The psychological appeal of salient events and risks can be a major hurdle to optimal altruistic priorities and impact. My aim in this post is to outline a few reasons to approach our intuitive fascination with salient events and risks with a fair bit of skepticism, and to actively focus on that which is important yet unseen, hiding in the shadows of the salient.
- General reasons for caution: Availability bias and related biases
- The news: A common driver of salience-related distortions
- The narrow urgency delusion
- Massive problems that always face us: Ongoing moral disasters and future risks
- Salience-driven distortions in efforts to reduce s-risks
- Reducing salience-driven distortions
General reasons for caution: Availability bias and related biases
The human mind is subject to various biases that involve an overemphasis on the salient, i.e. that which readily stands out and captures our attention.
In general terms, there is the availability bias, also known as the availability heuristic, namely the common tendency to base our beliefs and judgments on information that we can readily recall. For example, we tend to overestimate the frequency of events when examples of these events easily come to mind.
Closely related is what is known as the salience bias, which is the tendency to overestimate salient features and events when making decisions. For instance, when deciding to buy a given product, the salience bias may lead us to give undue importance to a particularly salient feature of that product — e.g. some fancy packaging — while neglecting less salient yet perhaps more relevant features.
A similar bias is the recency bias: our tendency to give disproportionate weight to recent events in our belief-formation and decision-making. This bias is in some sense predicted by the availability bias, since recent events tend to be more readily available to our memory. Indeed, the availability bias and the recency bias are sometimes considered equivalent, even though it seems more accurate to view the recency bias as a consequence or a subset of the availability bias; after all, readily remembered information does not always pertain to recent events.
Finally, there is the phenomenon of belief digitization, which is the tendency to give undue weight to (what we consider) the single most plausible hypothesis in our inferences and decisions, even when other hypotheses also deserve significant weight. For example, if we are considering hypotheses A, B, and C, and we assign them the probabilities 50 percent, 30 percent, and 20 percent, respectively, belief digitization will push us toward simply accepting A as though it were true. In other words, belief digitization pushes us toward altogether discarding B and C, even though B and C collectively have the same probability as A. (See also related studies on Salience Theory and on the overestimation of salient causes and hypotheses in predictive reasoning.)
All of the biases mentioned above can be considered different instances of a broader cluster of availability/salience biases, and they each give us reason to be cautious of the influence that salient information has on our beliefs and our priorities.
The news: A common driver of salience-related distortions
One way in which our attention can become preoccupied with salient (though not necessarily crucial) information is through the news. Much has been written against spending a lot of time on the news, and the reasons against it are probably even stronger for those who are trying to spend their time and resources in ways that help sentient beings most effectively.
For even if we grant that there is substantial value in following the news, it seems plausible that the opportunity costs are generally too high, in terms of what one could instead spend one’s limited time learning about or advocating for. Moreover, there is a real risk that a preoccupation with the news has outright harmful effects overall, such as by gradually pulling one’s focus away from the most important problems and toward less important and less neglected problems. After all, the prevailing news criteria or news values decidedly do not reflect the problems that are most important from an impartial perspective concerned with the suffering of all sentient beings.
I believe the same issue exists in academia: A certain issue becomes fashionable, there are calls for abstracts, and there is a strong pull to write and talk about that given issue. And while it may indeed be important to talk and write about those topics for the purpose of getting ahead — or not falling behind — in academia, it seems more doubtful whether such topical talk is at all well-adapted for the purpose of making a difference in the world. In other words, the “news values” of academia are not necessarily much better than the news values of mainstream journalism.
The narrow urgency delusion
A salience-related pitfall that we can easily succumb to when following the news is what we may call the “narrow urgency delusion”. This is when the news covers some specific tragedy and we come to feel, at a visceral level, that this tragedy is the most urgent problem that is currently taking place. Such a perception is, in a very important sense, an illusion.
The reality is that tragedy on an unfathomable scale is always occurring, and the tragedies conveyed by the news are sadly but a tiny fraction of the horrors that are constantly taking place around us. Yet the tragedies that are always occurring, such as children who suffer and die from undernutrition and chickens who are boiled alive, are so common and so underreported that they all too readily fade from our moral perception. To our intuitions, these horrors seemingly register as mere baseline horror — as unsalient abstractions that carry little felt urgency — even though the horrors in question are every bit as urgent as the narrow sliver of salient horrors conveyed in the news (Vinding, 2020, sec. 7.6).
We should thus be clear that the delusion involved in the narrow urgency delusion is not the “urgency” part — there is indeed unspeakable horror and urgency involved in the tragedies reported by the news. The delusion rather lies in the “narrow” part; we find ourselves in a condition that contains extensive horror and torment, all of which merits compassion and concern.
