Saturday, March 15, 2008

Imaging the Numerator

Good article. Hat tip Schneier.
Little research exists on the physical health effects of any risk disclosure, never mind the cumulative effects, although media saturation is being blamed for increased anxiety, stress and insomnia--gateways to obesity, high blood pressure, depression and other maladies. But the mental health effects of so much disclosure are reasonably well understood. Research suggests that it’s not only unproductive, but possibly counterproductive.

To understand how, I was sent to look up research from the late 1960s, when some psychologists put three dogs in harnesses and shocked them. Dog A was alone and was given a lever to escape the shocks. Dogs B and C were yoked together; Dog B had access to the lever, but Dog C did not. Both Dog A and Dog B learned to press the lever and escape the shocks. Dog C escaped with Dog B, but he didn’t really understand why. To Dog C the shocks were random, out of his control. Afterward, the dogs were shocked again, but this time they were alone and each was given the lever. Dog A and Dog B both escaped again, but Dog C did not. In fact, Dog C curled up on the floor and whimpered.

After that, the researchers further tested the idea of negative reinforcement, using babies in shock cribs. Baby A was given a switch that controlled the shocks. Baby B was given no such switch. When both babies were subsequently placed in cribs with switches that controlled the shocks, Baby A quickly stopped the shocks; Baby B just curled up and screamed.

The one that always annoys me is ignoring the base, or focusing on multipliers.
...focusing on multipliers instead of base rates, says Fischoff. For example, cases of the brain eating amoeba killing people have tripled in the past year. Yikes! That’s scary, and good for a news story. But the base rate of brain-eating bacteria cases, even after rate tripled, is six deaths. One in 50 million people. That’s less scary and also less interesting from the prurient newsman’s perspective.

OK, just kidding about the babies.
After that, the researchers tested the idea with positive reinforcement, using babies in cribs. Baby A was given a pillow that controlled a mobile above him. Baby B was given no such pillow. When both babies were subsequently placed in cribs with a pillow that controlled the mobile, Baby A happily triggered it; Baby B didn’t even try to learn how.

Risks of the sort discussed in this article are one thing. It's relatively easy to dispense with anxieties over the safety of kids in school buses, air travel vs. hijackers and death by sand hole. I'm not particularly worried about stuff like that.

Acceptance, though, has largely replaced anxiety with respect to the biggies (some of them very real, in my estimation).

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