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Probability, cake mix and availability heuristic

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The tragic bombings at the Boston Marathon last week understandably made us all jumpy. St. Lawrence County officials proved that a few days after a misplaced lunch bag prompted the evacuation of the county office building.

Better safe than sorry is a good policy I suppose, but I couldn’t help laughing when I heard that somebody’s lunch caused all the trouble. The suspect lunch was in a bag that was left in an unusual place because its owner apparently had to set it down for one reason or another and forgot about it.

It brought me back to 9/11 and the anthrax scare that followed. Just about every day for a few weeks following, our newspapers carried reports of people finding suspicious powdery substances. In each instance, the substances turned out to be harmless, but only after the police and county’s hazardous materials response team were called.

I remember one instance where the office of a local college newspaper was evacuated and the hazmat team called because a suspicious powdery substance was found on a desk. That substance turned out to be dust from a bag of mints. Another woman reported a suspicious powdery substance in her cake mix. Those are just two reports that immediately come to mind, but there were many others. There were also reports for months involving suspicious people, vehicles, airplanes, you name it. Anything out of place was cause to alert the authorities.

I don’t typically gamble, but I do put a lot of stock in mathematical probability. The probability that a person or building in our neck of the woods would be a target for a terrorist attack or some other malicious act is slim to none. We have about 110,000 people in our county. Our numbers, while insufficient to garner the attention we think we deserve from time to time from the state and federal governments, are in our favor when it comes to how safe we are from terrorists.

I needed to find out why anybody would think it reasonable to conclude that a misplaced bag in a building in Canton carried something that could kill or injure a lot of people. I figured there must be some common psychological tendency behind last week’s county building evacuation and the widespread panic a dozen years ago about powdery substances.

I asked St. Lawrence University assistant professor of social psychology Mark Oakes what he thought about the phenomenon. Turns out there’s a name for it: availability heuristic.

In a nutshell, Mr. Oakes said the term refers to how often somebody thinks a particular event occurs based on how readily they remember that event. In other words, if you hear about a bombing and that story sticks in your mind, you might automatically think that bombings are more likely to happen than they actually are.

Case in point: if you see a bag where you wouldn’t normally see a bag, and you have a fresh memory of a recent bombing that involved a bomb in a bag left at the finish line of a major race, your brain might automatically associate the out-of-place bag you see with the bombing. As a result, you would conclude that bag is likely carrying a bomb.

With availability heuristic, your brain makes you jump to a particular conclusion quickly without making time for reason or critical thinking.

It sounds like a reasonable explanation for what happened at the county building last week. The conclusion that a bagged lunch left in an unusual place was a reason to evacuate could have been the result of somebody’s brain tricking them into panicking when there was no reason to panic.

We shouldn’t laugh too hard about it because we are all susceptible to this sort of thing.

I also think there is a lesson to be learned here. Erring on the side of caution isn’t a bad thing, but we need to force our brains to think before our brains force us to panic.

The horrible events in Boston put people on edge, especially since many of us have friends and family there. But everybody needs to calm down. This was a tragic but isolated incident. Remember that in the long run, probability is on our side. Force your brain to think before you call in the hazmat team to investigate a suspicious powdery substance in your cake mix.

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