Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Spectacular and the Important

You probably followed the story in the news. In December of 2006 three climbers went missing on Oregon's Mount Hood. Rescue teams converged, as did military aviation resources. The best guess was that they were near the summit but weather was so bad that searchers could not reach that area for nearly a week. Finally the weather changed allowing a search of the summit area, though it was a difficult operation. The body of one climber was found in a snow cave. The other two are still missing and presumed dead.

That sad event is only one of several high-publicity searches in which I've participated. At least four of them received worldwide news coverage. During the same years those publicized events occurred, our rescue team probably helped save many more people than we ever searched for, but those events will never make the evening news. The way we saved them was to simply provide information and advice that kept them out of trouble.

We have a public education program, which offers speakers to clubs, scout troops etc. We also put a team on Mount Hood during the peak climbing season to be ready in case of trouble and to talk to climbers. We have no way of knowing how many people made wiser decisions because of our outreach programs. We cannot know who would have been lost, injured, or killed had they not received that information. And of course the news seldom publicizes one of our people talking to a scout troop. Prevention is not as spectacular as is rescue.

The point of all this is that there is essentially no connection between how spectacular something is and its importance. Nor is there much connection between the obvious and the important. Millions of people go about their lives doing important things like raising children who grow up to be productive citizens. That is the most important job on the planet but it gets little attention. In fact in many circles people sneer at anyone “on the mommy track” as though that were a bad thing. Sadly, we tend to equate publicity or having lots of money with importance. Meanwhile we pay little attention to jobs that are important but not very lucrative.

This emphasis on the obvious is technically called “accessibility bias.” If something is very visible that skews our thinking, sometimes with disastrous results. It is the equivalent of the magician who distracts our attention with a lot of motion and color with one hand while the other hand does his tricks “hidden in plain sight” by our lack of attention to what is really happening.

The obvious, the most accessible, gets our attention. Such was the case when a young couple suffered a motorcycle crash. He appeared uninjured, his leather clothing having protected him from the abrasions he might have suffered. She, on the other hand, looked like something out of a nightmare (she had been wearing a bikini). There were scratches and abrasions all over her body. Everybody in the area wanted to help, especially her boyfriend. They called an ambulance which got her to the hospital where she recovered – in time to attend her boyfriend's funeral. He bled to death internally from a ruptured spleen. People had been distracted by her spectacular injuries so they overlooked his less obvious problems.

There are of course plenty of other examples of accessibility bias. The politician or activist who makes a lot of noise about some cause (which may already be improving). The salesperson or advertiser who calls our attention to the flashy aspects of a product, thus distracting us from the fact that we really don't need it. Even our own tendency to focus on a child's misbehavior and not notice that 95% of the time he is a loving, well-behaved young person.

What can we do about this? The only solution I know of is to pay more attention to all aspects of a situation. We can stop and think: What is that politician hiding: Is the child's behavior problem just an aberration. Is that news story really significant or just spectacular? That is not easy I know. We have to change habits. However it will be worth it.

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