Average vs. cumulative outrage

There’s a ceiling on how much outrage I can feel at any given moment, much like there’s a limit on how much I will consider paying for a set of dishes, even if that set contains 10,000 bone china plates.

Over the past week I’ve seen, as you have, a string of successive and increasingly shocking affronts to human decency from the President and his advisors, which should have added up to at least a few instances of my head literally hitting the ceiling.

The thing is, outrage doesn’t seem to add up in this way, and rather than each new bit of news causing me to hit the ceiling, it has simply been added to the lively simmering crock pot of intense disappointment I’ve had in my head for the last few weeks.  I get the feeling most of my liberal friends feel somewhat like this, and are just motivated enough to tweet, complain on facebook or maybe send the ACLU some money via Paypal.  I’m not criticizing this, just remarking that the emotional state of many liberals is less:

panteravulgardisplayofpower

and more:

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This isn’t a political post at all, actually.  It’s just something that I noticed about the way I feel about Trump and the news that might point to something interesting about how people think in general.

People, it shouldn’t need to be pointed out, are poor intuitive statisticians.  This much is obvious, and provable by trying to explain any statistic to anyone, ever.  As a species we seem to have a counting module that can think about quantifiable things only as “one” “some” or “a lot”.  What is interesting is that this tendency applies to things that don’t even seem quantifiable, like feelings of outrage or indignation.  I can be outraged at one thing, outraged at some things, or outraged in general, but my subjective experience during the last of these isn’t all that much more intense than the first.  I have an upper boundary on how much of any particular emotion I can feel, and more input that would push me in that direction simply escapes and is lost as outrage radiation.

On the other hand, any countervailing information that I get cancels out far more outrage than it should.  If I hear that Trump’s son might have a disability, or I see people making fun of Melania for speaking learner’s English, I can pretty quickly forget about the last 5 terrible things that Trump himself did.  The bad things he does and the good (or at least not bad) things about him are both quantified in my brain as “some stuff” and weighted surprisingly equally.  Whenever I am made to recall at least one redeeming thing about him, my outrage drops down from its ceiling to “some outrage”, until some fresh news item (or just remembering the last one) pushes it back up.

It’s as if my outrage is averaged out rather than summed.  Rather than adding up travesty after travesty to get to 10,000 travesty points before subtracting 100 because he seems to love his children, all the travesties are normalized to within a narrow range and then have positive things I know about him subtracted.

The principle in action here seems to be a variation on the principle outlined (as many great principles are) in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, that the value of any given set is usually thought of as the average of its components rather than their sum.  That is, a set of 10 like-new dishes is priced higher than a set of 12 like-new dishes and 3 broken ones.  The broken ones seem to taint the set as a whole, bringing down the value of the entire package, although the package still contains at least as many like-new dishes as the alternative.  Ergo, as long as any number of things are conceived as a set rather than taken individually, their value is likely to be considered as a mean rather than a sum.  I’m surprised and a bit disappointed (in addition to fearful of what this could mean for how we think of Trump during his administration) in light of the fact that this principle seems to apply just as well to our feelings about a person’s set of actions as to our valuation of sets of dishes.

(I had a class in which I demoed this principle improvisationally on pieces of paper, handing each student a different description of a set of dishes and asking them to price it.  The principle was proven in real time, to the surprise of several managerial types in attendance.)

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