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Psychologist: Rare But Vivid Events Likely To Stick In Our Minds

OPB | April 17, 2013 2:16 p.m. | Updated: April 17, 2013 3:27 p.m. | Portland

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Following Monday’s bombings in Boston, people are on edge around the country. Tuesday in Portland, the Steel Bridge was shut down for more than an hour during rush hour so that authorities could investigate a suspicious item, which turned out to be harmless. And this morning, the Department of Revenue in Salem was briefly evacuated after a suspicious powder was found. It, too, was determined to be harmless.

Social psychologist Deana Julka was a guest today on OPB’s Think Out Loud. She says people rely on heuristics — which she defines as a rule of thumb or a general mental shortcut.

She explained, “I like to describe us as cognitive misers…so we have a really limited ability, limited energy and time to carefully and deliberately evaluate every decision we make in life. So instead we depend on intuition, our past experiences and these mental shortcuts. So the “availability heuristic” is one that deals with the judging of the probability of events, and uses emotional or vivid information instead of the actual probability. We could look at, if we had a lot of data, statistically analyze every situation to see how dangerous every situation is, how safe are we in Portland or whatever. ….We rely on what we hear in the media and unfortunately we tend to hear really rare spectacular events much more often than the common things like having a sedentary lifestyle as we sit here and listen to this, which is much more likely to kill us. But these rare, very vivid events stick in our mind, and are likely to affect behavior and our perception of security.”

Also on the program was Portland Police spokesman Pete Simpson. He agreed with Julka’s assessment of the public reaction to a catastrophic attack. He added that it’s important to be observant, and that it’s always better to be safe than sorry, and call the police if you see something suspicious.

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