So it is not that the salient victims are less important than what we intuitively feel, but rather that the countless victims whom we effectively overlook are far more important than what we (do not) feel.
Massive problems that always face us: Ongoing moral disasters and future risks
The following are some of the urgent problems that always face us, yet which are often less salient to us than the individual tragedies that are reported in the news:
- Prevalent forms of human suffering (e.g. due to cancer, the second most common cause of human death, or due to political oppression — a recent report concluded that 70 percent of the world’s population live in autocracies).
- The industrial farming and slaughter of non-human animals.
- The suffering of wild animals due to natural processes.
- Risks of astronomical future suffering (s-risks).
These common and ever-present problems are, by definition, not news, which hints at the inherent ineffectiveness of news when it comes to giving us a clear picture of the reality we inhabit and the problems that confront us.
As the final entry on the list above suggests, the problems that face us are not limited to ongoing moral disasters. We also face risks of future atrocities, potentially involving horrors on an unprecedented scale. Such risks will plausibly tend to feel even less salient and less urgent than do the ongoing moral disasters we are facing, even though our influence on these future risks — and future suffering in general — could well be more consequential given the vast scope of the long-term future.
So while salience-driven biases may blind us to ongoing large-scale atrocities, they probably blind us even more to future suffering and risks of future atrocities.
Salience-driven distortions in efforts to reduce s-risks
There are many salience-related hurdles that may prevent us from giving significant priority to the reduction of future suffering. Yet even if we do grant a strong priority to the reduction of future suffering, including s-risks in particular, there are reasons to think that salience-driven distortions still pose a serious challenge in our prioritization efforts.
Our general availability bias gives us some reason to believe that we will overemphasize salient ideas and hypotheses in efforts to reduce future suffering. Yet perhaps more compelling are the studies on how we tend to greatly overestimate salient hypotheses when we engage in predictive and multi-stage reasoning in particular. (Multi-stage reasoning is when we make inferences in successive steps, such that the output of one step provides the input for the next one.)
After all, when we are trying to predict the main sources of future suffering, including specific scenarios in which s-risks materialize, we are very much engaging in predictive and multi-stage reasoning. Therefore, we should arguably expect our reasoning about future causes of suffering to be too narrow by default, with a tendency to give too much weight to a relatively small set of salient risks at the expense of a broader class of less salient (yet still significant) risks that we are prone to dismiss in our multi-stage inferences and predictions.
This effect can be further reinforced through other mechanisms. For example, if we have described and explored — or even just imagined — a certain class of risks in greater detail than other risks, then this alone may lead us to regard those more elaborately described risks as being more likely than less elaborately explored scenarios. Moreover, if we find ourselves in a group of people who focus disproportionally on a certain class of future scenarios, this may further increase the salience and perceived likelihood of these scenarios, compared to alternative scenarios that may be more salient in other groups and communities.
Reducing salience-driven distortions
The pitfalls mentioned above seem to suggest some concrete ways in which we might reduce salience-driven distortions in efforts to reduce future suffering.
First, they recommend caution about the danger of neglecting less salient hypotheses when engaging in predictive and multi-stage reasoning. Specifically, when thinking about future risks, we should be careful not to simply focus on what appears to be the single greatest risk, and to effectively neglect all others. After all, even if the risk we regard as the single greatest risk indeed is the single greatest risk, that risk might still be fairly modest compared to the totality of future risks, and we might still do better by deliberately working to reduce a relatively broad class of risks.
Second, the tendency to judge scenarios to be more likely when we have thought about them in detail would seem to recommend that we avoid exploring future risks in starkly unbalanced ways. For instance, if we have explored one class of risks in elaborate detail while largely neglecting another, it seems worth trying to outline concrete scenarios that exemplify the more neglected class of risks, so as to correct any potentially unjustified disregard of their importance and likelihood.
Third, the possibility that certain ideas can become highly salient in part for sociological reasons may recommend a strategy of exchanging ideas with, and actively seeking critiques from, people who do not fully share the outlook that has come to prevail in one’s own group.
In general, it seems that we are likely to underestimate our empirical uncertainty (Vinding, 2020, sec. 9.1-9.2). The space of possible future outcomes is vast, and any specific risk that we may envision is but a tiny subset of the risks we are facing. Hence, our most salient ideas regarding future risks should ideally be held up against a big question mark that represents the many (currently) unsalient risks that confront us.
Put briefly, we need to cultivate a firm awareness of the limited reliability of salience, and a corresponding awareness of the immense importance of the unsalient. We need to make an active effort to keep unseen urgencies in mind.