Framing Dangers

From my 2015 beach trip

Hurricane Michael leveled much of Mexico Beach, which is a place I know pretty well. Spread out over my lifetime, but a rough impression is, I think, I have spent about half a year at this particular town. That would rank it third longest of places where I have lived.

Several people have expressed surprise about this hurricane was as strong as it was. I wonder if part of the problem is communication. This hurricane quickly intensified. A meteorologist I follow from UGA wrote Tuesday morning when it had increased to a Cat 2:

Michael will likely be a Major Hurricane (Category 3 or higher) at landfall.

And on Monday in Forbes:

As I write this, the [Big Bend] region is staring at the very real possibility of a strong category two or major hurricane (Category 3 or higher) making landfall in the Wednesday-Thursday time frame this week.

He was communicating this storm was quickly intensifying and to expect something far stronger than the usual storms that strike this area. People I love live in Valdosta, which was being named dropped over and over as a likely target for the storm after it made landfall. Everyone I know chose to hunker down and ride it out even as the likely winds to hit Valdosta increased through tropical storm to Cat 1 and Cat 2. People with large trees that could cave in the roof of their homes. My wife’s extended family in the Panama City area also chose to stay.

Why? I called my mother to encourage her to come to stay with us because Valdosta was in the path. She didn’t want to leave. My mother described that Hermine was pretty bad, but it wasn’t that bad for them. A tree damaged just a corner of the roof. Hermine was also a Category 1 with 80 mph winds where it came ashore and probably down to tropical storm strength where Mom lives. Thankfully Michael came ashore well west of Hermine and tracked away from Valdosta family, so they were spared the worst part. We still have not heard from most of my wife’s Panama City family.

So, while meteorologists were trying to say, “this is going to be really bad,” people didn’t really hear it that way. Mom is someone who took meteorology courses in college and wasn’t getting the message. The UGA one has a timeline defending that the NWS did enough to provide notice.

4 am Monday CDT (October 8): …  there is a real possibility that Michael will strengthen to a major hurricane before landfall.

He also said:

Yes, the rapid intensification was shocking but there was plenty of information hinting or explicitly stating that a major hurricane (even category 4) was possible.

I guess my point is hints are not enough. The reason why stores have prices ending in 99 cents is that one extra cent difference lowers sales because people tend to have the impression it is more expensive. Saying “3 or higher” pins people to think 3, not 4 or 5. This effect, called Framing, is pretty well studied in how people make poor decisions because of it. Even marketers study how to use it to influence shoppers. Maybe if some behavioral economics experiments are done to see show Framing affects the way people interpret meteorological messaging, scientists looking not to overstate what they are seeing may learn they are inadvertently giving people a different impression than intended. It is a struggle to be sure, to find the correct way to communicate this stuff.

Argumentative Theory of Reasoning

I posted a web comic poking fun at the irrational fear of the ocean. My carefulness last weekend maybe kept me from getting stung by jellyfish and definitely from stepping on a stingray or skate. There were no sharks that I saw. But then, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” 🙂

Dr. Jonathan Haidt, NYU — Bob Howard, Village Square

After some comments, I eventually deleted the post because I was tired of the arguing whether fear is rational or irrational. (It is both which is why I thought the comic funny and posted it, but obviously this was not the correct audience.) I keep to myself more these days to keep from arguing about politics. There has been a temptation to leave Facebook altogether in order to get away from the madness. Something I will not tolerate is that kind of thing on my own posts. I tell people to stop and if anyone eggs it on, then I delete the post.

In Jonathan Haidt‘s Edge talk A New Science of Morality (Part 1), he alerts us to:

According to Mercier and Sperber reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments. That’s why they call it The Argumentative Theory of Reasoning. [1]

My own Confirmation Bias screams that this absolutely must be the most true thing I have read this decade. Several posts on this blog demonstrate my fascination with people trusting their ideology over the facts. But this makes sense in an environment where people are mainly looking to prove themselves correct. Someone can be completely reasonable, but if the other has made up their mind there is no changing it. The flow of information only serves to eventually serve up something that supports their view which they will seize upon.

