Sunday, July 5, 2009

How our brains assess risk and possible lessons for more effective advocacy

Here's a very interesting NYT's editorial that discusses the work of University of Oregon psychology Professor Paul Slovic, an expert on how humans assess risk in connection with decision-making.  Although the editorial is directed at Congress's tepid efforts to address global warning, the author argues this may have as much to do with our brain's wiring as Beltway politics (and if you haven't read the latest predictions on climate change - be afraid, be very afraid).

As Professor Slovic notes, evolution has conditioned the brain to respond to immediate threats - like poisonous snakes and spiders - but distant, more abstract harm (like global warming), not so much:  

If you come across a garter snake, nearly all of your brain will light up with activity as you process the 'threat.'  Yet if somebody tells you that carbon emissions will eventually destroy Earth as we know it, only the small part of the brain that focuses on the future — a portion of the prefrontal cortex — will glimmer.

'We humans do strange things, perhaps because vestiges of our ancient brain still guide us in the modern world, notes [Professor] Slovic.

Harvard psychology Professor Daniel Gilbert also weighs in on the human ability to assess more abstract, future harm:

'What’s important is the threats that were dominant in our evolutionary history,' notes [Professor] Gilbert . . . .In contrast, he says, the kinds of dangers that are most serious today — such as climate change — sneak in under the brain’s radar.

Professor Gilbert argues that the threats that get our attention tend to have four features. First, they are personalized and intentional. The human brain is highly evolved for social behavior ('that’s why we see faces in clouds, not clouds in faces,' says Mr. Gilbert), and, like gazelles, we are instinctively and obsessively on the lookout for predators and enemies.

Second, we respond to threats that we deem disgusting or immoral — characteristics more associated with sex, betrayal or spoiled food than with atmospheric chemistry.

'That’s why people are incensed about flag burning, or about what kind of sex people have in private, even though that doesn’t really affect the rest of us,' Professor Gilbert said. 'Yet where we have a real threat to our well-being, like global warming, it doesn’t ring alarm bells.'

Third, threats get our attention when they are imminent, while our brain circuitry is often cavalier about the future. That’s why we are so bad at saving for retirement. Economists tear their hair out at a puzzlingly irrational behavior called hyperbolic discounting: people’s preference for money now rather than much larger payments later.

For example, in studies, most Americans prefer $50 now to $100 in six months, even though that represents a 100 percent return.

Fourth, we’re far more sensitive to changes that are instantaneous than those that are gradual. We yawn at a slow melting of the glaciers, while if they shrank overnight we might take to the streets.

In short, we’re brilliantly programmed to act on the risks that confronted us in the Pleistocene Age. We’re less adept with 21st-century challenges.

So why am I telling you about this on the Legal Writing Prof. blog?  Because it's this kind of neuro-psychological research that may help advocates finesse their arguments in ways that better correspond to how judges actually think and problem-solve.

As Lee Ayatollah once said in connection with Chrysler Corporation:  "Lead, follow or get out of the way!"  And that's exactly what we're trying to do for our readers here by bringing you a daily dose of hard-hitting, sharp-toothed and topical reportage.

Read the rest of the story here.

I am the scholarship dude.


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