Narrative fallacy and the impact of the news

Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman, copyright Daniel Engber,

I am currently reading Daniel Kahneman’s great book Thinking, Fast and Slow, where he sheds light on the many different forms of cognitive misconceptions that humans make on a daily basis. Even though there are many striking observations and results from experiments about human behaviour and cognition, the following is particularly interesting to me, found on page 199 of the book–

In The Black Swan, [Nassim] Taleb introduced the notion of a narrative fallacy to describe how flawed stories of the past shape our views of the world and our expectations for the future. Narrative fallacies arise inevitably from our continuous attempt to make sense of the world. The explanatory stories that people find compelling are simple; are concrete rather than abstract; assign a larger role to talent, stupidity, and intentions than to luck; and focus on a few striking events that happened rather than on the countless events that failed to happen. Any recent salient event is a candidate to become the kernel of a causal narrative. Taleb suggests that we humans constantly fool ourselves by constructing flimsy accounts of the past and believing they are true.

So we are easy pray to biased and rare events which we tend to believe are the truth and common! This crucial observation implies that what we watch on the news, our mind tells us is true and common — “so these things do happen”.

In today’s world, terrorists are the most significant practitioners of the art of inducing availability cascades. With a few horrible exceptions such as 9/11, the number of casualties from terror attacks is very small relative to other causes of death. Even in countries that have been targets of intensive terror campaigns, such as Israel, the weekly number of casualties almost never came close to the number of traffic death. The difference is the availability of the two risks, the ease and the frequency with which they come to mind. Gruesome images, endlessly repeated in the media, cause everyone to be on edge. As I know from experience, it is difficult to reason oneself into a state of complete calm. p 144

In many cases, news items are chosen by editorial teams of newspapers and TV for the ‘rare’ occurrence of a particular events. An example I read in a book on journalism, was “Man bites dog”, instead of “Dog bites man”. And there you go, its all across the news for its news worthiness. And if Professor Kahneman of Princeton University is right, then our perceptions towards the idiotic notion of a man biting a dog have changed, and we would guess the chances of such a thing occurring much higher then we did before we read/saw this news.

After having read these stories, I thought about how I changed my behaviour according to what I read in the news. One occasion has been my decision not to fly with Ryanair because I read and saw, the story that Ryanair flies its plane with the bare minimum of fuel the aircraft needs to arrive at its destination — when deciding on fuel levels, its all about cost minimisation and possible detours in emergency situations are not taking into account.

In the weeks that followed I had to buy a flight ticket from either Ryanair, or another airliner. The Ryanair ticket was slightly cheaper, but I opted for the other airliner, because this recent news story, had frightened me. “What if there is an emergency?” came to my mind, clearly manipulated by this whole story, even though I ‘knew’ that an accident with an airport is much smaller than for instance with a car.

Another finding is the impact of media coverage on people’s estimates of the chances of death for pairs of possible causes:

  • Strokes cause almost twice as many deaths as all accidents combined, but 80% of respondents judged accidental death to be more likely.
  • Tornadoes were seen as more frequent killers than asthma, although the latter cause 20 times more deaths.
  • Death by lightning was judged less likely than death from botulism even though it is 52 times more frequent.
  • Death by disease is 18 times as likely as accidental death, but the two were judged about equally likely.
  • Death by accidents was judged to be more than 300 ties more likely than death by diabetes, but the true ratio is 1:4.

The examples are found on page 138.

With the wisdom of the above, one can only guess what a huge impact news shows have on the perceptions and beliefs of their viewers… And the effects could be detrimental in some cases. Popular support for foreign intervention or an invasion do matter and shape policies. Which incorrect ‘findings’ on the impact of climate change on the environment has caused global policy guidelines to be changed because of public opinion? I don’t know, but humans are prone to get lost in facts and statistics, and easily believe nonsense, if it sounds plausible.


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