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International Statistic of the Year – Annie’s Newsletter, Dec. 29, 2017


Americans killed by jihadists, armed toddlers, and lightning but no word on shark attacks 

The Royal Statistical Society (@RoyalStatSoc) made this its international statistic of the year:

I’m guessing a lot of people are surprised by both the infrequency of death by Islamic terrorists and the much greater frequency of death by falling out of bed. That’s because of availability bias. We estimate the frequency of events by how often we hear about them and/or how vividly we can recall them. The news gives us wall to wall coverage of every terrorist attack but we never hear about falling-out-of-bed deaths, so we overestimate the frequency of the first and underestimate the second. This isn’t just a weird curiosity for cognitive psychology types to explain in esoteric papers; our misperceptions drive policy decisions and allocation of resources around these threats.

Fun fact: These stats went viral when @KimKardashian tweeted them out last January.


If we weren’t built to be inflexible, we certainly evolved into it 

I’ve seen several pieces recently by excellent writers and thinkers on the subject of our tendencies toward inflexibility and their costs.

  • Malcolm @Gladwell gave an interview described in @BrainPickings. Among his excellent points, he said “that’s your responsibility as a person, as a human being – to constantly be updating your positions on as many things as possible. And if you don’t contradict yourself on a regular basis, then you’re not thinking.” For more highlights and the audio of the interview, click here.
  • Elizabeth Kolbert (@ElizKolbert) wrote a review of three books in @NewYorker, pointing out a common thread to the authors’ approaches to our behavioral biases: their root in human evolution. For descriptions of a range of views of modern cognitive science, as well as a summary of some of the classic experiments, click here.


A hopeful message for 2018: our wacky, widely divergent political views may help us

It seems every political discussion includes the acknowledgment that we’ll never get anywhere because of our increasingly polarized opinions. Almost always expressed or implied is the idea that expecting people to reason through strong disagreements is messy and fruitless.

Messy? Probably. But fruitless? Definitely not.

In behavioral science, it is generally recognized that viewpoint diversity helps, rather than hurts, decision making. A recent study, “The Wisdom of Polarized Crowds,” revealed how fundamental political differences led to a better product in the cutthroat, polarized world of crowdsourced internet knowledge: Wikipedia entries. (One of the tidbits noted in the study is that an editor of Hillary Clinton’s Wikipedia page spends about fifteen hours a week protecting the page from vandals.) The conclusion, from millions of edits to Wikipedia articles, was that “polarized teams – those consisting of a balanced set of politically diverse editors – create articles of higher quality than politically homogeneous teams…. [P]olitically polarized teams engage in longer, more constructive, competitive, and substantively focused but linguistically diverse debates than political moderates.”

… until Sunday, after which the reward drops to only $5 million

… or take your secret to the grave and try to win the growing lottery jackpots.52308b34-421e-4a5a-bf65-16f74022c306

Vermeer’s The Concert was one of the thirteen artworks stolen in 1990, in the world’s largest unsolved art heist. @NYTimes described how the Boston’s Gardner Museum increased the reward for the works’ recovery to $10 million. That’s an understandable bit of publicity to keep the search alive. Less understandable is a Museum representative’s statement that $5 million might not be enough to get someone to squeal, but $10 million would.


That quote reminded me of our irrationality in dealing with large numbers, which I blogged about regarding lottery jackpots. When it comes to the lottery-ticket sales, we act like a multi-week Powerball carryover is an unmissable deal, as if similar odds for the regular payout of “only” $40 million isn’t worth the bother. Why? Because we don’t really understand large numbers well so we assess them relatively rather than absolutely. We have become blasé about even $100 million payouts because we hear about them a lot. This means, to get us excited, the jackpot needs to keep getting bigger and bigger.

To no surprise, I wasn’t the only one to notice this. The lottery folks reduced the probability of winning Powerball in October 2015 and did the same two months ago with Mega Millions. @CNN noted that these changes make lottery carryovers more common, like right now, with each jackpot topping $300 million. The irrationality: as the probability becomes more remote, we become more interested in placing a bet on it simply because the jackpot seems big relative to other jackpots we have heard about.


The importance of listening to both sides on whether there are “levels” of inappropriate behavior

The #MeToo movement may be reaching a point where people with the same overall views start disagreeing when it comes to the details. That’s inevitable, but the question is whether such disagreements will lead to derailing the common cause. Matt Damon was recently upbraided for saying, in a TV interview, “There’s a difference between, you know, patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation, right? Both of those behaviors need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated, right?”

To me, it sounded like Damon was saying the equivalent of, “pushing someone and murdering someone are both wrong, but they’re also different.” A lot of people strongly considered his view incorrect or inappropriate. In a recent @NYTimes column, @BretStephensNYTexplained the criticism and offered a well-argued defense of Damon’s position. Whether you agree with Stephens’ defense of Damon or, especially, if you disagree, I think the piece is a must-read for finding clarity on the topic.