The Norman Transcript

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September 25, 2012

Slate: Why you hate cyclists

(Continued)

PHILADELPHIA —

Despite such statistics, lots of drivers assume all people on bikes are maniacs like me. In doing so, these motorists are making an inductive fallacy, not unlike saying, "Of course he beat me at basketball — he's Asian like Jeremy Lin and Yao Ming." Now, you might be thinking to yourself that you've seen more than one or two suicidal cyclists in your day — that these roaches on two wheels are an infestation that's practically begging to be squished underfoot (and by "foot" you mean "my Yukon Denali").

First off — wow, that is disturbingly violent. Second, your estimate of the number of rude cyclists and the degree of their rudeness is skewed by what behavioral economists like Daniel Kahneman call the affect heuristic, which is a fancy way of saying that people make judgments by consulting their emotions instead of logic.

The affect heuristic explains how our minds take a difficult question (one that would require rigorous logic to answer) and substitutes it for an easier one. When our emotions get involved, we jump to pre-existing conclusions instead of exerting the mental effort to think of a bespoke answer. The affect heuristic helps explain why birthers still exist even though Obama released his birth certificate — it's a powerful, negative emotional issue about which lots of people have already made up their minds. When it comes to cyclists, once some clown on two wheels almost kills himself with your car, you furiously decide that bicyclists are jerks, and that conclusion will be hard to shake regardless of countervailing facts, stats or arguments.

If you are a city driver, you have undoubtedly been scared half to death by some maniac cutting across traffic like Frogger on a fixie. Such emotionally charged events stand out in our associative memory far more than mundane events, like a cyclist riding peacefully alongside your vehicle. The affect heuristic is compounded by the idea of negativity dominance — bad events stand out more than good ones. This causes you to overestimate both the amount and the severity of upsetting events, like almost getting some dirty hipster's blood on your windshield.

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