Numbers & Statistics, Biases & Emotions

27 August 2008
Michael Bond
http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg19926711.500-how-to-keep-your-head-in-scary-situations.html

[...] So we are predisposed to trust arguments about the safety of nanotechnology, for example, if they are put forward by people of the same social class or of similar political leanings to us, and predisposed to reject arguments put forward by people whose values we reject – regardless of any views we may previously have held on the issue. Unfortunately, that bias won’t necessarily lead to the best choice, so the idea that simply distributing accurate information is the best way to get people to make informed decisions is flawed: people will reject it if it isn’t presented to them by people they feel sympathetic to. Officials or campaigners have to display a plurality of cultural leanings if they want to reach out to as many people as possible.

Changing our decision-making process to enable us to make better choices will not be straightforward. Emotion plays a powerful role in the process, so when we’re feeling fearful or insecure, statistics wither in the face of millennia of evolutionary adaptation.

This has led Slovic to suggest we need to imbue statistics with more emotional significance so that we take them to heart. “We learn how to deal with numbers from a young age as cold or abstract entities – to read them, add them, multiply them – but we don’t learn to think about how they represent reality in a way that conveys feeling and meaning. We need to think how to teach people to step away from their intuitive response, which is insensitive to magnitude, and think more carefully about what numbers represent.” [...]

the full article is available here.

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