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Fallacy of misleading vividness

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Letter to the Editor
Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Mass shootings are, statistically, a very small problem. That's not to say they aren't utterly horrifying — people's lives are destroyed literally and figuratively.

But if we prioritize our political attention to topics based on how many lives were at stake, mass shootings wouldn't be on the radar.

The number of deaths from mass shootings from Columbine (1999) to the present — according to a database compiled by Mother Jones magazine —is 322. Conversely, almost 4,000 people drown accidentally every year. Last year, more than 31,000 people died from poisoning, which includes drug overdoses.

Simply, mass shootings are incredibly rare and don't kill a lot of people.

So why aren't drowning and poisoning more important social issues than gun control? Because of a psychological concept known as the “logical fallacy of misleading vividness.” That's when the thought of something is so emotionally potent — positively or negatively — that people overestimate the likelihood of its occurrence.

It's why many people are afraid to fly. They understand intellectually that crashes almost never happen and flying is statistically the safest way to travel. But the idea of knowing they're going to die for a full two minutes in free fall is so vivid and disturbing, they experience intense fear about an activity that is safer than driving to the airport.

This is what happens to us, collectively as a nation, when mass shootings occur.

Shootings are an incredible statistical deviation from the norm, resulting in fewer deaths than other fatal activities. This is an important point.

When government policy becomes based on emotional content rather than facts, we are heading in the wrong direction.

Karlin Miller


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