Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 5, 2012

How much does it cost? Inoculating thought in homeland security

Filed under: Risk Assessment — by Christopher Bellavita on June 5, 2012

The book that received the most positive reaction in a recent homeland security course was Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman.

Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in economics. He never took an economics course. He is one of the people who created behavioral economics.

Creating a new discipline is a very good way to avoid taking an economics course.

I think the book is overwritten. It’s more than 400 pages; 250 pages would probably have been enough.

But if you’ve received a Nobel Prize, your books can be as long as you want.

Here is a video (about an hour long) where Kahneman outlines the core ideas in his book.

The video gets going for real at about the 8 minute mark. (Modified Wadsworth Constant at work.)

Here’s a question:

What is 2+2?

You probably have an immediate answer.

Here’s another question:

What is 17 times 36?

You probably do not have an immediate answer.

Kahneman posits two thinking styles. System 1 is quick, intuitive and emotional.

System 2 isn’t.


What do you think about this image?

Unibomber climate change

Or what about this headline and paragraph:

Climate-Change Deniers Are On The Ropes — But So Is The Planet

It’s been a tough few weeks for the forces of climate-change denial.

First came the giant billboard with Unabomber Ted Kacynzki’s face plastered across it: “I Still Believe in Global Warming. Do You?” Sponsored by the Heartland Institute, the nerve-center of climate-change denial, it was supposed to draw attention to the fact that “the most prominent advocates of global warming aren’t scientists. They are murderers, tyrants, and madmen.” Instead it drew attention to the fact that these guys had over-reached, and with predictable consequences.

According to Kahneman’s findings, if you like and trust the Heartland Institute, you are likely to accept the anecdotal story the billboard tells, more than any climate-alarmist propaganda or scientific evidence about climate change.

If you like and trust, ThinkProgress — the source of the On the Ropes tale — you like their anecdotes; maybe more than science.

If you don’t know anything about Heartland or ThinkProgress, you used some other System 1 shortcut to decide which story worked better for you.


Stories are concrete, specific and immediate. They cut through the need for all that heavy thinking stuff.

Stories appeal to System 1.

System 2 is slower, deliberative and a more logical way of thinking. It’s also a more difficult style to use.

It takes work.

Have you calculated 17 times 36 yet?

Nope; probably not worth the effort.

That’s System 2 at work; or rather at avoiding work.

Here’s another question:

A bat and a ball together cost $1.10. The bat cost one dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

System 1 says the ball cost ten cents.

Next question?

System 2, when it gets around to it, — and in some tests, 80% of the time it doesn’t get around to it — System 2 will let you know ten cents is the wrong answer.

(If your System 2 gets off the couch, you’ll see why ten cents is not the correct answer.)

People are more afraid of dying in a terrorist attack than they are afraid of dying.

But the chances of dying are greater than the chances of dying in a terrorist attack. Why does the less likely path to death have a more greater emotional impact?

System 1 again.

People are more likely to believe the following statement is true:

“Woes unite foes”

than they are to believe this statement is true:

“Woes unite enemies”

Why do people tend “to see the rhyming [aphorisms] as more accurate than the non-rhyming ones”?

Even if both sayings mean the same thing.

System 1 likes rhymes.

What does this have to do with homeland security?

The April 2012 issue of Risk Analysis (“An Official Publication of the Society for Risk Analysis”) is filled with examples illustrating the significance of risk perception and communication.

The issue is titled “Risk Perception Behavior: Anticipating and Responding to Crisis.”

Take a look at the table of contents.

Or look at this report about one of the articles: [my emphasis]

A dirty bomb attack centered on downtown Los Angeles’ financial district could severely impact the region’s economy to the tune of nearly $16 billion, fueled primarily by psychological effects that could persist for a decade….

“We decided to study a terrorist attack on Los Angeles not to scare people, but to alert policymakers just how large the impact of the public’s reaction might be,” said study co-author William Burns, a research scientist at Decision Research in Eugene, Ore. “This underscores the importance of risk communication before and after a major disaster to reduce economic losses.”….

