(featured image credit: paul sandham/CC)
Why we see two similar health threats very differently
My native country is in international the news again, thanks to the unfolding egg scandal that is now expanding well beyond its borders. Traces of Fipronil, an insecticide used to combat poultry mite among chickens, have been found in eggs, causing millions of them to be taken off the shelves. The initial unrest was put into perspective with claims from both the Belgian agriculture and the health ministers that the levels were just one tenth of the strict European threshold. But shortly after, that norm appeared to have been breached anyway.
Figures of acceptable limits of mg/kg, and the number of eggs it was safe to eat in a day were bandied around (was it fifteen, or just four?). There was no real panic (the Belgians are a sanguine people), but the dedicated call centre set up by the federal food agency received more than 1500 calls on its first day – 10% of what they normally get in a whole year. Clearly there was a good deal of concern.
But why so much attention for suspect eggs, and so much less for the acryl amide in the Belgian national dish, the fries? This substance is produced when starch or sugar is heated above 120 degrees (so definitely in the deep fryer), and is regarded by the World Health Organization as a possible carcinogenic. Objectively, this problem would appear to be more significant, especially in the long term – wouldn’t it?
Quite likely, but thanks to a range of cognitive quirks, we ordinary mortals find taking such an objective perspective not that easy.
For a start we regard the prominence of a news item as an indicator of its importance (the so-called salience effect). If something frequently, and for many days, figures in the headlines, then it has to be a weighty matter. The acryl amide story appeared one day in July in the Belgian media, but the eggs have been the first topic in every news bulletin for over a week now.
We also have a tendency to underestimate effects that are far in the future (a phenomenon known as hyperbolic discounting). This is behind our delaying behaviour: exercise, diet, retirement savings – we can start them all next month instead of today, as it won’t make much difference anyway. And yes, perhaps we will get cancer in 30 years’ time from that acryl amide, but hey, that’s such a long time. These eggs, though, they are toxic right now.
Furthermore, it seems that we magnify (in our perception) harm if it is the consequence of someone’s deliberate actions. Daniel Ames and Susan Fiske, two Princeton University psychologists, investigated how precisely we estimate harm. The first scenario concerned a fictitious CEO who had made a poor investment, resulting in lower salaries for his employees. Participants who had been told that he did this intentionally rated the damage to the employees as 39% higher than those who thought he did so accidentally. The second scenario described a real case in which someone had diverted the flow of a river and caused a shortage of water. The participants received a list of damages and had to estimate the magnitude of the losses suffered. Those who were told that the problem had a natural cause (lack of rain) were close to the truth ($2,753 on average compared to the real $2,862). But those who were told it concerned a deliberate act overestimated considerably ($5,120). The researchers’ analysis showed that blame motivation was behind this magnification. This is another reason why a scandal, in which business managers and government carry responsibility, is seen as a larger problem than the chemistry of deep fried potatoes.
These cognitive errors leading to the difference in perception of two threats are largely unconscious. Nevertheless, if we really took our health seriously in a rational manner, we should be equally worried about Fibronil eggs as about acryl amide fries. When we are clearly not doing that, we risk experiencing cognitive dissonance, the psychological stress we feel when we are not acting in accordance with our convictions.
But we have another string to our bow to deal with that: motivated reasoning. We add positive and negative emotions to an argument, as if they have the power of evidence, in order to not just confirm, but also justify the way we see the world.
On the one hand there are the unscrupulous businesses placing profit motives above public health, and government ministers and officials who had rather pass the hot potato (deep fried or not) than to intervene. The suspicion of fraudulent behaviour by the disinfection companies, and the arse-covering by the administration only serve to reinforce our opinion about them. On the other hand, fries have been a delicacy for generations, and few people are known to have died of cancer because they’d eaten too many of them. So this business with this carcinogenic – no, allegedly carcinogenic – substance is probably not that bad anyway.
So, quite a few reasons why one health hazard is not the same as the other one… Cognitive errors that give us a distorted, subjective picture of the world, and that even save us when all that irrationality threatens to trip us up.
We are only human after all.