Tag Archives: Politics

Cognitive Bias and the Gun Debate

171017-waldman-2nd-amendment-tease_yyhvy6

image from GETTY

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.

The Unintended Cruelty of America’s Immigration Policies

static.politico

Image from https://goo.gl/HtfqLa

It is well documented that the Trump administration is pursing a senselessly cruel policy of prosecuting migrants at the border, detaining families, and incarcerating them in large, improvised detention centres. This includes taking children away from their parents and siblings and housing them separately for an extended period.

Pointlessly Cruel

Jeff Sessions has pointed out that this policy is “simply enforcing the law” and that it’s a deterrent. He lays any negative conseqences on the migrant families themselves, asking why they would risk bringing their children on this long and dangerous trek. Other members of the administration have pointed out that families who claim asylum at ports of entry are not being detained or split apart. This too is disingenuous, as the Trump administration has narrowed the reasons for asylum, and as the border has become increasingly militarized, migrants and asylum-seekers are being forced away from busy ports of entry and often into dangerous crossings.

 How did we get to this point? How did a nation which once prided itself on welcoming immigrants become a nation increasingly looking to punish individuals even as they seek asylum? Although some aspects of this cruel policy have long been present in America’s history, I think that particular fixation on migration from Mexico stems from an unintended starting point.

Unintended Consequences

A recent podcast by Malcolm Gladwell explored the causes and effects of the militarized US-Mexico border. I found this podcast fascinating and I recommend listening to it. To summarize, for most of the 20th century, into the 1960s and 1970s, migration between the United States and Mexico was primarily cyclical. Migrants from rural areas near the border in Mexico would move to the United States for work, stay for a few months, and move back to Mexico with their families. This was an economic relationship and it worked because the cost of crossing the border was essentially zero. If you are apprehended, you’d be returned but otherwise it allowed for the flow of migrants into the United States and out of the United States.

In the early 1970s, however, the US-Mexico border began to be militarized. It happened almost by accident. An extremely skilled and dedicated retired Marine General took over immigration and naturalization services and began to tighten up the way in which border patrols operated. There was never any intent to cause suffering.  On the contrary, the original intent seem to be to harmonize border enforcement with existing law  in a way that benefited everyone. But what happened was that as the borders became less porous, migrants began seeking out for dangerous border crossings. Often these were in the high desert where risk of injury and death was higher, as the cost of crossing the border back and forth increased due to this danger, migrants were less likely to engage in cyclical migration but rather stayed in the United States and either send money home to Mexico or brought their families here.

This has profound implications for the current state of affairs. As each successive administration cracks down on illegal immigration, tightens the border, and militarizes the border patrol, it increases the risks and costs associated with crossing back and forth. Migrants still want to come to America, people are still claiming asylum, but illegal immigrants in the United States are persecuted and stay in hiding. Every indication is that the worst possible thing that could be done would be the actual construction of a wall.  In some ways, an analogy can be drawn to desire paths in public spaces. There is a natural flow to collective human behaviour. Civic planning and architecture does not always match, but human behaviour will always win out. People will continue to migrate and this will continue to be a problem.

Gladwell doesn’t say this, but it seems to me that the most rational and humane solution is a porous border. In a porous border, illegal immigrants are turned back when apprehended, but in a straightforward way. People are not apprehended and put into detention centers. Families are not charged with committing a misdemeanour offence and jailed prior to their hearings necessitating the removal of the children. In a porous border, there is still border security but the overall level of enforcement is lower.  In addition, a policy like this could benefit from increased access to green cards,  recognizing that many migrants wish to work in the United States for a few months. Unfortunately, no one in the Southwest (or anywhere else in America) is going to win an election with the promise of “Let’s make our border more porous and engage in lax border security.” That will not sell. But the evidence presented by the Mexican migration project and reviewed by Gladwell in his podcast suggests this would still be the most rational solution.

More Objective Research

This is one of those cases where we need more objective policy research, less political rhetoric. Has anyone asked an algorithm or computer model to determine the ideal level of border security? How much flow is tolerable? How does one balance economic detriment to having a relatively free flow of migrants with the costs associated with apprehension detention and deportation, and any associated criminal proceedings. The latter are expensive and human-resource intensive. Do to the risks of a porous border justify these expenses?

The thing is, these are computational problems. These are problems that demand rigorous computational analysis and not moralistic grandstanding about breaking the law for fears of drugs and criminals poring over the border.

The evidence seems to suggest that for decades, the relatively porous border had no ill effects on American society and was mutually beneficial to the US and to Mexican border regions. Though unintended, the slow militarization of the US-Mexico border restricted migration, made it more dangerous, which led to real costs illegal immigration thus necessitating a stronger more militaristic response, which creates a feedback loop. The harsher the enforcement the worse the problem gets.

The current administration has adopted the harshest enforcement yet, one that in my view is intentionally cruel, is a clear moral failing, and one that may be destined to fail anyway.

Presidential Power Pose

The president at work

As much as I don’t want to write about US presidential politics, I was struck by a photograph that was released officially by the Office of the White House of the president hard at work during the government shutdown. As you can see, it is a staged photograph of the president sitting in the oval office at his desk on the phone. The photo has been mocked on line, but I’m not really interested in mocking any more.

Photo-1-1-1024x682

The president seem small and ill-at-ease in this official photo.

The first thing that struck me, was how small he looked. I am not a fan of the current US president, but he never struck me as a small person. In fact, many people commented during the 2016 election on his body language.

During the campaign

In the following picture, one that has also been seen by millions of people, candidate Trump is seen glowering and looming over candidate Hillary Clinton.  He appears aggressive, ready to attack (not in a good way).

Campaign 2016 Debate (5)

Candidate Trump looms and glowers over Hillary Clinton.

In other debates in appearances, he commanded attention. During the Republican convention, I even commented to friends that I thought he was going to win the election. He stood up there, absorbing the crowd energy, and fully in control of the vibe (so much so that I felt uneasy for days afterward). In other campaign rallies, for better or worse, he commanded attention. An attribute no doubt honed and developed in the aggressive world of NY/international real estate development, casinos, pageants promotion, and reality TV. You don’t have to be a fan is his to notice this.

But in the “at work at the desk” photo, he seem so very small. Much smaller than his actual size (6’2” or 6’3” depending on who you believe). The desk is too big for him, too consequential. Even the hat seems too large. He appears to be diminished. I don’t think you need to oppose the president to notice this. He really does seem to be making himself smaller, or is unable to make himself appear big enough.

Body language never lies

Body language is a fascinating subject, it’s the domain of ethnologists , comparative psychologists, and social psychologists. Our body language often conveys things that may be at odds with spoken language. It often gives away something that we may wish to conceal. Our body language is the link to the more primitive self. The inner ape that often is concealed and covered over by culture, language, and society. In the president’s photograph, the body language reveals a man who does not belong, who is out of place, and possible knows he is too small for the role.

Unlike the president’s spoken language, body language doesn’t lie.