science | June 04, 2013

Personal Risk: Maria Konnikova On Thinking Logically—Not Emotionally

Angelina Jolie recently made headlines when she announced that she'd elected to have a preventative double mastectomy. In a provocative new Salon article, science speaker Maria Konnikova uses Jolie's case as the springboard for a discussion on evaluating personal risk. While the Mastermind author says there's much to applaud both in Jolie's decision to have the procedure and to publicly discuss it, there are negative repercussions too. That's because our risk assessments are highly influenced by our emotional feelings toward certain situations. Whether we realize it or not, we tend to ignore objective thinking in favor of emotionally-driven decision making. And, if we start to see a certain risk-prevention solution as positive, then we are more likely to chose that option. The problem is that we choose the emotional option even though it may not be the most logical or effective for us.

Take the mastectomy procedure, for example. "If we see such treatment in a positive light—say, when a celebrity we like endorses it—we are more likely to think that its potential benefits outweigh its potential risks," Konnikova writes. This is something she calls the "affect heuristic"—and Jolie's public discussion of her procedure casts it in a positive light, despite the fact that it may not be the best choice for everyone. When we judge something as being positive, Konnikova says we tend to rate the risks as being low and the benefits high. Even if that's not the case, we act a certain way because it feels like the best course of action. "[We] focus on the positive and ignore—or rather, choose to ignore—the rest of the information," she writes.

While this bias is extremely difficult to overcome, Konnikova says it critical that we try to think objectively about big decisions. We must, as she writes in her book, try to think like Sherlock Holmes: Embrace logic and observation, think critically, and come to an informed deduction about our actions. "At the end, medical decisions are intensely personal. Do I screen? Do I prevent?" Konnikova concludes. "There are myriad ways of being in control, and they are as far from one-size-fits-all as they come." While Jolie's decision was right for her, it may not be for other women. We need to harness our powers of deduction to arrive at less emotionally-biased choices to determine what is right in any particular context. In her talk, Konnikova expands on the idea that Holmes' deductive thought-process is teachable. Learning to harness these skills is the key to unlocking our potential and leading happy lives.

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