The Availability Heuristic and Internalized Racism
First, a brief apology to my small audience: I don’t think one can really call a blogging hiatus after two articles. I passed my qualifying exams this June, and it’s taken three months of Netflix and Steam to rehabilitate me. I should now be back to a regular posting schedule.
Today I want to start with a brief explanation of the Availability Heuristic. Discovered in 1973 by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (the psychologists who fathered behavioral economics), the Availability Heuristic is a mental shortcut we use to make probability judgments about uncertain events. Put succinctly, we use the ease with which we can recall examples of an event as a proxy for its actual likelihood. This doesn’t often work in our favor: it leads us to rely heavily on anecdotes in the face of statistical ignorance, and the way in which we receive anecdotes is itself heavily biased.
The Availability Heuristic is one of the major channels through which we internalize racism from society at large and especially from the media. We are bombarded with images of the violent Black criminal — it is practically a meme for televised news — and we incorporate these examples into our probability judgments. Even though Black-on-White crime is rare, its selective over-reporting leads us to over-estimate its dangers; this in turn colors our interactions with Black people (especially men).
One product of my first post was a number of death rates per 100,000 from interracial murder in 2009. To demonstrate just how skewed media coverage and our resulting perceptions are, I combined the death rate of non-Hispanic Whites from murder by Blacks (0.0806) with a list of other death rates for non-Hispanic Whites for 2009 from the CDC. The other death rates can be found here, in table 15 of “Deaths: Final Data for 2009.” My combined list, sorted by frequency, follows.
I think this speaks for itself.