You turn on the nightly news. You see a burning car in a foreign country. Ambulances carry away bloody bodies while angry men scream at the camera. You change the channel. You hear a story of a beautiful blonde college girl gone missing on vacation. You change the channel again and listen to a story of a schoolbus accident in California.

If anyone makes an argument based on those examples, they are using the appeal to emotion fallacy. But what is the effect on you, the viewer? Even if you distrust these stories and believe they are sensational exaggerations of rare events, they still impact your impression of reality.

After seeing a vivid event, you believe that such events are more frequent than they really are. In fact, if I was a beautiful blonde college girl I would be too terrified to go on a vacation.

This is Misleading Vividness.

Misleading Vividness is a fallacy in which a very small number of particularly dramatic events are taken to outweigh a significant amount of statistical evidence. This sort of “reasoning” has the following form:

Dramatic or vivid event X occurs (and is not in accord with the majority of the statistical evidence) .
Therefore events of type X are likely to occur.

This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because the mere fact that an event is particularly vivid or dramatic does not make the event more likely to occur, especially in the face of significant statistical evidence.

Journalists and artists are especially mislead by the misleading vividness fallacy. They have no statistical education and never use Bayesian Reasoning (if they even heard of it!).

Here’s an example from Wiki:

Bill: “Police marksmen should use tasers instead of guns when it’s safe to do so.”
Anne: “Can you imagine what would happen if those darts from the taser went into your eyes, piercing your eyeballs, and then if they sent the high voltage through your eyes and brain! It would probably kill you and be much worse than being shot.”

We all know Anne. She works for CNN.

Journalists rely on misleading vivid anecdotes to “sell” their story. Often they use anecdotes to try and disprove statistics. For instance, if poverty declines 0.5%, many journalists will interview an exceptional person who is still poor. This misleads people to think poverty is more common (or worse) than it really is.

And so they do so with crime, war, accidents. Journalists report rare “hits” but never report “misses”. Take plane safety. Journalists do not count normal flights without incident. They only report plane crashes or hijackings. Those are sensational but highly improbable incidents.

We, as viewers, can know about the misleading vividness fallacy and still be negatively influenced by it. Dramatic images stick in our mind. We remember car bombs and the plane crashes. Our beliefs about real world probability are irrationally deformed.

The only way to understand how the real world works is to turn off the nightly news and never listen to it again.

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