Hundreds and thousands of elephants are killed every year for their tusks and it does not get even 5th or a 6th page news headlines in any of the major newspapers. Not even online news portals or TV channels give it enough prominence.
So, what made the entire media focus on the death of one female pregnant elephant? The news about the death led to a furore not even seen in the victims of covid19 who could not even get sufficient medical attention.
A similar pattern can be observed when we witness the death of celebrities. People would see it as an event with far less probability when compared with deaths of common people. Even suicidal deaths of celebrities achieve far higher eminence than of other suicides committed, even at a comparatively younger age. 1,35,000 people commit suicide every year in India on an average and the number gains far much importance when a well-known person becomes a casualty.
Saliency plays a critical role in how we view an event. Celebrities are well known, death of an elephant that too a pregnant one is rare and has an inbuilt saliency . We get emotional when we see the picture of a child drowning; however, a similar picture of entire villages sinking fails to stir much emotion in us.
We all remember how one child in Syria became the most viewed face of adversity being confronted by Syrians when his dead body was flashed across all the major news channels in the world. Far many more children had fallen victim to internal strife and terrorism in Syria, but the only sticky figure is of a child drowning while trying a begin a new life with his family. The picture though at least helped in turning world’s attention to their plight, which until that time was just another Middle Eastern conflict.
Salience bias also known as perceptual bias is a type of cognitive bias that leads to a predisposition towards events or items of prominence or emotionally fascinating while ignoring those that are unremarkable, even though there is nothing to differentiate between the two of them rationally.
Some events generate a much higher level of amygdala activation compared to others and while we are in the middle of that emotional quagmire, we become myopic to a much larger picture of similar events with hardly any difference in terms of their rational impact.
We tend to react differently to one person dying in an accident as we visualize an individual, injured and in deep pain, however a similar accident when leads to loss of life of 20, our mind somehow begins to perceive it in a different way.
So, what can we do to avoid such a bias. One thing we should do is to avoid becoming judgmental or emotional and try to look at the event as a whole rather than focusing on the individual aspect.
Although, we can become agents of change when we try to garner people’s attention using individual examples. A large-scale change in our thought and action as well as the government’s response to it will only occur when we begin to respond to bigger events with a much larger impact than one off incidents, which may be emotionally alluring but are just a tip of the iceberg.
Accepting we might be acting out of Salience bias can be the first step towards becoming a little more rational in our thought process while taking concrete action steps in sync with the enormity of the incident.