"Availability bias" is our tendency to reason from the most readily available evidence. It’s often illustrated as explaining why people often think flying is more dangerous than driving. We see more news reports about plane crashes than about car crashes. Since evidence of plane crashes is more readily available, we tend to think planes are more dangerous.
Plane and car crashes both happen in real life. They also both happen in movies and TV shows, as do a whole lot of good civilians protecting the innocent by shooting the bad guys.
Such gun heroics happen far less in real life, but when casually accessing available evidence we don’t often make the distinction between fact and fiction. There are very few news reports about gun heroics because they rarely happen. But that doesn’t matter if your evening’s entertainment is flooded with gun heroics.
On gun policy, the evidence that comes most readily to mind for most Americans is from screen fiction. With better technology and cinematic realism on the rise, screen fiction is increasingly realistic, making it even harder for us to distinguish fact from fiction.
There’s a whole lot of talk about whether screen violence promotes real world violence, but hardly any talk about whether screen violence promotes unrealistic policies for the real world. I’m betting it does.
Liberal Hollywood gun control advocates may be shooting themselves in the foot, maximizing violent entertainment value in screen fiction without recognizing that some people extrapolate directly from available entertainment to policy positions.
The gun lobby may be right in blaming violent movies for changing attitudes toward violence, but wrong about who it is effecting most: those who ignore the real-world evidence that guns don't make us safer because the fictional evidence that guns make us safer is more available.
And what kinds of people are most likely to blur the distinction between fact and fictionalization? In his new, important, and highly readable book, Superforecasters: The Art and Science of Prediction, the psychologist Philip Tetlock identifies a character distinction that, to me provides a clue.
Tetlock made a name for himself decades ago with studies that showed that expert prediction is rarely better than random guessing. Since then, he has been running very careful prediction contests to determine what kind of people have a predictive edge. This book distills his conclusions. If I were to recommend one book this year, Superforecasting would be it.
One factor seems to be how quick we are to translate real world events into fiction-like story lines. People who tend to ask “why did this happen?” and always have an available explanation turn out to be bad predictors of events.
These people are more likely to agree with statements like “Events unfold according to God’s plan. Everything happens for a reason. There are no accidents or coincidences,” and less likely to agree with statements like “Nothing is inevitable. Even major events like World War II or 9/ 11 could have turned out very differently. Randomness is often a factor in our personal lives.”
We all have an appetite for meaning, especially for ways to interpret the twists and turns of our lives as making some coherent, even epic sense as though we were the heroes of fiction. Tetlock finds that the best forecasters are people who can constrain this appetite, sobered by a more realistic understanding of probability.
Interestingly, research also suggests that people who can readily explain anything make the best liars. You could say that they have the deepest connection to the God of rationalization. They pray “God grant me one good reason for what I just did.” And the God of rationalization always provides.
Tetlock says, “Finding meaning in events is positively correlated with wellbeing but negatively correlated with foresight. That sets up a depressing possibility: Is misery the price of accuracy?”
To which I counter, is our horrific death toll the price of psychological well being for those who always have a simple explanation for everything?