How Eye-Catching Details Render Us Blind

The Art of Thinking Clearly - Rolf Dobelli 2014

How Eye-Catching Details Render Us Blind

Salience Effect

Imagine the issue of marijuana has been dominating the media for the past few months. Television programs portray potheads, clandestine growers, and dealers. The tabloid press prints photos of twelve-year-old girls smoking joints. Broadsheets roll out the medical arguments and illuminate the societal, even philosophical aspects of the substance. Marijuana is on everyone’s lips. Let’s assume for a moment that smoking does not affect driving in any way. Just as anyone can wind up in an accident, a driver with a joint is also involved in a crash every now and then—purely coincidentally.

Kurt is a local journalist. One evening, he happens to drive past the scene of an accident. A car is wrapped around a tree trunk. Since Kurt has a very good relationship with the local police, he learns that they found marijuana in the backseat of the car. He hurries back to the newsroom and writes this headline: “Marijuana Kills Yet Another Motorist.”

As stated above, we are assuming that the statistical relationship between marijuana and car accidents is zero. Thus, Kurt’s headline is unfounded. He has fallen victim to the salience effect. Salience refers to a prominent feature, a stand-out attribute, a particularity, something that catches your eye. The salience effect ensures that outstanding features receive much more attention than they deserve. Since marijuana is the salient feature of this accident, Kurt believes that it is responsible for the crash.

A few years later, Kurt moves into business journalism. One of the largest companies in the world has just announced it is promoting a woman to CEO. This is big news! Kurt snaps open his laptop and begins to write his commentary: The woman in question, he types, got the post simply because she is female. In truth, the promotion probably had nothing to do with gender, especially since men fill most top positions. If it were so important to have women as leaders, other companies would have acted by now. But in this news story, gender is the salient feature, and thus it earns undue weight.

Not only journalists fall prey to the salience effect. We all do. Two men rob a bank and are arrested shortly after. It transpires that they are Nigerian. Although no ethnic group is responsible for a disproportionate number of bank robberies, this salient fact distorts our thinking. Lawless immigrants at it again, we think. If an Armenian commits rape, it is attributed to the “Armenians” rather than other factors that also exist among Americans. Thus, prejudices form. That the vast majority of immigrants live lawful lives is easily forgotten. We always recall the undesirable exceptions—they are particularly salient. Therefore, whenever immigrants are involved, it is the striking, negative incidents that come to mind first.

The salience effect influences not only how we interpret the past but also how we imagine the future. Daniel Kahneman and his fellow researcher Amos Tversky found that we place unwarranted emphasis on salient information when we are forecasting. This explains why investors are more sensitive to sensational news (i.e., the dismissal of a CEO) than they are to less striking information (such as the long-term growth of a company’s profits). Even professional analysts cannot always evade the salience effect.

In conclusion: Salient information has an undue influence on how you think and act. We tend to neglect hidden, slow-to-develop, discreet factors. Do not be blinded by irregularities. A book with an unusual, fire-engine red jacket makes it onto the bestseller list. Your first instinct is to attribute the success of the book to the memorable cover. Don’t. Gather enough mental energy to fight against seemingly obvious explanations.