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Salience Bias, or Why it's Okay to Eat the Apple

January 25, 2018

 

Apples: they’re full of fiber, antioxidants, and vitamins. And yet, if your young child scored a homemade candy apple while Trick-or-Treating, there’s a chance you’d be telling them to discard that fruit at first opportunity. After all, remember that news story about malevolent weirdos hiding razor blades in their Halloween apples? Surely that’s important to keep in mind here.

 

Salience bias is the human tendency to evaluate situations based on the information available to us, regardless of how relevant that information may or may not be. What is the actual statistical likelihood that somebody in your neighborhood wanted so badly to hurt children that they inserted blades into a bunch of apples? (Keep in mind: basically every reported instance of adulterated Halloween candy has been a hoax, and no serious injuries have ever been reported.) By the numbers, it’s staggeringly more likely that your child would just enjoy a sweet, crunchy snack. But with that razor blade story weighing on your mind, it certainly seems like a useful data point to take into account when making your decision.

 

In a classic study in the seventies, two volunteers had a conversation, surrounded by a circle of observers. These observers were later asked to attribute the cause of various incidents to one talker or the other. By and large, the observers were more likely to point to whichever person whose face they could see better. By virtue of having a piece of information, that nugget feels important.

 

We see this in action all the time. It’s the reason you have to take off your shoes in the airport; after all, what about that Shoe Bomber story from a while back? That memorable example has had an outsized effect on how the TSA views shoes, even though logically, it seems unlikely that another terrorist is lying in wait for the day they can commit the exact same footwear-based attack. Shedding and scanning our shoes doesn’t make us safer; at best, it may briefly create an illusion of safety. ‘Precautions are being taken,’ we can tell ourselves, blithely ignoring any other, likelier sources of danger.

 

And here we see how the salience bias can have implications beyond just what Halloween treats your kid gets to take home. Operating under such false heuristics can severely distort the way we see—and respond to—the world.

 

So next Halloween season, remember salience bias, and go ahead: take a bite.

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