Riding elephants: how powerful people make bad choices

We all have seen it happen. A developer brings a proposal to a community. It is leading edge and promising. Local council loves the concept – so the proponent believes the community is a willing host. The developer beavers away on due diligence and approvals for a year or two, then returns to council for a zoning amendment. Council refuses it, due to negative community comments typically received hours before the meeting. The developer, their agent and the various government offices that recommended approval, are all in shock. Why did this happen?

The question isn’t a matter of Why, but How? Your elected officials were probably the victims of an availability cascade, a term explaining how misinformation can affect decision-making. It doesn’t matter that the misinformation is right or wrong, true or false. It is just misinformation that recirculates in the community in cascades of conversation, and for no other reason than its availability, it becomes a common belief.

The concept of availability cascades should be kept in mind as we hold another municipal election. Is the candidate susceptible to suggestion and whisper campaigns? Does this person quickly make up their mind on complex issues, or do they support deferring decisions until more information is available to them? Do they explore opinions or do they parrot their circle of influence?

The idea of the availability cascade was first developed by professors Cass Sunstein of Harvard and Timur Kuran of Duke University in a 1999 paper published in the Stanford Law Review, available on the Social Science Research Network. They describe an availability cascade as “a self-reinforcing process of collective belief formation by which an expressed perception triggers a chain reaction that gives the perception of increasing plausibility through its rising availability in public discourse”.

Sounds like a lot of gobbledygook, but it’s based on William James’ “dual process theory” – the way we reason. One way we think is based on the fast, automatic, unconscious thought patterns of our caveman ancestors, dominated by fear and aversion to risk. The other thought process is the slow, analytical, rational method of reasoning that developed as civilization evolved.

As an analogy, our brain’s decision-making process is like a man riding an elephant. The man is the slow thinker and the elephant thinks automatically and quickly. The man may be smarter but he has no control when the elephant sees a mouse.

Chiang Mai Elephant Tours by Tucan Travel

Photo by Chiang Mai Elephant Tours

(If your brain concluded that elephants are afraid of mice, then you are a victim of an availability cascade. Apparently, there isn’t much evidence to prove that musophobia is general among pachyderms.)

The availability cascade is said to have influenced many headline-grabbing stories over the years: vaccination scares (MMR), environmental stories (Love Canal) and overblown food safety concerns (Alar Scare). A website called Retro Report purports to expose “the truth now about the big stories then”.

Even people who are educated and well read can be more susceptible to availability cascades. In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explains how the emotional power of examples and their perceived frequency causes a mental shortcut to conclusions within people’s brains. It explains why people think celebrities have high divorce rates, because the media rarely reports on movie stars that stay married. It can also explain why politicians can rush to kill a project or a policy if they get two or three negative phone calls about it.

As the municipal election nears, consider which candidates can be easily influenced by people behind availability cascades. Sunstein and Kuran describe availability entrepreneurs as organizations and individuals who “attempt to trigger availability cascades likely to advance their own agendas.” Availability entrepreneurs are everywhere: gossiping in coffee shops, gabbing on social media, emailing your Councillor.

Do you plan to vote in the next election? Consider thinking fast and slow before marking an X on your ballot. The future of prudent decision-making in your community depends on it.