Thursday, September 27, 2012

Operations of the Affect Heuristic in the Cycling Realm

In a world of humans overwhelmingly governed by emotional response, let's cut to the chase

In his article on Slate, Why You Hate Cyclists, Jim Saska explains how the concept of "affect heuristic" applies to drivers' attitudes towards cyclists: the initial and possibly unconscious emotional reaction to an input causes (in this case) a sustained negative reaction regardless of subsequent empirical data or reasoned arguments to the contrary. 

The effect of affect is so powerful that researches have found, Jim goes on, that subsequent positive or contrary information regarding the subject is not sufficient to overcome the initial negativity. Haters, it seems, gonna hate. Once the emotional hooks are set, they aren't coming out: "When it comes to cyclists, once some clown on two wheels almost kills himself with your car, you furiously decide that bicyclists are assholes, and that conclusion will be hard to shake regardless of countervailing facts, stats, or arguments."

I found this article helpful and thought-provoking, which is a lot to get from a quick two-pager on Slate. He's certainly correct, to an extent, since it is or should be an obvious observation that most of what we do is guided by gut emotional reactions far more than by carefully reasoned thought processes. We could gather all the available information about the decision to be made, engaging our avid curiosity to follow up on information and track down data, correlate related facts and validate against reliable references and sources, weigh or score the various criteria, and after taking it all into consideration, make an informed decision, the best possible based on what we know or discover at that time. Yeah, right.

We are so easily swayed into making an emotional snap judgment that even words can trigger it. LOVE, TREASURE, HOPE, HOME, MOM, all these can trigger the affect heuristic such that whatever they are associated with in time is colored by them, typically in a positive way, while HATE, ANGER, DEATH, PAIN have the opposite, and essentially unavoidable impact. I notice this all the time in conversations, and wonder if people are doing it on purpose, or just have unconsciously learned that it works: they casually work in "power words" into their speech, throwing people off track, invoking the affect heuristic to undermine their opponents. To me, the worst offenders, whether they're doing it on purpose or not, are those who casually invoke violent images (guns, artillery, explosions, blood, guts, gore, limbs being torn off, war, etc). Maybe it's just Arizona, but I run into gun imagery every day: guns blazing, using real bullets, firing both barrels, drive-by, those are just a handful I can think of recently. It's so strange, when you pause to think about it, that when discussing some mundane topic, a financial balance sheet, for example, or while discussing a preliminary engineering design, one of the participants will fire off, "Oh, so we're going to use real bullets in today's session." I interpret that just as the (likely successful) attempt to shut down rational thought, and invoke the affect heuristic. Welcome to the jungle.

I love this photo. And the word. Consider my positive affect heuristic triggered.

So given that the affect heuristic is more or less a pervasive factor in human life, it's a bit unhelpful to say that it also rules the judgement of cyclists without explaining how that fact is probative, or insightful, or somehow guiding. It's also a fact that cyclists require oxygen. "The reason that cyclists who drive into the canal fail to continue living is that water causes a lack of oxygen, which they require," is completely accurate, but applies to anyone who enters water and fails to continue to live. People, or cyclists, who overcome the water and continue to obtain oxygen will survive. Sure, but...

Basically, drawing the distinction between rational reflection and affect heuristic in the interactions between drivers and cyclists doesn't support why that's different from any other human interaction. Perhaps there's more to it if you look into the specifics of drivers and cyclists, as compared to other scenarios? What other dimensions are relevant? Fundamentally, can those negative snap judgments be overcome, altered, or sidestepped for a positive outcome?

Absolutely. Words are magic, for one thing. No? Here, check it out, and tell me you still think that. A driver yells bloody anger death at a cyclist, let's say due to affect heuristic. According to Jim Saska, the results are so determined that the bias can't be overcome. Really? "Excuse me, sir, my daughter was just rushed to the ER, and I'm trying to cycle to the hospital, do you know which direction it is from here?" Twenty-eight words, and the bias is gone.

I'm not suggesting you employ those specific words. I am saying: the next moment is open, filled with infinite possibility, and is yours to fill up however you choose. You can allow your emotions to govern it. Or something else. You chose. How about love and imagination? Hope and compassion? Equanimity and understanding? How about a creative and constructive response to a challenging situation? Language, humor, psychology, drama, poetry, music, these are all at your disposal, and more. Kindness. Use them. People are easy when handled creatively and not with rote response. Change the future in the next moment with your own novel, self-directed response.

The outcome which is rigid, ordained, and inescapable is the one resulting from allowing your own preprogrammed emotional affect free reign to power your heuristics and govern your responses back at the drivers, too. Then, yeah, I'll just go ahead and hand out Sad Little Monkey Awards all around. If we cyclists restrict ourselves to that narrow, one dimensional course, then everyone invest in Sad Little Monkey, Inc., because we'll make a million of 'em.

Often, humans dwelling in that angry place don't even really want to be there. They just don't know a way out, so they spin in hell. Invite them out into the sunshine. Smile and laugh warmly, melt their affect into honey. Cars may look like Skinner boxes, but they're not. Humans have many buttons you can press, many of which aren't even known yet. Let's ride, and find some.



  1. Replies
    1. Thanks limom, I'm just glad I have someplace to put down these thoughts that flow through my head when I'm out riding around.


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