Overweening Generalist

Monday, July 8, 2013

Digital Mindfulness and the Availability Heuristic

What the eff am I trying to get at? For one thing, I'm trying to remind myself...

Ezra Pound said that poetry was "news that STAYS news." And his friend William Carlos Williams said:

It is difficult
to get news from poems
But men and women die every day
for lack
Of what is found there

So, in a way, I'm talking about...poetry? (Huh?)

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky labeled one of our cognitive biases in making decisions about what to pay attention to or how we make decisions under uncertainty "the availability heuristic." Heuristics are methods of discovering or learning, by rules that are often not consciously known all that well. The availability heuristic has to do with how many instances you can come up with and how easily you come up with them. One study asked people about their own assertiveness. You think you're "assertive" to some degree. Okay, now you are asked to list six instances of your own assertiveness.

                                            Amos Tversky, who would have shared 
                                            the Nobel with Kahneman, if Amos
                                            hadn't died at 59

You may have done some thinking of your own assertiveness just now. But what if you were asked to list 12 instances of assertiveness on your part? Many people have a tough time with this. It was found that the difficulties of listing 12 made these people less likely to say they were an "assertive" person than the people who were only asked to list six. The people who listed six were more likely to call themselves "assertive." Why? Because of the relative ease of recall. The fluency of memory retrieval of only six items bested the difficulty of listing 12 items. When you're charged with recalling 12 instances in which you were assertive it's taxing, and you begin to assert that maybe you're not all that assertive. The examples weren't easily available - not 12! - and so your impression of some "fact" about "reality" has been altered. Weird...

We are wired with so much olde cognitive machinery that once served us well...and the most astonishing fact, and (maybe) the most amazing thing we've learned in psychology in the last 40 years is how those old "programs" are there, working marvelously, and yet they're unconscious...

Kahneman was always testing his own intuitive sense of what was likely, statistically. He writes in his magnum opus Thinking, Fast and Slow that "I recently came to doubt my long-held impression that adultery is more common among politicians than among physicians or lawyers. I had even come up with explanations for that 'fact,' including the aphrodisiac effect of power and the temptations of life away from home. I eventually realized that the transgressions among politicians are much more likely to be reported than the transgressions of lawyers or doctors. My intuitive impressions could be due entirely to journalists' choice of topics and to my reliance on the availability heuristic." (pp.7-8)

Call this a conspiracy theory, but the corporate media like to make money. They will report what they think we want to hear/read/think about. When I say "they" I largely mean the Editorial Mind At Large in the corporate media. Watch the local ABC/CBS/NBC/FOX "news." Keep a stopwatch and log all the minutes in one hour devoted to 1.) commercials, and for what sorts of products; 2.) sports; 3.) weather; 4.) celebrity scandals and marriages; 5.) "happy" talk among the broadcasters themselves, and 6.) some sort of random violence or robbery that occurred in the greater metropolitan area. You'll find it's almost the entire show, but you'll learn more if you try this for yourself for five to 10 hour-long "news" broadcasts.

If national or world events of significance are covered, they seem to receive a very superficial treatment and they NEVER deliver multiple viewpoints within a larger context of conflict. Why? Is it a conspiracy? I don't think so. I think they think they'll lose viewers (and revenue) if they make the news too pertinent, with too much depth, and with any sort of detail that would cause the sponsors to stop buying airtime.

But somehow, whether we try to avoid it or not, we still know who Paris Hilton is. We still find we've heard about that "senseless" shooting in the bad part of town. We know how beautiful the weather girl is on channel 7. We've heard that so-and-so has come out gay. That celebrity X has a drug problem, politician Y said something inflammatory and stupid, and what teams look to be in the Super Bowl or World Series or World Cup final. It's how we're wired. Read Robert Sapolsky on the sociality of baboons. Primates are like that. The old joke about the true intellectual? The one who hears the Overture to William Tell and never once thinks of the Lone Ranger? That person may be an intellectual, but he may also be autistic. It's quite normal to know what's going on in the larger tribe, no matter how petty the story. Intellectuals only pretend  they don't know who Kim Kardashian is. But let's not forget what our own values are.

I write this a day and a half after a plane crashed at San Francisco's main airport, and yes, it was really scary to think of myself or a loved one on that plane - terrorism seemed to get ruled out fairly quickly - but at the risk of sounding heartless, why was this covered so extensively? Freak stuff like that happens;  it really doesn't seem as pressing as about 85 other issues I could think of. You're far, far, far more likely to die in an accident at home or driving to the supermarket than when you take a flight. (There's another cognitive bias at work there, but then I run the risk of spending my digression too early in the blog.)

