be wrong, but my gut feeling is that even the most die-hard gun supporter rarely takes their "conceal-and-carry" permit to mean that it's mandatory and their guns must accompany them to the theater, mall and school.

    After all that rambling, my feeling is this: I don't have a problem with making it tougher to purchase a gun. I think the effort should be made to ensure that the purchaser can be trusted with it. But, I'm not under any illusion that toughening this up or adding more parameters and waiting periods will have much effect on the amount of gun violence in the US.

    The unfortunate side effect of strengthening gun laws is that, much like DRM, it is more of a problem for good citizens than it is for criminals. If this sort of legislation isn't carefully written and consistently enforced, it will become like every other expansionary policy that starts out with its heart in the right place and ends up twisted bureaucratic annoyance.

    If you're thinking that I'm being completely churlish by not being willing to save a few lives in exchange for some additional hassle, so be it. I just don't see the heavy hand of legislation making much of an impact on violence statistics. I do, however, see it making an impact in unforeseen areas and laying the groundwork for further rights erosion.

    If laws based on response to violence actually worked, I wouldn't have to take my shoes off and step through a full-body scanner to get on a plane and I wouldn't have to dig out my birth certificate in order to get my driver's license renewed.

    But they don't. At least not the way we do them here.

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