“The economic effects of the public’s change in behavior are 15 times more costly than the immediate damage in the wake of a disaster.”

“These findings illustrate that because the costs of modern disasters are so large, even small changes in public perception and behaviors may significantly affect the economic impact….”

Or look at these slides that report on a recent experiment about “Inoculation as a Strategy for Achieving Assertive Risk Communication.” [Please keep in mind the important caution that slides cannot substitute for the full study or being present at what I was told was a "fascinating" presentation by world class scholars.]

Assertive risk communication means “actively and continuously anticipating and preempting counter-arguments” that might be generated by someone else’s System 1 response to, say, a catastrophic incident in the United States.

“Inoculating messages foster resistance to counterarguments,” says one of the slides.

“Inoculation messages move individuals in the desired direction—initially enhancing confidence.
Inoculation messages enhance resistance to counter-arguments in high-risk circumstances.
Using inoculation messages fortify what is known about best practices for risk and crisis communication.” reports another slide.

So, what does that mean in practice?

Assume “a commercial airliner carrying 253 passengers from Los Angeles to New York exploded 70 minutes into flight leaving no survivors. Air traffic control lost radar contact with the plane and within minutes local officials in Nevada began receiving reports from witnesses who saw debris falling from the sky.”

Some people speculate it was terrorism. Others wait for evidence. No one is quite sure

What should the assertive risk communication message be to inoculate an uncertain nation against jumping to “inappropriate” System 1 conclusions? Or if people are going to jump to System 1 anyway, what kind of counter-perception could be seeded?

One message is:

The Department of Homeland Security said it had “no specific, credible information regarding an active terrorist plot against the U.S. at this time, although we continue to monitor efforts by al-Qa’ida and its affiliates to carry out terrorist attacks, both in the Homeland and abroad.”

Or how about this one:

“In addition to this event, DHS has detected and prevented numerous terrorist plots. All of these plots have been thwarted by a combination of intelligence work, policing, and citizen participation.”


Right now, I’m wondering what your System 1 response is to either message and to the idea of inoculating people through assertive risk communication.

My System 2 reaction is I think people interested in homeland security will benefit from reading  Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Or at least listening to Kahneman talk about his ideas.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

June 5, 2012 @ 1:56 am

Great post and links so many thanks Chris.

I wonder why some professions are able to learn, process, and utilize new information so much better than others. Say the Medical Profession vis a vis the FIRE SERVICE. The FIRE SERVICE completely rejected becoming the leaders post Atom Bomb in learning about health physics and impacts of ionizing radiation on humans. This is why the federal civil defense effort did NOT rely on the FIRE SERVICE for civil defense leadership. Yet from the 1940′s on the Medical Profession decided that despite the risks of unseen and orderless and unfelt immediately radiation could in fact become a weapon against some diseases and in fact could through X-rays and now of course MRI’s and related things like CRTs be a major tool of the profession. Many many survivors of radiation treatment like me even though a compromised immune system for the rest of my life.

And of course always of interest when an “outsider” discovers something basic and important in another science or profession.

I talk to lawyers all the time and funny how often few understand how the judicial process treats scientific evidence in the courts or even expert testimony. How would a case involving and perhaps revolving over climate change be handled? That day perhaps not far off IMO.

Thanks again for an interesting post.

Comment by Django

June 5, 2012 @ 3:05 am

I am thinking that the use of assertive risk communications, narratives and counter narratives, etc. only serve to erode the electorate’s ability to think at all. All of this effort to “sell the drama” one way or the other is ultimately about what power gets to make sense of an uncertain world. Maybe that is ultimately the purpose of homeland security?

Regardless, I posit that it would be better to initially educate our citizens to think critically in general (and in the first place)so that they have the ability to “sense make” on their own. Having this ability might help people to better tolerate ambiguity so that regardless of the message, they are able to trust their own perceptions as opposed to the received view. One way to do this is to present students with the ideas of thinkers like Kahneman.

High school students would not be too young and concepts like these can be woven into a more general curriculum to be used to consider all types of problems…not just homeland security.