But I'm talking about my own values. I think the NSA case and the way some in the media have treated Snowden deserves the same wall-to-wall coverage a jet crash did.

                                                    Thomas Frank, co-founder of 
                                                    "The Baffler"

That's the idea behind this piece from R.J. Eskow. (I highly recommend it.) And I think he makes a compelling point. Thomas Frank's What's The Matter With Kansas? very persuasively (speaking for myself) made the point that the Republican Party influenced voters in that state to vote against their own interests because of the relentless playing off of deeply conservative social values in the electorate, while all those "social" conservatives being elected helped implement economic ideas that hurt the people who elected them. It's easier for most voters to think about stopping abortion than it is to understand international trade agreements that will ultimately send their job overseas.

Eskow here cites the unbelievably high approval of Obama among "liberals" even though Obama's policies look to the Right of Nixon's. And why? Because of same-sex marriage? That Democrats still think women should have access to reproductive rights? Eskow writes, "Democrats campaigned on populist themes in 2012, but as soon as the election was over the party's leaders returned to what Frank described in 2004 as 'endless concessions on economic issues, on welfare, NAFTA, social security, labor law, privatization, deregulation, and the rest of it.'" Eskow turns Thomas Frank's query to liberals and asks, "What's the matter with Liberal Land?" Indeed...

Hillary Clinton's economic policies are the same as Obama's, basically. A shorter way to put this is: we're totally fucked unless we can come up with someone who's truly an economic progressive. (Would Elizabeth Warren stand a chance? I admit I'm in love with her. There. I've said it, with my blog hanging out in front for everyone to see.)

Meanwhile, at least 20 million working-age adults in Unistat are unemployed or under-employed under Obama's "recovery." Why? Because fairly affluent liberals can get so worked up over morality issues like reproductive rights and gay marriage? And his very very George W. Bush-ist policies are okay because he seems like a good liberal guy, and he has a "D" after his name? It does indeed look like the Democrats have taken a page from the Republicans and what they were able to do to, as Thomas Frank so ably explained, in Kansas.

I find it difficult to disagree with Eskow when he argues there ought be no artificial divide between economic and social issues. Fairness, equal opportunity and justice before the law, the social contract, and that "people continue to suffer from rising poverty and the death of the middle class, regardless of sexual orientation" all seem to all be quite pressing "values" to me.

So: unless we take periodic time outs to tune out the noise of popular culture and the infotainment that passes as "news" (Nuzak?), and meditate on what really matters to us - the "news that STAYS news" to us - we can easily get derailed.

Notice how the "Fiscal Cliff" was covered wall-to-wall a few months ago? It was a manufactured disaster show for the proles and other workers and consumer-types - whether they were from Kansas or San Francisco. We let it happen. I found it embarrassing. Politics as cliff-hangers and dramatic "show-downs" is just too fascistic to me; I agree with Walter Benjamin on this. But if you asked anyone about the Fiscal Cliff, they had something to say. It had been made quite available to the public. Meanwhile, the urban police are becoming more and more militarized, the NSA stuff finally made everyone pay attention to the Panopticon, no significant banking reform has occurred, Obama has a private "kill list" - apparently - and our prisons are becoming evermore privatized, with investors seeking assurance they will be kept at 90% capacity. And our financial system has become Vegas without the glitz. Isn't that enough to keep Pretty Actress's "baby bump" out of the news, for, say...two days? Please?

And yes, a new season of American Idol will soon be upon us. Or: we can turn off the TV and read poetry instead?

If, as an ancient tradition holds, there's some infinite spark of something divine that's unique to our individuality and all that, your deeply felt and thought values are worth meditating upon more often, aye? Are they deserved of articulation?

To note the normal bias of the availability heuristic, just keep testing yourself. I'm astonished at how often I'm guessing based upon a few things easily available to my memory. Am I gambling? Yes, and so are you. Why do I assume this or that is true? Do I have enough data? No matter how educated, you'll find yourself having made assumptions that were quite wrong, often due to the availability heuristic. (Kahneman and Tversky were amused by how wrong their "intuitions" were when they tested them, and they were truly Nobel-worthies.)

What if I look at the studies and stats? When I find out I was wrong, I learn something. I like how Kahneman, when writing about the media and issues and values and the availability heuristic, says that when Michael Jackson died you couldn't find any other issue covered in the news for a week, when less exciting but more impacting issues such as declining educational standards or over-investment of medical resources in the last year of life were surely worthy of public discussion...then he admits he used those two examples because they were the ones available to his mind at the time, and that "equally important issues that are less available didn't come to mind." He noted that medical resources and declining standards had been mentioned often.

