“The cognitive bias psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman have shown that people intuitively estimate relative frequency using a shortcut called the availability heuristic: the easier it is to recall examples of an event, the more probable people think it is. People, for example, overestimate the likelihoods of the kinds of accidents that make headlines, such as plane crashes, shark attacks, and terrorist bombings, and they underestimate those that pile up unremarked, like electrocutions, falls, and drownings.”
Steven Pinker “The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence In History And Its Causes“
There are any number if good news snippets in Steven Pinker’s book. He eloquently describes the continuous and ongoing improvement in the quality of human life through history.
Modern life is much, much better than you think.
No one would choose life at any time in history over modernity if it were judged by likely exposure to violent death or injury.
In short, we don’t know how lucky we are.
The availability heuristic is one of the reasons why we are not convinced that it is way safer to be alive and stay alive today than it was at any other time in our past. It seems that the human mind is very good at recalling what happens to us most recently or what we hear about most often. Not so much when it comes to distant memory or rare occurrences. And this makes good evolutionary sense.
The ability to remember recent dangers would be a handy advantage should those dangers still be around and hiding behind a bush, lions for example.
It also helps to remember where to find water or just how much novelty you can go for in the food you eat without risk of Delhi belly. Recalling the colour, size and taste of the berry that made you vomit is handy indeed.
When the availability heuristic evolved people lived in the immediate. They needed to identify and remember novelty to survive and prosper. Ease of recall for important things that their senses experienced really helped without the means to write anything down or to ‘hey Google’.
Back in the day when our senses sampled the world that was at our fingertips and ended at the horizon, we were the filter of novelty. Each human sampled events that were in front of them and individuals who were good at recognising and remembering novelty had an advantage in avoiding risk and recalling the good stuff.
This makes ‘headlines’ the keyword in the quote from Pinker. We are no longer the filter of novelty. Our handheld devices are. They present us with the majority of novelty and, surprise, surprise, they bombard us with things we remember… because the people sending the messages want to be noticed.
Falls and drowning do not make headlines because they are familiar enough to be outside the heuristic. It’s not called clickbait for nothing.
Interestingly though, the heuristic and cognitive bias might be changing.
Instead of remembering the novelty all that a click baiter needs is to draw our attention briefly. Just long enough to click. So we are bombarded with cute, funny or weird that taps the heuristic but with no advantage. Arguably the novelty avalanche is meaningless drivel with all real advantage going to the providers, not the consumers. And so it is.
Presumably though as the number of cute cat events increase in proportion toward one, the snippet of real news might become easier to recall for its novelty value alone.
That would be an irony, wouldn’t it?