Observable Heuristics

Here is a link to David Ropeik’s article on why people maintain irrational fears.


In this article, Ropeik uses a term he coined ‘perception gap’ to explain, not just how people maintain irrational fears, but why they do so. My assignment is to point out where explanations for why people maintain irrational fears coincide with the heuristic theories studied in psychology class.

Representative heuristic

I noticed a connection with Ropeik’s first point on why some people maintain a fear of vaccines, uncertainty. He explains that when we are uncertain about something, we grab on to anything that answers our questions. We do this to regain our sense of ‘knowing’ with which we can reestablish feelings of control. This made me think of the representative heuristic in the sense that we are constantly trying to find patterns in our environment. Our minds are evolutionarily pre-set to find these patterns and we are most comfortable when we can perceive them. There is a certain cognitive aversion in humans to not knowing, and being too uncertain about our things in our life causes us to feel afraid, anxious, worried, etc. This is how I think that the uncertainty issue is caused partly by our representative heuristic.

Confirmation bias

Ropeik’s next point is on trust. He states that when authorities dismiss our fears, our trust in the authorities goes down. As irrational as some of our fears might be, to us, they are as real and menacing as ever. Our biology is telling us that we should fear, yet the government and scientific reasoning is telling us that our fears are irrational. This is where I think Ropeik’s point relates to confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is our urge to prove things are the way we think they are by finding things that confirm our suspicions. The problem with confirmation bias is that we rarely try to find things that disprove our argument. To us, it is not as important as finding something that verifies our claims. In the situation described by Ropeik, authorities present information that does not support what we think. If we are using confirmation bias in our reasoning, then we are prone to dismiss the contrary information presented and lower our trust in the provider of the contrary evidence, the authorities. Our eagerness to prove our point can lead us to dismiss very relevant information through confirmation bias.

Belief perseverance

One of the points brought out by Ropeik is the human-made vs. natural. He explains that many people do not want vaccines because they feel as though vaccines are not natural because they are manufactured by humans (even though they are manufactured from natural substances). He gave an example of a woman who said she was less afraid of her child contracting measles than taking a vaccine because measles are natural. Most people, whether through scientific knowledge or common sense, would find this reasoning to be absurd, yet, even after being confronted with facts that demonstrate errors in an argument; people will stick to what they believe in. This is an illustration of belief perseverance. Belief perseverance is when we hold on to our beliefs even though contrary evidence is presented. The chapter explains that our opinions shape our beings in a way and to change the very things that define us is a very difficult process. Belief perseverance explains why people can sometimes be very obstinate in clinging to clearly incorrect ideas.

Availability heuristic

One of the causes of irrational fears that Ropeik mentions but does not elaborate on is the effect the media has on people. Ropeik states that even though they play a major part in the manufacture of irrational fears, cognitive psychology can answer the deeper questions as to why irrational fears are so present. When Ropeik is talking about the effect of the media, he is referring to the availability heuristic which is how what we see, hear, or read the most, becomes more significant and important to us. It does not matter how real or menacing the actual issue is because if it is readily available in our minds, then we see it as very important. An example could be someone who has no particular fear of the water or boating watches the movie “Titanic” one day and is suddenly deathly afraid to go on a boat or enter the water. The dangers of boating or the rates of boating accidents have remained the same from before the person watched the movie to after watching the movie, yet, to the person, these dangers are suddenly overwhelming. This shows how the availability heuristic can distort our perception of reality.


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