As the flood of tragic information surrounding the Virginia Tech shooting now begins to wane, it’s important to assess the damage done to the American psyche. While it’s easy to be carried away by the words and images of popular media coverage, it’s helpful to maintain a healthy skepticism of its impact. Media coverage can – and often does – negatively affect the way we understand and evaluate events. Although there are a lot of emotions one should feel in the aftermath of such a tragic inundation of information, vulnerability shouldn’t be among them.
The Virginia Tech shooting has left us with a lot of questions, and it’s a natural response to turn to the media for answers. Although new developments are rare, the media is littered with opinions offering explanations. If we allow ourselves to be exposed to enough of these theories, they eventually weigh in on our judgments.
In an illustration of this effect, Stanford psychologists Lord, Ross and Lepper tested a group of 24 supporters of the death penalty against a group of 24 opponents to see how people process evidence against their prior beliefs. Measuring the subjects’ attitudes and belief in deterrent effects, they found that people are more like to believe evidence that corresponds with their initial judgment. While this is seemingly a “no duh” scientific conclusion of empirical fact, in terms of the Virginia Tech shooting this bias affects us in a particularly harmful way.
Roughly speaking, there are as many supporters of gun ownership as there are opponents. As the media coverage surrounding the Virginia Tech shooting has reiterated, arguing for more guns is not a popular opinion in the wake of a tragic gun-related crime. On the whole, this individual-level behavior results is a popular debate weighted in favor of regulating gun ownership.
As Lord, Ross and Lepper showed, people are all-too-ready to embrace evidence that bolsters their already biased attitudes. This feature of human nature combines with biased coverage to further polarized attitudes against gun ownership.
It’s possible that this phenomenon can help explain why the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center found that 76.5 percent of Americans surveyed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks said gun control laws should be stricter. The Virginia Tech shooting will probably underline this phenomenon: a swift shift in public favor against gun ownership is likely following the widespread coverage of the tragic event.
Unfortunately, attitude polarization isn’t the only possible concern. Other pernicious judgment biases include probability errors, availability heuristic and framing effects.
Psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman found that we are systematically poor at accurately judging probability. People routinely neglect to integrate base rates into their probability judgments. To demonstrate this effect, consider the following situation: a cab was involved in a hit and run accident at night and there are just two cab companies operating in the city. As a juror, you’ve been asked to help decide who is to blame for the accident. You are presented with the following information: (1) 85 percent of the cabs in the city are Green and 15 percent are Blue; (2) a witness identified the cab as Blue with an 80 percent probability of being correct. Which cab company is most likely responsible for the accident? Most people think the answer is Blue – although Green is the correct answer. The Blue cab company only has a 41 percent chance of being at fault. Why do most people get it wrong? They forget that only 15 percent of cabs in the city are Blue.
Likewise, when people see a terribly irresponsible gun owner like Seung-Hui Cho, they fail to consider all responsible gun owners out there. When formulating judgments about how likely gun owners are to be irresponsible and dangerous, people forget to integrate base rates into their calculations – i.e. how rare incidents like the Virginia Tech shootings really are. Some estimate that Americans use guns for self-defense more than two million times a year (three to five times more than the amount of violent crimes committed with guns each year). Nevertheless, rare but widely-covered events like the Virginia Tech shootings skew our judgments about how common prevalent gun crimes really are.
Availability bias is another phenomenon that negatively affects our judgment and perception of the Virginia Tech shooting coverage. The availability heuristic is a rule of thumb that says we should order the likelihood of events according to how easy they are to come to mind. It’s easy to imagine why this cognitive feature had beneficial effects in our evolutionary state of nature: mandates like “don’t eat the red berries” were prominently features into our mind for good reason. Yet in modern society, many of the memories we experience are vicarious ones. Because the tragedy associated with events like Columbine and the Virginia Tech shooting make the events easy to remember, we tend to overestimate how likely these events are to occur. Although the same holds true about events like tornados and floods, the political nature of gun ownership brings with it a particular political relevance to rare shootings.
The effects of framing on judgment are a final concern surrounding the coverage of the Viriginia Tech shooting. Psychologists have shown that the way in which one frames information matters in how we process it. Much like the terms “pro-choice” and “pro-life,” the phrase “gun control” carries along with it powerful implications. It implies that opponents of gun regulation support irresponsible gun use. Combine this implication with the images of an out-of-control control gunman and – voila! – the mind has already formulated an argument in favor of regulating gun ownership.
The actual harm caused in the Virginia Tech shooting is bad enough, but if we are not aware of our hurdles to judgment we make ourselves more vulnerable to tragic events than we already are. Judgment biases like framing, availability bias, probability errors and attitude polarization can have serious real world repercussions (in this case, disarming the innocent). We have to stand guard at the door of thought, even when faced with tragedy, to ensure that our mental vulnerabilities do not become physical ones.
Taylor W. Buley is author of “The Fresh Politics Reader” and is the founding editor-in-chief of the Pennsylvania Independent, a student newspaper at the University of Pennsylvania.