Newtown, availability bias, and why civil disobedience works

It is a well-known pattern in human behavior that people tend to overestimate the probability or frequency of any event which easily springs to mind. For example, Americans tend to greatly overestimate the number of minorities in the US. Why? Probably because minorities stand out, are striking, and therefore attract attention, and are easier to recall, particularly if one is prompted to recall people on the basis of their race. Similarly, people wildly overestimate the number of gays, and think there are a lot more immigrants than there really are. Again: gays and immigrants are striking, therefore easy to recall. Very few people are afraid of driving, but some are afraid of flying on airplanes, for safety reasons. In fact, flying is far safer than driving, but plane crashes, when they do (rarely) occur, are striking, and easy to call to mind. This common cognitive error is called “availability bias.”

Lately, I’ve been reminded of this by the national furor over the killings in Newtown, Connecticut, or Sandy Hook, or wherever (link). I don’t know the details: I have no interest in them. You shouldn’t either. It’s 20-some deaths, in a country of 300 million, a world of 7 billion: far below the number of murders that happen in the US a typical day, let alone deaths from AIDS or malaria. It shouldn’t be considered news. But one of the nuisances in an age of mass media is that availability bias and the media’s quest for profits conspire periodically to waste the nation’s time on events which ordinary people’s statistical ineptitude fool them into believing are important. Of course, you can say that every human life is enormous value if you like– I won’t contradict you– but then (if you want to be consistent) every birth, every marriage proposal (a landmark in most human lives), every heart-warming death in the midst of a loving family ought to be news too. People should resolutely ignore stories like that out of Newtown. The media should refuse to report on it. Such stories actually make people more ignorant, because they reinforce availability bias. The most scrupulously accurate reporting on extremely unrepresentative events is, an important sense, misinformation: people think they’re learning something about how the world world works, when they’re not. “Why is our age peculiarly haunted by nihilistic violence?” people might think. It isn’t: on the contrary, it is amazingly peaceful.

But availability bias has an upside. If we give disproportionate attention to particularly striking instances of evil, we can also give disproportionate attention to particularly striking acts, or lives, or courage, self-sacrifice, and zeal for truth. Heroes, one might say, are a function of availability bias. The hero leads one life but his example, his memory, may resonate in millions of lives. Grisly crimes seize our attention to our detriment; but the examples of heroes edify us, more or less. Of course, a lot of heroes actually set rather bad examples. Alexander the Great was brave, no doubt, and had some other virtues; but there is much about him that ought not to be emulated. Napoleon’s example exerted a decidedly negative influence on the life of Europe. I think, in particular, that he left behind a widespread impression– on Hegel, for example– that it is okay for certain great men, because of their world-historic importance, to violate the moral law. Che Guevara was a bad man. King David had his virtues– and his crimes. It’s better to think about heroes like these than to think about Newtown. They are (most of them) a more edifying subject for contemplation than that, and they are more genuinely important.

Here the heroes of civil disobedience occupy a special place. The archetype here is not a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King: they matter, but not just for their civil disobedience, for they were also eloquent and held positions of leadership. Rather, take someone like Rosa Parks. She was not in (much of) a position of authority (she was the secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP). At any rate, it wasn’t by using her position of authority that she made a difference. She simply disobeyed the order of a bus driver to sit in the “colored” section in the back of the bus. Or Mohamed Biouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who by lighting himself on fire in protest of police abuse, catalyzed the Arab Spring revolutions that proceeded to topple the governments of Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. Or many of the otherwise obscure individuals who through Christian martyrdom became enrolled in the lists of Christian saints and inspired people for centuries or millennia thereafter. The influence of these people depends on availability bias. I would argue, if pressed, that one ought to ignore an event like Newtown, because it is not actually important to the lives of almost anyone– it shouldn’t induce you to modify your behavior, or your opinions– and it’s not edifying to contemplate. It is appropriate to contemplate Rosa Parks or St. Vincent, because their lives are edifying. But I don’t think people focus on them just for the sake of being edified. They focus on them because they are striking; only in this case, it just so happens that they are striking in a good way.

Availability bias helps to explain why civil disobedience works, at least sometimes. Much more often, at any rate, than the merely numerical weight of civil disobedients in the human population would warrant. (Also see my post Why Jose Antonio Vargas Matters.)

UPDATE: I suppose I should make it clearer why this is related to open borders. It’s because I think civil disobedience is likely to be one of the means by which open borders is established. A lot of people will start out by being against the deportation of Jose Antonio Vargas, or some similar figure. In the course of much debate and mobilization, they’ll realize that they can’t justify restricting the set of the non-deportable in any reasonable, non-arbitrary way short of making everyone non-deportable, which, after phasing out the anomaly of trying to bar entry physically, will end in open borders.

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
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