How not understanding our biases leads to unintended consequences

Here’s a neat reminder from Peter Ubel’s blog that not understanding our biases leads to unintended consequences. He’s quoting from Alex Stone’s book, Fooling Houdini

When law enforcement agencies began putting pictures of missing children on the backs of milk cartons, for instance, the perceived rate of childhood abductions, as measured by national surveys, shot up drastically.

My reaction? “Ah, of course – it would, wouldn’t it?”. That’s how availability bias would work, because those cartons would be making child abduction more imaginable. Which flags up how many cultural practices there must be that, due to our biases, have results never imagined – both good and bad. The researcher in me wants to know about control or comparative data: to what extent did abduction fear increase in nations not putting missing children on people’s breakfast tables (for example, I don’t think this happened to any great extent in the UK, though perceived stranger danger has increased)? Were there states in the USA where this didn’t happen and, if so, how does the data differ?

But let’s take this at face value. The result of heightened fear is children being driven everywhere, not being allowed to play outside – which, in turn, impacts on public health / obesity, social capital, the environment, etc. In the UK, we now have the extraordinary situation where, in the space of a few days, England’s Chief Medical Officer has recommended gifting children vitamin D tablets (yes, the same vitamin D you get from being outdoors in the sun) and a group of venerable NGOs has felt the need to campaign for children to spend half an hour daily outdoors.

Now, let’s put this in perspective: no doubt there were positive outcomes from putting missing kids on milk cartons: children found who wouldn’t have been otherwise. So when I read Peter’s blog, I wondered if the people responsible for the milk carton approach would, on balance, believe it had been worth it. They might argue that it’s a non-issue, as no amount of fear is disproportionate in this instance. Either way (and this is my main point), I’m pretty sure that they would have had no expectation initially of heightening parents’ fear.

I’ve argued before that decision-making, policy-making and even politics can be better if we understand our human biases better. And I think this might be another example.

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