Sunday, June 06, 2010

Science Sunday: What The Iceland Ash Cloud & Gulf Oil Spill Have In Common

As crises go, the ash cloud over Europe that paralyzed air travel for millions of passengers and the still hemorrhaging Gulf of Mexico oil well would not seem to have anything in common, yet the human response to both does have a lot in common.

In both instances, officials settled on early version of events: The ash cloud from the Eyjafjallajokul volcano in Iceland posed a severe danger to aircraft while the leak from the Deepwater Horizon well wasn't bad.

This behavior, as blogger Johan Lehrer explains in a fascinating post at Frontal Cortex, is a form of anchoring, a cognitive bias that describes the common human tendency to rely too heavily, or "anchor," on one trait or piece of information when making decisions.

Here's an example: A used car buyer using normal decision making will consider several factors, including the odometer reading and condition of the engine, transmission, tires and body, while a used car buyer using anchoring will focus, or "anchor," on the odometer reading to the exclusion of other factors.

Lehrer cites a demonstration of anchoring done by a group of MIT economists through an auction with their graduate students:

"The items for sale included everything from a fancy bottle of French wine to a cordless keyboard to a box of chocolate truffles. The auction, however, came with a twist: Before the students could bid, they were asked to write down the last two digits of their social security number. Then, they were supposed to say whether or not they would be willing to pay that numerical amount for each of the products. For instance, if the last two digits of their social security number were 55, then they'd have to decide whether or not the bottle of wine or the cordless keyboard were worth $55. Finally, the students were instructed to write down the maximum amount they were willing to pay for the various items.

"If people were perfectly rational, then writing down their social security numbers should have no effect on their bids. In other words, a student with a low valued social security number (like 10) should be willing to pay roughly the same price as someone with a high valued number (like 90). But that's not what happened. Look, for instance, at the bidding for the cordless keyboard. Students with the highest social security numbers (80-99) made an average bid of $56. In contrast, the average bid made by students with the lowest numbers (1-20) was a paltry $16. A similar trend held for every single item. On average, students with higher numbers were willing to spend 300 percent more than those with low numbers"

So what's this have to do with the ash cloud and the oil spill?

In the case of the ash cloud, officials prudently canceled all flights because they wanted to avoid a repeat of the night near crash of a KLM Boeing 747 in 1989 when it flew above the ash cloud of an Alaskan volcano. This led to engine failure and an emergency landing.

Anchored to this event, officials ignored numerous test flights in subsequent days suggesting that the ash might not be such a severe danger, including tests that showed that the dangerous aircraft engine-melting silica content of the cloud was significantly below that of other dangerous ask clouds such as that produced by the Alaska volcano in 1989.

In the case of the oil spill, initial reports suggested that the leak was less than a thousand barrels a day. As a result, BP and the government were slow to go into crisis mode.

Anchored to this knowledge, it took BP some 17 days before it first attempted to fix the leak even though there was ample evidence that it was much, much worse, while the government's response was even slower. Over a five-week period, BP CEO Tony Hayward went from calling the incident "modest" to "an environmental catastrophe."

The moral of these stories, of course, is that the only way to avoid anchoring is to be aware of this pitfall. And that our initial reaction to a crisis is often neither relevant or valid.

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