Tuesday, September 30, 2008

We are not rational enough to be exposed to the press

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, mathematician and risk analyst, quoted in "How to keep your head in scary situations", New Scientist, 27 August 2008.

Context from the article:
Some argue that the media's focus on shocking or traumatic news stimulates the intuitive, non-thinking side of our decision-making and is at the root of many misjudgements. "We are not rational enough to be exposed to the press," says Nassim Nicholas Taleb, co-director of the Decision Research Laboratory at the London Business School. For an illustration of this, look no further than the vastly different perceptions of the risks from terrorism and lightning strikes, each of which has killed roughly the same number of Americans since records began.

A good example of how graphic media coverage can distort our perceptions of real events is the finding by James Ost at the University of Portsmouth, UK, and colleagues that people who were highly exposed to news reports of the terrorist bombings in London on 7 July 2005 were more likely to recall things about the attacks that they could never have witnessed, such as whether or not the bus that was blown up in Tavistock Square was moving at the time (Memory, vol 16, p 76).

. . .

Taleb thinks teaching people the facts about risks will not help to change behaviour. He says it would be more productive to teach people to screen out the information that distorts our decision-making than to teach them to use general information better. "If it was possible to teach people to adjust their behaviour to risks, we wouldn't have smokers. But we do. Our intelligence doesn't translate into behaviour the way we think it should."
Taleb is also quoted as saying:
"Put wax in your ears. People are more afraid of flying than driving because the press does not report car accidents. I never watch the news. Only listen to news you get in a social setting, the things people talk about. Our brains cannot deal with the overload of information. Having a lot of data is not good for anyone trying to make a decision."