Does this behavioral bias have a name?
January 5, 2013 10:48 AM   Subscribe

I’m interested in learning more about the phenomenon where people who experience a particular scenario become especially focused on that scenario, to the exclusion of other scenarios that may be statistically more likely, and possibly even leading to irrational or risky behavior.

I don’t know if there is an economics name for this phenomenon. “Experience bias”?

To give an example of what I mean: My grandparents were once in a vehicle accident. Because they were not wearing seat belts, my grandfather was thrown forward and avoided being impaled by a rod that was dislodged from the vehicle roof in the accident. He never wore a seat belt again and told that story to warn others of the dangers of seat belts.

I see other, more benign examples of this. For example, a good friend of my father’s fell asleep at the wheel and died. My father is hyper focused on not driving while tired and warns other people about it, which is great, but he seems to ignore other dangerous driving behaviors like speeding or simply spending a lot of time on the road.

Is this a thing? I am interested in reading more about it, whether academic discussions or just personal anecdotes.
posted by payoto to Society & Culture (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'd guess this is mostly the availability heuristic at work, but there's a swarm of biases that favor promotion of personal experience and expectations over abstract statistics and probabilities. See Wikipedia's list of biases in judgment and decision-making and also the list of memory biases.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 11:03 AM on January 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Anchoring seems to fit what you are describing.
posted by 99percentfake at 11:20 AM on January 5, 2013

I saw the term 'salience bias' while reading an article in The New Yorker. This is when people pay more attention to infrequent but high impact events rather than generalizations, which ipso facto occur most of the time.
posted by waving at 12:33 PM on January 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Two people in my close family are exactly like this. It makes it very difficult for them to correctly identify and assess risk or likely outcomes as they are so strongly biased by either an unlikely outcome they once experienced or, my favourite, a very unlikely outcome once experienced by someone that they heard about and then use that second hand information to warn others in unrelated circumstances. I always consider them "experience learners". They also have the tendency not to believe something unless they have first (or second) hand knowledge of it. Which makes them doubtful of a lot of scientific or technological information.

Since you said personal anecdotes are welcome, here you go:

A retired fireman doesn't wear a seat belt as he is haunted by the horrible memory of a person burning alive that was trapped in a car by the seat belt. He saw a negative outcome of seat belt wearing one time in 40+ years of service but it strongly affected his behaviour despite the near daily experience of helping people who survived car accidents because of their seat belts or scraping up what was left of the people not wearing belts who were flung from otherwise survivable car wrecks. He should know better but he is unable to evaluate the risk correctly and thinks he's safer without a seat belt.
posted by saradarlin at 12:37 PM on January 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Confirmation bias? It doesn't require a triggering event, but it is about our lack of ability to recognize information that contradicts strongly-held beliefs.

In any case, the Wikipedia entry linked above will give you lots of interesting reading material.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:11 PM on January 5, 2013

Cognitive linguist George Lakoff in Women, Fire and Dangerous Things (University of Chicago Press, 1987):
It is common for people to use familiar, memorable, or otherwise salient examples to comprehend categories. For example, if your best friend is a vegetarian and you don't know any others well, you will tend to generalize from your friend to other vegetarians. After a widely publicized DC-10 crash in Chicago, many people refused to fly DC-10s, choosing other types of planes despite the fact that they had overall worse safety records than DC-10s. Such people used the salient example of the DC-10 that crashed to stand metonymically for the entire category of DC-10s with respect to safety judgments.
'Categories' here means 'types of things', so 'modes of transport', 'eating habits' etc.

And the availability heuristic is very relevant here, yes.
posted by lokta at 1:30 PM on January 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

Daniel Kahneman also talks about this as an "outcome bias" in his excellent book: Thinking, Fast and Slow.
posted by smoke at 2:17 PM on January 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Anxiety results in symptoms which manifest in ways which are very close to what you are referring to in your examples, both of which are of incidents of people who has scary experiences. Some symptoms of anxiety include hypervigilance, avoidant behavior, and even superstitions.

Breaking down the concept into its most basic terms, anxiety is our flight or flight mechanism. It exists to help us survive. It is healthy and needed however, when it breaks, we develop a condition. The people is your example are avoiding a situation which frightened them, protecting themselves, and others as well. Their experiences were likely traumatic to them, and, as a result, develop these anxious behaviors. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is a form of anxiety, is a possible cause of their new thoughts processes and behavior.
posted by Therapist in NYC at 3:34 PM on January 5, 2013

It's availability bias. Not confirmation bias.
posted by John Cohen at 5:58 PM on January 5, 2013

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