Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Another Texas Refinery Explodes

I'm still shaking my head at this. And in related news, oil prices surpassed $100 a barrel. The wave of unintended consequences will surely reverberate in our respective hometowns soon.

And I'm still not over yesterday's beef recall. Somehow this story was brought up in my research methods class today - one of my students proudly exclaimed why she's chosen to become a vegetarian. Many were displeased when we discussed how Westport Meat Co is (was?) a supplier for the school-lunch programs.

But I suspect that knowing this information is not going to overthrow our meat-consuming habits. I went to the General Social Survey (it's a national data program for the social sciences) and found this question: "How often do you refuse to eat meat for moral or environmental reasons?" Of the 2,883 respondents, 69.4% said never.

I also read an interesting article about heuristics (i.e., mental shortcuts for finding a solution to a problem). In this report*, the researcher cited a statistic about the percentage of organ donors in the US and France. Whereas only 28% of Americans are potential organ donors, 99.9% of the French are organ donors. How can this be? Do the French have a superior moral consciousness? Are they more knowledgeable about the importance of saving lives by donating one's organs?

No. And no.

Instead, the researcher suggested these cultural differences are a result of a default heuristic (i.e., a general rule of thumb that says if there's a default, then do nothing about it). Our default heuristic is that noone's an organ donor unless you opt into the program. The opposite is true for the French, meaning their default is that everyone's an organ donor unless you opt out.

So today I learned that acquiring knowledge is sometimes not sufficient to produce a behavioral change; when knowledge is not power, we ought to reconsider our default heuristics so that we may change those defaults for a desired outcome.


* Gigerenzer, G. (2008). Why heuristics work. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 20-29.


Experimentaholic said...

I too am shocked at the oil prices, at the meat recall, at everything.

Heuristics make us smart because we're simply not that smart. For instance, take the task of catching a baseball. To determine where a hit will fall, the classical account claims that we somehow calculate all the integrals and derivatives required, that we somehow can use the speed of the ball leaving the bat, the air resistance, gravity, and calculate these values. But how?

I'd like to think I'm smart, but I know I'm not. So I use a heuristic when I play baseball and am stuck in the outfield. I run to the ball to the point where the ball is no longer moving left, right, forward or backwards. I let the ball get bigger and just make sure the ball doesn't verge in any direction. And I catch each ball.

The heuristics we use aren't easy to figure out. No one really knew that this process is how people catch balls until quite recently. I think that the more we look, the more we find our mind uses them. I was recently discussing some work with a professor who studies vision, and she was saying that we're finding that the way we represent scenes is not as a holistic complete representation, but that our mind just slops the world together. It's messy, but it works, and it allows us to determine a bear from a deer, the consequences of which may be quite important.

We may even use heuristics in recycling. A bin with a small hole in its lid is a recycling bin, and a lid without a hole is a trash can. I don't know if this is the heuristic people use, but it could explain that data we have!

SBCatMan said...

I realize this is a heretical statement and for that I apologize in advance, but statistics can sometime be a bit misleading. And, raw statistics can be as yucky as, well, as raw hamburger. For example, given the carnivorous nature of our culture -- indeed, of our species -- the fact that 30% of us may be willing to give up eating meat for "moral or envirnmental reasons" is actually kind of encouraging. While I do not eat meat (OK ... I occassionaly cheat and eat Salmon, but they are kind of a suicidal fish anyway) in my experience far less than 30% of my friends and acquaintences share my convictions. I would say it is more like 3%. And, while I am shocked that only 28% of Americans are organ-donors, 99.9% seems way too high. In fact, I would think that 99.9% are not even able to be donors due to diseases that they may have.

Of course, none of this is to quarrel with the basic points of the original comments. The refinery explosion, the cost of gas, the slaughterhouse abuse and the low percentage of American organ donors are all disturbing and worthy or our concern.

Nate Ring said...
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