Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The emotional tail wagging the rational dog - III

When people are confronted with an overwhelming danger, they can adopt many different behaviours to reduce their fear. These may include denial, playing down the threat, fatalism, etc. These reactions are called maladaptations because they are responses that do nothing to reduce the level of risk. If something arouses a painful emotion, people may subconsciously suppress or deny it in order to avoid the unbearable pain, even though the practical consequences may be disastrous. There is an example of such a maladaptation in Collapse by Jared Diamond:
There is a high dam above a narrow river valley which is in danger of bursting.  When attitude pollsters ask people downstream of the dam how concerned they are about the dam’s bursting, the fear is lower far away from the dam and increases as one approaches closer to the dam. Nothing surprising there. The surprising finding is that, after you get within a few miles of the dam, where the concern is found to be the highest, the concern falls off to zero as one approaches closer to the dam! Thus the people who are most certain to be drowned profess unconcern. It would seem that the only way to preserve one’s sanity in the face of such danger is to deny its existence.
Sentences that are mathematically equivalent may not be psychologically so. How a statement is framed profoundly affects how a person views it. Two choices that are formally equivalent may have different emotional content and in their experiments, Kahneman and Tversky found that people consistently chose on the basis of their emotions. For example, they asked people the following two questions that are logically identical but framed differently: The first group of participants was presented with a choice between programs: In a group of 600 people,
Program A: "200 people will be saved"
Program B: "there is a 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved, and a 2/3 probability that no people will be saved"
72 percent of participants preferred program A (the remainder, 28%, opting for program B). The second group of participants was presented with the choice between the following: In a group of 600 people,
Program C: "400 people will die"
Program D: "there is a 1/3 probability that nobody will die, and a 2/3 probability that 600 people will die"
In this decision frame, 78% preferred program D, with the remaining 22% opting for program C. It was found that when things were stated in terms of death (second question), people prefer treatment D but when things are in terms of life, treatment A was preferred. When thinking about life, people seemed to prefer certainty, but when thinking about death, they seemed to prefer odds, probably because people seemed to think that they might overcome the odds.

In The Trouble with Testosterone, Robert Sapolsky wonders about applying Kahneman and Tversky's scheme to how firing squads are organized. In ancient times one shot may not kill a person. So there could be two alternative scenarios which are formally equivalent: either one man could fire five times or five people could fire once each. Sapolsky thinks that the second method was chosen because of the logical distortion it allowed: at some irrational level, it was easier for people to emotionally convince themselves that they had killed only one-fifth of a man. He writes:
Why do I think the firing squad was an accommodation to guilt, to the perception of guilt, and to guilty consciences? Because of an even more intriguing refinement in the art of killing people. By the middle of the nineteenth century, when a firing squad assembled, it was often the case that one man would randomly be given a blank bullet. Whether each member of the firing squad would tell if he had the blank or not - by the presence or absence of a recoil at that time of the shooting – was irrelevant. Each man would go home that night with the certainty that he would never be accused for sure, of having played a role in the killing.

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