09 March 2010

Terrorism and the Availability Heuristic

I was thinking about the recent spat between Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham and the Minister for anything Penny Wong doesn’t want.

On the numbers, the Senator’s argument is water tight. There is no denying insulation killed more Australians than terrorism in the last 12 months.

In fact the last terrorist in Australia only managed to blow himself to hell. Before that you have to go back to the Hilton bombing in ’78.

So why does the PM get to launch into Birmingham like he just called cricket boring?

Why should we want to believe terrorism is more of a threat than dodgy pink batts?

It got me to reading the article on the Availability Heuristic referred to Stumbling and Mumbling.

The concepts are intuitively obvious - You believe something is more probably if you’ve personally experienced it. However, even if you have never experienced it yourself, if you hear about something happening all the time, you believe it is likely and common.

It seems likely, at least to me, that we evolved this way of thinking as primitive people where our news arrived from our own five senses and whatever we heard from our immediate family and neighbours.

So, sure, if you had personally been wandering in the valley to the north and got attacked by wolves, you damn well knew it was dangerous.

But, if three people told you that they each knew a bloke who got eaten by wolves in the valley just north of you, you tended to accept that that place was dangerous despite your lack of first hand evidence.

Those who just had to go see for themselves tended to have an abridged chance to pass on that non-survivor trait (but at least the wolves got a meal).

However, it seems this response is gamed in a world where we receive our news from around the world and where that news is highly refined to seek out the most macabre and sensational.

Any news story on terrorism is covered extensively, and when there is not enough actual terrorism to fill up the day we can always turn to Jack Bauer or the team from NCIS to remind us of the ever present threat.

As we see terrorism reported all the time, I think we end up thinking such an event is common (and more importantly imminent) against the weight of evidence.

Our evolution allows the brain to bypass facts to reach the conclusion that we are under threat from terrorism. The fear is real, even if the reason for it is an illusion.

On the other hand, who had even heard of the risks of insulation installation before February?

Our brains are not saturated with reports of imminent electrocution.

Hence: “Fear of pink batts? What are you a poofter?”

So the PM can ignore the facts and call Birmingham an idiot relying on the voters to do the same.

Of course he’s not the first PM to play the terrorist card

Heuristic wins, facts lose and back to the TV.


  1. Q: Why should we want to believe terrorism is more of a threat than dodgy pink batts?

    A: Because Jack Bauer busting dodgy pink batt installers every week would get tired real quickly.

  2. I wonder if the Heuristic phenomina is affected by the distance and racial ajustment factor.
    You know:
    1,000,000 masacered tutsies is regretable (Black)
    250,000 drowned indonesians is a passing lament (Dark brown)
    100,000 iraqui collateral casualties is cause for concern (Light brown)
    10,000 ethnicly clensed bosnians mandates immediate discussion (White but they talk funny)
    100 spanish blown up on trains is deplorable (White and they talk funny but they don't face saudi 5 times a day)
    3 australians blown up in a hotel in indonesia is an outrage (White and just like us)
    I scratch my car in the driveway is a tradgedy.