As Behavioral Economics fanboy, I very much am all about humans are not extremely imperfect reasoners. To label anyone, even Neil deGrasse Tyson, as very rational strikes me as irrational. It will be difficult to refrain from not using reasonable as pejorative to mean someone who has stopped thinking beyond only supporting their own view.

Chaos of lists

I went to buy a book. There were a chaos of options in the used list at the same price. Because these were used, there were descriptions of quality headlined with:

  • Acceptable
  • Good
  • Very Good
  • Like New

All but new were represented at the cheapest price level. So naturally I looked through the very goods for the best described one. It felt more involved because I had to glance at dozens to find the 3 VGs. And re-check to make sure I had found them.

Being raised in libraries, it seemed to me like this needed an order tweak. It seemed like in addition to the existing order of lowest to highest, it should also order best quality to worst. So the first result is the cheapest price with best quality.

Then the behavior economist in me realized that the used book dealers would exploit that model. They would have a stronger incentive to inflate the quality of their book. Suddenly former library books they list as Good would find their way to Like New quality. Everyone wants the first spot because people are lazy and much more likely to buy the one there. If a seller wants to undercut competition by using a lower price, then that race to the bottom reflects supply and demand. When there are lots of books, buyers benefit by picking the cheapest.

Quality is a different animal. It is the area where buyers have to beware. Only the seller really knows the true quality of the item. The buyer only finds out upon receiving it. That kind of imbalance is where the free hand of the market tends to be tied behind its back. Sure, the buyer can complain and contest, but that really means buyers stop trusting this specific place and go elsewhere.

Easier is to take away the incentive to falsify the quality of books by putting the order random at the same price level. So my guess is that is why it is that way.

TED Talk: How to make choosing easier

Choice overload first came to my attention through reading The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. (Schwartz’ strategy.) Sheena Iyengar has some newer research on choosing.

The difficulty is people BELIEVE they need more choices to make a good decision. Lots of choices make us happier in part because we invest more time making one which in turn we need to justify those spent resources with pleasure. (I’m thinking this is similar to how that $100 HDMI cable makes me feel better about the signal quality when technically it is not much better than the $5 one.)

The funny thing, though, is that all these choices prevent the making of them. Sales go up with fewer.

  1. Cut : get rid of useless alternatives
  2. Concretize : make it real
  3. Categorize : make differences understandable
  4. Condition : order choices obvious to nuanced

Funny enough, I also posted Malcolm Gladwell’s Pursuit of the Perfect Spaghetti Sauce. This is an illustration of how we get to choice overload. The revolution was that relying on self-reported data is unreliable because people say what is the conventional wisdom not their true desire. Taste tests are better because it measures what they actually like. BUT people are terrible at understanding what they want, which is why I think they bog down in choice overload. Too many options makes it difficult to figure out what is right for “us.”

Iyengar has another TED Talk which has a good primer on choosing. The end has a great story about her experiment with choosing a nail polish (she’s blind and suspected those advising her were influenced by the name).


Google Needs a -1

Did a search for “behavioral economics phd” and looked at a site that put some for-profit Master’s at the top of the list. Going through its “Perfect School Match”, it does not have behavioral economics PhD listed. The closest is applied economics at all for-profits. Lame. Useless.

Went back to the list and noticed the +1 icon. Staring at it for a couple seconds, I realized even if I +1’d a page I liked, my visit to this crappy site helped it. Some other better site got screwed from being helpful to me and others.

If +1s or visits help a site’s search engine optimization, then we need to be able to -1 or cancel our visit so malicious sites do not benefit. Or… Provide better information about a site so I do not visit it.

A -1 button is like a Dislike button for Facebook: very unlikely to happen.