What is it that isn't being mentioned but is very important to you? And how will this situation be ameliorated? Have I made the availability heuristic more available to you?

I end by asserting that the more famous and beloved a just-dead celebrity, the less available urgent information becomes, and so formulate an OG maxim:

A newly dead beloved celebrity is a national nuisance.


JD said...

Here we are a-sailing, adrift without a dream.
We live for God and country, and yes, our God is green.
So put your arms around me until the break of dawn,
'Cause late at night the great and mighty Wurlitzer plays on.

Here we are a-sailing, adrift without a dream,
And though the news is frightening, it's never what it seems.
So put your arms around me until the break of dawn,
'Cause late at night the great and mighty Wurlitzer plays on.

michael said...

This reminds me of that quasi-doc where Lewis Lapham tutors a young college kid about how to make it in the Ruling Class; I forget the name. Lapham was a very rich kid, raised in San Francisco, but he's also a patriot and hates what the Monied Class has done to the country.

Or did you get this from that book on the CIA?

Anyway, thanks for the cryptic quote. It fits this blog. It fits with the content of it, if the reader has the wits to figure it out.

JD said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JD said...

h/t Lapham. The lyrical poem came to me this morning while reading your latest. I had to comment and get it out of my system.

The doc is called the American Ruling Class (watch that one, OG readers, if you haven't already).

I love your work, Mike. Please keep it up.

Eric Wagner said...

Great stuff, as usual. I do love American Idol and reading poetry, though.

I enjoy "The Daily Show," "Real Time with Bill Maher" and "The Colbert Report" infinitely more than "the news," which I virtually never watch.

BTW, I loved "The Fall." - http://www.newrepublic.com/article/113713/fall-bbc-and-netflix-reviewed-david-thomson

michael said...

I like Daily and Colbert too. I read in a few places that "millenials" don't watch TV much, but they tend to get ideas about national new events from Daily Show more than the Ruling Class's "news" on ABC/NBC/CBS/FOX.

The New Rules bit at the end of Real Time has some of the sharpest writing on TV.

With DVRs/Tivo/Roku (and other digital platforms that allow you to stream what you find online to your TV) seems to me so different from watching the 12 channels we had as a kid...and we had to get up and change the channels by hand...it's a completely different experience. I DVRed a baseball game and watched it all in about 75 minutes.

With Netflix streaming...wow. I had never seen "Weeds" because we didn't subscribe to Showtime. I watched all 8 seasons of Weeds in three weeks recently.

I love TV, actually. But I rarely find the time to watch what I THINK I want to watch. TCM is one of the joys of my life.

michael said...

@JD: thanks for the encouragement/aiding and abetting.

Aye: The American Ruling Class! I caught that late at night on The Movie Channel (or was it IFC?). Anyway, I saw Lapham was in it, so I watched it.

I once had an Anthropology professor who was so good I was disappointed when each 90 min class was over. He once lectured on al the world's peoples and classes and tribes and who were the easiest to study for anthropologists/sociologists, and who were the toughest. The very wealthy were the most difficult, because they can insulate themselves from scrutiny. We rely on insider-guys like Lapham for clues to this class. Gore Vidal was another. And then there are those who are not from that class, but rise to some level where they are allowed access to their clubs, their candid talk amongst each other, etc. Veblen is my favorite here, along with C. Wright Mills.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I managed for years to avoid finding out who Kim Kardashian is. When I found out, I was sorry.

My favorite uncovered issue is the positive side of free trade and free immigration. There are endless exaggerated horror stories about how "those people" are supposedly taking away our jobs. There's almost nothing about how they contribute to our standard of living, or why desperately poor people in other countries should be denied opportunities. (I agree that action is badly needed to help low-income and jobless people in this country, but I think encouraging everyone to hate on foreigners is a distraction.)

Suzanna B. Stinnett said...

Hey Michael, I found your blog after you signed up for my user group on Meetup - Bay Area Bloggers Society. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. There are a decent handful of members of my group who will deeply appreciate your writing too. What you're doing is why I have loved The Blog since the day it popped into existence. See you later - Suzanna Stinnett

michael said...

@Tom: sorry to have taken so long to respond, but I agree completely that the contributions of immigrants is hardly ever acknowledged, yet it's a huge contribution. It seems we only hear/read about it from a defensive viewpoint after a racist or quasi-racist attack.

Established groups have attacked the Irish and Italians as inferior "races" when they arrived in waves of migration in the late 19th century.early 20th. And, as I see it, the Ruling Class has always played the middle/lower middle classes off against the immigrants. Same old game from here to eternity...

michael said...

@Suzanna: thanks for the choice vibes!