Here's a cognitive bias you'll actually want to have -- if you're evil

Illustration for article titled Here's a cognitive bias you'll actually want to have -- if you're evil

Most cognitive biases persist because people don't realize they've fallen prey to them. But at last, here's one that we should consciously encourage. All obsessive people everywhere should band together and support the zero risk bias.


People don't like leaving things half-done. Knowing that it's still there, percolating, is like a brain itch that can't ever quite be scratched. This is why inspirational speeches run along the lines of, "We will work until every last person receives the benefit of a first class education and not one person is ever the victim of a violent crime," instead of "We'll try to make sure most kids have a chance of good education and only a few people get murdered in their own homes every year." It's not that having ideals (or an obsessive need to finish things) is always a bad thing. It's just that it's often a bad thing.

Greatly reducing a problem takes work, but yields fairly large benefits. Entirely eliminating a problem - any problem, from jaywalking to terrorism - means committing more and more resources while the benefits diminish and diminish. And yet people like the idea of it. No one wants to say that, you know, five or six innocent people killed every year is okay, as far as they're concerned.

Enter the zero risk bias. The experiment that revealed this cognitive bias was a simple survey. People were asked to select between three different plans for two hazardous waste sites. One site caused eight cases of cancer per year. One caused only four. Two different plans involved different clean-up efforts that reduced the total amount of cancer diagnoses by six cases a year. A third plan only reduced the number of cases by five, but eliminated the cancer risk completely as the less-dangerous site. While that third plan was only favored by forty-two percent of the people, it was, by the numbers, the least effective plan. People chose it because they liked that one area was completely safe, and that the task was completely done.

And I say good for them. As someone whose preferred strategy (when it comes to cleaning, writing uncomfortable emails, or organizing my stuff) is to put a huge chunk of time and misery into getting it all over with, I approve. Sometimes you just like to get stuff done. Why should a measly few deaths outweigh the psychological comfort of forty-two percent of population? What's that you say? The wishes of the other fifty-eight percent of the population? Don't worry. I'm sure we could eliminate them if we tried hard enough. They've already demonstrated that they don't have the will to win completely.

Top Image: hobvias sudoneighm

[Via Managing Hazardous Waste, Should We Strive for Zero Risk.]



I'm a bit confused. I'll go look at the study to be sure, but if two plans reduced the amount of cancer to six cases, and one reduced it to five, wouldn't you just pick the one that reduced it to five because that was fewer cases of cancer? Isn't the one that reduced it by five also the one where cancer was eliminated at one site? If it reduces it by one extra case, and eliminates it at one site ... Okay, I'm going to go look at the study. Something sounds funny here.