Are you afraid to go to Mexico? Mental shortcuts may promote misperceptions about risk
Posted Oct 06 2011 6:26pm
By Kevin R. Betts
Whenever I mention growing up in Metro Detroit to people in my current city of Fargo, I find myself begrudgingly answering questions about street crime and gang violence — regional attractions and achievements, in contrast, are rarely mentioned. Maybe this shouldn’t be surprising given Detroit’s current label as “ America’s most dangerous city ” and generally gritty reputation. But I can understand why Mexico’s tourism division speaks of fighting battles against misunderstood risks and geographical imprecision propagated by politicians and the media. Speaking to Newsweek about Mexico’s recent achievements, a Mexican official says “ Everything you do is like the fourth paragraph. It should be the headline. ”
So why do so many American’s fear crossing their southern border? It probably has a lot to do with the way in which we process information about unknowns. The availability heuristic, for example, is a rule of thumb we use to predict the likelihood of events based on the ease with which examples can be brought to mind. When we think of Mexico, we may visualize beheadings, kidnappings, and mass graves — images that have been provided for us by politicians and the media in recent years. Just as our attention is drawn toward these acts of violence, our attention is drawn away from Mexico’s natural beauty, delicious food, and friendly people. Another rule of thumb known as the representativeness heuristic contributes to this misperception by leading us to judge the probability of one event by finding a comparable event and assuming the probabilities will be similar. So when we hear about violence in Ciudad Juárez, we wrongly assume that violence is commonplace in Acapulco as well. Or more precisely, when we hear about violence in Acapulco, we wrongly assume that all parts of Acapulco are dangerous.
Residents of Detroit understand that their community is more than “ America’s most dangerous ” and violence in one party of the city says little about violence in another part of the city. Likewise, Americans should realize there is more to Mexico than drug wars and that violence in one region says little about violence in other regions.
Bishop, M.A. (2006). Fast and frugal heuristics. Philosophy Compass, 1/2, 201-223.