Dotted lines on paper

February 21, 2011 | By | 3 Replies More

Wray Herbert writes in a Scientific American article titled “Border Bias and Our Perception of Risk” of a study by husband-and-wife team Arul and Himanshu Mishra at the University of Utah on how people perceive events within a bias of arbitrary political borders.

Asked to imagine a vacation home in either “North Mountain Resort, Washington, or in West Mountain Resort, Oregon” the study group was given details about a hypothetical seismic event striking a distance that vacation home, but details differing as to where the event occurred:

Some heard that the earthquake had hit Wells, Wash., 200 miles from both vacation home sites. Others heard that the earthquake had struck Wells, Ore., also 200 miles from both home locations. They were warned of continuing seismic activity, and they were also given maps showing the locations of both home sites and the earthquake, to help them make their choice of vacation homes.

The results revealed a bias in that people felt a greater risk when the event was in-state as opposed to out of state. A second study involved a not-in-my-backyard look at a radioactive waste storage site and the Mishras used maps with thick lines and thin dotted lines to help people visualize the distances and state borders. It isn’t hard to guess which lines conveyed a greater feeling of risk.

I recall a story my brother told me about 17 years ago in which he was helping an old friend change the oil in his farm tractor. My brother asked, “Hey, Jack, where do you want me to put this [the used oil]?” Jack said, “Pour it over there on the stone wall.” (We lived in Connecticut, where they grow those things everywhere). Brother Marshall said, “Jack, you can’t do that anymore.”

Jack thought a short second or two, and said, “Yeah, you’re right. Better pour it on the other side.”


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Category: cognitive biases

About the Author ()

Jim is a husband of more than 27 years, father of four home-schooled sons (26, 23, 16 and 14), engineer delighting in virtually all things technical, with more than a passing interest in history, religions, arts, most sciences (particularly physics) and skepticism.

Comments (3)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    I'm wondering how far his can be extended. Joe sees a television news story of a bus that went off a cliff and killed 30 students. The accident happened in:

    A) Joe's own state. ("Oh, no!" he proclaims. "This is terrible." Even though he doesn't know any of the victims, Joe attends the candlelight vigil and donates $100 to a fund to help the victim's families).

    B) A state a few hundred miles from Joe's state. (He mutters "That's terrible" and shakes his head. He thinks about it again that night.)

    C) Near Lima Peru (Joe pays almost no attention to the story. He says to his wife, "I hear that it's going to rain tomorrow." )

    These experiments remind me of the immense power of subconscious power of ingroups and outgroups.

  2. Friends and neighbors insulate. Proximity elevates. Knowledge accentuates. Distance isolates.

    It seems to me that risk, perceived or real, motivates in comparision to one's ability or inclincation to act on it from fear, security, convenience or empathy. Having the knowledge of a thing doesn't necessitate action nor should it (parallel recent discussions on DI re: atonement, Guantanamo, fiscal disasters that compare knowledge and action).

    Does lack of action result in selfish behavior only? Or is it self preservation in the light of so much risk? Managing to the enormity of the risks around us in an information laden world can be overwhelming. To me, it's not at all surprising that people adjust their perspectives in a protectionist way. Thinking globally is a significant challenge when one takes on some of the logical extensions that impact macro cause and effect (some argue that all behavior is macro, creating an even greater burden on empathy, local concern, action or the level of cognitive dissonance one can adapt to). For me, this is one of those psycho-social habits that gets constantly challenged as one goes through life. The challenge is to strive for consistency in understanding the impact of risks while maintaining a sense of empathy toward my fellow human beings as they face theirs. All of which makes me glad for my family and friends, which in turn tends to lead me back to being more risk-averse in my own neighborhood.

  3. Mike M. says:

    I see this as a fundamentally selfish and ego-driven phenomenon. Joe cares more deeply, and feels the emotional impact more profoundly, simply because the tragic incident happened closer to him in space-time. The tragedy of close proximity lights up Joe's survival circuit; issues of fear arise and instincts of self-preservation kick in.

    I also suspect the trendy candlelight vigil is an exercise in primitive fear abatement – making offerings (flowers and teddy bears) as a sacrifice and appeal to the gods, and banishing darkness (lighting candles) in an atavistic attempt to dispel the evil, "bad energy", etc. These human rituals are thousands of years old.

    Also there's the problem of illusory maps and territories. Only natural borders and boundaries are "real"-(rivers, mountains, oceans, etc); the lines we create and collectively agree upon (towns, States, Nations) are not "real" but imaginary constructs. So "cheering for the home team", aka Patriotism, is a mass hypnosis and historically counter productive in the holistic sense. We would be better served by working to dissolve our cultural boundaries and coming to the realization that we're truly All One. For instance, I don't consider myself a 'Chicagoan' or an 'American', but an 'Earthling.' Better yet, a child of the Universe.

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