Cognitive Bias and Guns in America

I posed the following question this week (Oct. of 2015)  to the students in my 3rd year Psychology of Thinking class.

“How many of you think that the US is a dangerous place to visit?”

About 70% of the students raised their hands. This is surprising to me because although I live and work in Canada, and I’m a Canadian citizen, I grew up in the US; my family still lives there and I think it’s very safe place to visit. Most students justified their answer by referring to school shootings, gun violence, and problems with American police. So although none of these students had even actually encountered violence in the US, they were thinking about it because it has been in the news.

Cognitive Bias

This is a clear example of a cognitive bias known as the Availability Heuristic. The idea, originally proposed in the early 1970s by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky is that people generally make judgments and decisions on the basis of relevant memories that they retrieve and that are thus available at the time that the assessment or judgement is made. In other words, when you make a judgment about a likelihood of occurrence, you search your memory and make your decision on the basis of the available evidence. Most of the time, this heuristic produces useful and correct evidence. But in other cases, the available evidence may not correspond exactly to evidence in the world. We typically overestimate the likelihood of shark attacks and random violence because these low probability events are highly salient and available in memory.

Another cognitive bias (also from Kahneman and Tversky) is known as the Representativeness Heuristic. This is the general tendency to treat individuals as representative of the the entire category. For example, if I have a concept of American gun owners as being violent (based on what I’ve read or seen in the news), I might infer that each individual American is a violent gun owner. I’d be making a generalization or a stereotype and this can lead to bias. As with Availability, the Representativeness Heuristic arrises out of the natural tendency of humans to generalize information. Most of the time, this heuristic produces useful and correct evidence. But in other cases, the representative evidence may not correspond exactly to individual evidences in the world.

The Gun Debate in the US

I’ve been thinking about this a great deal as the US engages in yet another debate about gun violence and gun control. It’s been reported widely that the US has the highest rate of private gun ownership in the world, and also has an extraordinary rate of gun violence relative to other counties. These are facts. Of course, we all know that “correlation does not equal causation” but many strong correlations often derive from a causal link.

So why to do we continue to argue about this? One problem that I rarely see being discussed is that many of us have limited experience with guns and/or violence and have to rely on what we know from memory and from external sources and we’re susceptible to cognitive biases as a result.

For example, I’m not a gun owner any more, but many of my friends and family are, and these people are some of the most responsible gun owners I know. They own firearms for sport and also for personal protection and in some cases, even run successful training courses for people to learn about gun safety. From the perspective of a responsible and passionate gun owner, it’s quite true that the problem is not guns but the bad people who use them to kill. After all, if you are safe with guns and all your friends and family are too, then you base your judgements on the available evidence: gun owners are safe and so gun violence is not a problem of guns and their owners, but a problem of criminals with bad intentions.

But what about non gun owners?  Although I do not own a gun, I feel safe at home. My personal freedoms are not infringed and I recognize that illegal guns are the problem. And so I generalize this experience and I may have difficulty understanding why people would need a gun in the first place whether for personal protection or for a vaguely defined “protection from tyranny”. From our perspective it’s far more sensible to focus on reducing the number of guns. After all we don’t have one, we don’t believe we need one, so we generalize to assume that anyone who owns firearms might be suspect or irrationally fearful.

In each case, we are relying on cognitive biases to infer things about others and about guns. These things and inferences may be stifling the debate and interfering with our ability to find a solution

How do we overcome this?

It’s not easy to overcome a bias, because these cognitive heuristics are deeply engrained and indeed arise as a necessary function of how the mind operates. They are adaptive and useful. But occasionally we need to override a bias.

Here are some proposals, but each involves taking the perspective of someone on the other side of this debate.

  1. Those of us on the left of the debate (liberals, proponents of gun regulations) should try to recognize that nearly all gun enthusiasts are safe, law abiding people who are responsible with their guns. Seen through their eyes, the problem is with irresponsible owners. An attempt to place restrictions on their legally guns activates another cognitive bias known as the endowment effect  in which people place high value on that which they already possess, and the prospect of losing this is aversive.
  2. Those on the right (gun owners) should consider the debate from the perspective of non gun owners and might also consider that proposals to regulate firearms are not attempt to seize or ban guns but rather attempts to address one aspect of the problem: the sheer number of guns in the US, all of which could potentially be used for illegal purposes. We’re not trying to ban guns, but rather to regulate the and encourage greater responsibility in their use.

I think these things are important to deal with. The US really does have a problem with gun violence. It’s disproportionally high. Solutions to this problem must recognize the reality of the large number of guns, the perspective of non gun owners, and the perspectives of gun owners. We’re not going to do this by simply arguing for one side. We’re only going to do this by first recognizing these cognitive biases and them attempting to overcome them in ways that search for common ground.

As always: comments are welcome.