The Struggle For a Rational Sandy Hook Response

Cedar Riener has a great post on how the nature of human cognition leaves us ill-equipped to constructively respond to the Sandy Hook murders:

If I were to pick a psychological topic for people in this debate to understand more fully, it would be the concept that in calculating the likelihood of events (future or past), or how things are caused, we take our thoughts, our memories, and our imagination as data. We might recognize that our views are subjective and we may try to account for our own values and experience, but what we do not account for is that we are not merely subjective, but we are all biased. We are biased because our imaginations are biased. It is simply easier to think of some things that others.

Depending on how it is applied, this tendency is sometimes called the availability heuristic, sometimes the simulation heuristic. When judging what causes something else (was it the guns or the deranged mind?), we engage in counterfactual thinking (what could have stopped this?) and we judge things that are more mutable (things we can imagine changing) as more important to causing an event than those we can’t imagine changing.

This feels like logic, but it is not. A thought experiment is not an experiment.

In other words, it’s easy to imagine the killer being subdued by a teacher or unable to purchase a gun. But even if different circumstances had made those things more likely to occur, it doesn’t mean they were likely to occur. Riener continues:

In a case as horrible as this, how could we not nudge our memories and our imaginations to make it not happen? Isn’t it merely human to imagine this evil man-child, this villain, this terrorist, blown away at the door by a vigilant police officer or quick thinking super hero-teacher? Isn’t it equally human to imagine this monster, angry and frustrated, only being able to access a small handgun and a small clip, then walking into this school and *only* killing half the class?

These are human responses, and when I confront tragedies large and small I do the same thing. But when we are designing laws and policies, I think we can do better than what some columnist thought about on a cab ride home. We have to force ourselves outside of our own imagination, both by expanding our imagination, but also by consulting the science of how people actually behave and evidence of how people have actually behaved in the past.

This is an issue when it comes to solving all problems, whether they involve the tax code, climate change, or murder. Simply put, it’s easier to imagine solutions that are easy to imagine. And when the problem burrows deep inside your emotional core like Sandy Hook does, it’s even more tempting to invest yourself in whatever solution seem feasible. Unfortunately, the solutions that are easy to imagine aren’t necessarily the best or most promising. That makes it so important to “force ourselves outside of our own imagination,” even if it means confronting a world where there’s temporarily no solution to a terrifying problem.


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