Cognitive Bias and the Gun Debate

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I teach a course at my Canadian university on the Psychology of Thinking and in this course, we discuss topics like concept formation, decision making, and reasoning. Many of these topics lend themselves naturally to the discussion of current topics and in one class last year, after a recent mass shooting in the US, I posed the following question:

“How many of you think that the US is a dangerous place to visit?”

About 80% of the students raised their hands. This is surprising to me because although I live and work in Canada and I’m a Canadian citizen, I grew up in the US; my family still lives there and I still think it’s a reasonably safe place to visit. Most students justified their answer by referring to school shootings, gun violence, and problems with American police. Importantly, none of these students had ever actually encountered violence in the US. They were thinking about it because it has been in the news. That were making a judgment on the basis of the available evidence about the likelihood of violence.

Cognitive Bias

The example above is an example of a cognitive bias known as the Availability Heuristic. The idea, originally proposed in the early 1970s by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979; Tversky & Kahneman, 1974) is that people generally make judgments and decisions on the basis of the most relevant memories that they retrieve and that are available at the time that the assessment or judgement is made. In other words, when you make a judgment about a likelihood of occurrence, you search your memory and make your decision on the basis of what you remember. Most of the time, this heuristic produces useful and correct evidence. But in other cases, the available evidence may not correspond exactly to evidence in the world. For example, we typically overestimate the likelihood of shark attacks, airline accident, lottery winning, and gun violence.

Another cognitive bias (also from Kahneman and Tversky) is known as the Representativeness Heuristic. This is the general tendency to treat individuals as representative of their entire category. For example, suppose I formed concept of American gun owners as being violent (based on what I’ve read or seen in the news), I might infer that each individual American is a violent gun owner. I’d be making a generalization or a stereotype and this can lead to bias in how a treat people. As with availability, the representativeness heuristic arrises out of the natural tendency of humans to generalize information. Most of the time, this heuristic produces useful and correct evidence. But in other cases, the representative evidence may not correspond exactly to individual evidences in the world.

The Gun Debate in the US

I’ve been thinking about this a great deal as the US engages in their ongoing debate about gun violence and gun control. It’s been reported widely that the US has the highest rate of private gun ownership in the world, and also has an extraordinary rate of gun violence relative to other counties. These are facts. Of course, we all know that “correlation does not equal causation” but many strong correlations often do derive from a causal link. The most reasonable thing to do would be to begin to implement legislation that restricts access to firearms but this never happens and people are very passionate about the need to restrict guns.

So why to do we continue to argue about this? One problem that I rarely see being discussed is that many of us have limited experience with guns and/or violence and have to rely on what we know from memory and from external source and we’re susceptible to cognitive biases.

Let’s look at things from the perspective of an average American gun owner. This might be you, people you know, family, etc. Most of these gun owners are very responsible, knowledgeable, and careful. They own firearms for sport and also for personal protection and in some cases, even run successful training courses for people to learn about gun safety. From the perspective of a responsible and passionate gun owner, it seems to be quite true that the problem is not guns per se but the bad people who use them to kill others. After all, if you are safe with your guns and all your friends and family are safe, law abiding gun owners too, then those examples will be the most available evidence for you to use in a decision. And so you base your judgements about gun violence on the this available evidence and decide that gun owners are safe. As a consequence, gun violence is not a problem of guns and their owners, but must be a problem of criminals with bad intentions. Forming this generalization is an example of the availability heuristic. It my not be entirely wrong,  but it is a result of a cognitive bias.

But many people (and me also) are not gun owners. I do not own a gun but I feel safe at home. As violent crime rates decrease, the likelihood being a victim of a personal crime that a gun could prohibit is very small, Most people will never find themselves in this situation. In addition, my personal freedoms are not infringed by gun regulation and I too recognize that illegal guns are a problem. If I generalize from my experience, I may have difficulty understanding why people would need a gun in the first place whether for personal protection or for a vaguely defined “protection from tyranny”. From my perspective it’s far more sensible to focus on reducing the number of guns. After all, I don’t have one, I don’t believe I need one, so I generalize to assume that anyone who owns firearms might be suspect or irrationally fearful. Forming this generalization is also an example of the availability heuristic. It my not be entirely wrong,  but it is a result of a cognitive bias.

In each case, we are relying on cognitive biases to infer things about others and about guns. These things and inferences may be stifling the debate

How do we overcome this?

It’s not easy to overcome a bias, because these cognitive heuristics are deeply engrained and indeed arise as a necessary function of how the mind operates. They are adaptive and useful. But occasionally we need to override a bias.

Here are some proposals, but each involves taking the perspective of someone on the other side of this debate.

  1. Those of us on the left of the debate (liberals, proponents of gun regulations) should try to recognize that nearly all gun enthusiasts are safe, law abiding people who are responsible with their guns. Seen through their eyes, the problem lies with irresponsible gun owners. What’s more, the desire to place restrictions on their legally owned guns activates another cognitive bias known as the endowment effect in which people place high value on something that they already possess, the prospect of losing this is seen as aversive because it increases the feeling of uncertainty for the future.
  2. Those on the right (gun owners and enthusiasts) should consider the debate from the perspective of non gun owners and consider that proposals to regulate firearms are not attempts to seize or ban guns but rather attempts to address one aspect of the problem: the sheer number of guns in the US, any of which could potentially be used for illegal purposes. We’re not trying to ban guns, but rather to regulate them and encourage greater responsibility in their use.

I think these things are important to deal with. The US really does have a problem with gun violence. It’s disproportionally high. Solutions to this problem must recognize the reality of the large number of guns, the perspectives of non gun owners, and the perspectives of gun owners. We’re only going to do this by first recognizing these cognitive biases and them attempting to overcome them in ways that search for common ground. By recognizing this, and maybe stepping back just a bit, we can begin to have a more productive conversation.

As always: comments are welcome.

One thought on “Cognitive Bias and the Gun Debate

  1. natewinchester

    So why to do we continue to argue about this? One problem that I rarely see being discussed is that many of us have limited experience with guns and/or violence and have to rely on what we know from memory and from external source and we’re susceptible to cognitive biases.

    Quite true, like in this article where you state: If I generalize from my experience, I may have difficulty understanding why people would need a gun in the first place whether for personal protection or for a vaguely defined “protection from tyranny”. From my perspective it’s far more sensible to focus on reducing the number of guns.

    It apparently never occurs to you that there are more dangers than criminals which guns protect you from. Or as Peter Grant here points out multiple times he trains disabled or handicapped people in firearms because they’re seen as easy targets for criminals.

    It’s a larger world out there beyond your cognitive bias, and what bugs a lot gun owners is that the gun controllers can’t seem to think about a world beyond their enclaves.

    (there also seems to be a general ignorance as to guns in general and how simple a machine they are so when others start proposing regulations, it becomes a comedy on what is supposed to be regulated – assuming the regulation doesn’t already exist)

    Reply

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