The neglectful brain

The human brain may be the smartest dumb thing on the planet. The same organ that came up with a solution for how to breathe in space also can’t figure out that it’s more dangerous to drive to work in the morning than it is to fly to another state. Those links aren’t going to ease your fears if you’re afraid of flying or cause a phobia of driving because your brain doesn’t care about numbers. Once it perceives something as dangerous it’s stuck in that way of thinking.

Take a 50-50 chance and flip a coin. Graphic by Kate McHugh.
Take a 50-50 chance and flip a coin. Graphic by Kate McHugh.

It’s called neglect of probability. What it means is that the brain doesn’t value chance happenings. According to the brain, there’s very little difference between a one percent chance of something occurring and a 99 percent chance of something occurring, ignoring all those little 97 points in-between. Either something will happen or it won’t, which logically is almost never the case. This 50/50 reasoning leads to a lot of problems by itself, but the brain can be further influenced by arbitrary things.

The Gambler’s Fallacy is the belief that an event is either more or less likely to occur despite no change in chance. A six-sided die may roll a three ten times in a row, but the actual chance that it rolls a three the eleventh time is still what it always was – one in six. More likely, though, is that that die is loaded. The same superstition that an outside force influences events applies to lottery tickets, weather and Las Vegas. No matter how wrong it is, the gambler’s carrot is too distracting from the stick.

Emotion plays a huge factor in determining how a person perceives an outcome. Cass Sunstein wrote how emotional ploys can draw a person’s attention to an unlikely outcome during legal trials. Sunstein researched this phenomenon by giving 83 law students a survey about how likely they were to pay to decrease a risk, in this case removing arsenic from water. He created four groups, divided by probability of risk and the emotional content of the questionnaires. The probabilities were one in 1,000,000 and one in 100,000. Group three and four’s questionnaires contained graphic descriptions of the cancer the arsenic might cause. Those groups were willing to pay more than the groups with the questionnaires without emotional appeals, but the students were not willing to pay proportionally to the probability of risk.

Sunstein’s research might have been a little biased. Those were law students after all, and lawyers-in-training are still lawyers at heart. Here’s a more common scenario – wearing a seat belt. A 1993 study described an event in which a woman died after her car fell into a lake because she couldn’t get her seat belt off in time. A group of subjects were asked how they felt about seat belts afterwards. The initial answers were typically “don’t wear seat belts,” but after being reminded that seat belts also protected you in a collision, the answers became mixed and confused. One subject responded, “If you have a long trip, wear your seat belts halfway.”

What are the chances we’d answer that question any better now?