Yes we need assertive messaging in times of disaster, however developing our children’s critical thinking skills might have a larger return on investment. 1)They will have their own cognitive tools to help make sense of government and media messaging regardless of the situation and 2) They might actually be smart enough to demand the type of change our systems need to help avoid terrorism in the first place.

In regards to your question, the second message puts the event into a narrative context which could potentially help “inoculate” the masses against the spread of uncertainty. The first message seems to only fuel its flames. Education in general and critical thinking skills in specific might still be the best vaccines of all.

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 5, 2012 @ 8:30 am

A must watch video!

Comment by Michael Brady

June 5, 2012 @ 8:55 am


I am thinking that the use of assertive risk communications, narratives and counter narratives, etc. only serve to erode the electorate’s ability to think at all. All of this effort to “sell the drama” one way or the other is ultimately about what power gets to make sense of an uncertain world. Maybe that is ultimately the purpose of homeland security?

When both policymakers and the news media were capable of System 2 thinking in advance then spinning the story for System 1 consumption by the masses was manipulative. These days the newsreaders, on air celebrities, and other TV spokesmodels are as prone to, and distracted by, simple System 1 ideas as the people whose stories are being reported. Regretably the policymakers and political consultants are still quite skilled at spinning the story to suit their clients’ needs. We need to understand how the spin doctors do their thing and know how to engage in critical thinking on our own. Even then, being more thoughtful will not make us happier, which is why System 1 messages are more popular.

As for your last question, I submit the purpose of homeland security ought to be protecting our neighbors and our communities from disaster – man made or natural. On the other hand, the purpose of DHS is to get the right people reelected. Best we not confuse the two.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 7, 2012 @ 7:40 pm



There are stories, ways of weaving words, that encourage System 2 thinking. Your stories are almost always framed in this way.

In my experience the best stories require System 2. It is not always the fault of the story — or the storyteller — when readers or listeners choose System 1 interpretations.

At the dawn of the television age Marshall McLuhan worried that as visual/aural became a bigger proportion of our mass communications environment the consuming population would become more prone to subjective judgments, reversing three centuries of developing a more objective engagement with information.

I once thought McLuhan’s stories along this line were over-wrought. I wish I had gotten off my System 1 couch and listened more carefully.

Comment by Jim Curren

June 8, 2012 @ 3:42 pm


First – modified System 2 – about 600 – do you need it a more precise answer or is a quick estimate close enough. And clearly not a dime on the bat – it is somewhere around 4-6 cents if you think about it for a few secs – a bit longer to get to 5 cents. This is something that has interested me lately – true analysts might spend too much time getting a precise answer when an 80% solution will do. I met former DHS Acquisition czar Elaine Duke at a conference a few weeks ago and this was the gem she gave me – good enough analysis might be good enough for decision makers to make a decision on.

On Risk. There is a great new show on the History Channel called “The United Stats of America.” One episode concerns mortality risks. People fear snakes and planes. But no one has died in the US in a commercial airline crash in several years and only 5 or 6 people in the US die from snake bites a year – most are drunk males between 17 and 29 or religious leaders in West Va. Auto accidents caused by deer strikes kill far more. Pushing it a little further as John Mueller points out about 200 drown in toilets every year in the US – I’m sure the linkage to young males and West Va. remains here. And last to put it in context, the FBI estimates deaths due to auto-erotic asphxiation at 500 to 1000 per year. I think I may be fearing the wrong things. All I can say is that recently I have feared bathrooms although they have less bacteria than office desks and the keyboard I am typing on.

Perception is reality on the part of the mass public so they are acting on Level 1. We fear terrorists. We fear things we dont know – like chem and bio weapons. So we spend a lot of money on counters to these risks. If this helps to alter the perception that we have mitigated the risk – thats great. If we dont alter the perception – and even reduce the real risk – we havent achieved the change in perception. So, in some respects Security Theater – if it changes perceptions – works. Its best to both increase real security while raising the public confidence. Really tough to do – ask TSA Administrator Pistole.

I have to go feed the snakes.

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