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The psychological drive behind these is our innate reliance on heuristics. Heuristics is a powerful ability our minds possess that augments our daily decision making, covering everything from deciding on the location of a new home, to the simplest of tasks such as recognizing objects. It is heuristics that allow us to quickly assemble a picture of our daily surroundings and resolve problems.
What exactly are they? Heuristics are psychological, cognitive shortcuts. When we for example, see a wheel of a car in an obscured image, we would be primed by our past knowledge and associations to expect to see the rest of the car. This in turn, allows us to make the decision to step back onto the curb as we spot the car coming round the corner. Heuristics then, prime us to anticipate an outcome, given either our past experience, our knowledge of the situation, or our expectations in the given context.
There is unfortunately, a downside to this otherwise efficient means of making sense of our world. As mentioned in the first paragraph, it is also our reliance on heuristics that leads to the over generalization of matters, and the stereotyping and stigmatization of people or objects. In our current era for example, it is this stereotyping that leads to hate crimes committed against the minorities, and the discrimination faced by the refugees.
Lending to this are studies that investigate how heuristics develop and are applied. An example of this is a study showing that people tend to under or overestimate the risk of specific events and incidents, depending upon the ease with which examples come to mind. In the study, it was discovered the people overestimated the number of deaths caused by accidents; which are often widely reported in the media, and underestimated the number of deaths caused by common diseases; which often do not get much publicity.1 In reality, these diseases cause 15 times more death than accidents. Another example would be the stigmatization of psychiatry and psychological disorders. Owing once more to persistent and inaccurate media portrayal, a German survey conducted found that 25% of respondents still believed that patients do not leave psychiatric hospitals, and a surprising 50% of the respondents believed that straitjackets are still in use.
As such, whilst heuristics are a great tool in allowing us to make decisions efficiently in our daily lives, they are not infallible, and are prone to producing erroneous judgements if we invoke inappropriate contexts. We should thus be wary of being too accepting of generic portrayals of situations, institutions, and people in the media, and attempt to delve behind the veil to distinguish for ourselves the portrayals from reality.
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