13 April 2010

Russian Adoptions and the Availability Heuristic

As someone deep into the process of adopting internationally myself, I have been following the story of the American woman who adopted a boy from Russia and ultimately decided that she was unable to care for him and sent him back on a one-way plane to Moscow. The Russian government is seriously considering a suspension of all adoptions from Russia to the United States, at least temporarily. That would throw the in-process adoptions of hundreds of prospective adoptive parents into limbo, and I can certainly imagine how nervewracking that would be if I were in that situation. Perhaps more importantly, however, this story is heartbreaking for the child and, in my mind, raises some important questions about the behavior of the adoptive parent.

NPR correspondent Eric Weiner, author of the book The Geography of Bliss, is also an adoptive parent, and he just wrote a piece pointing out that nearly all adoption stories have a happier ending, but they don't make for good news. As a result, stories like this may lead people to overestimate the likelihood that international adoptions will fail for one reason or another. This is a good example of the availability heuristic, whereby the likelihood of an event is judged based on how easy it is to bring examples of the event to mind.

Because of the powerful influence of the media, news items can sway our estimates of how likely an event or situation is. For example, because shark attacks get lots of press, most people tend to think that they are much more common than they actually are. In fact, you're more likely to die by being struck by a piece of a falling airplane. Keep watching the skies.

1 comment:

Macay said...

In my field (criminology) we refer to this as the "dramatic fallacy", and for that reason CSI in all its varieties are the bane of my existence. The real world doesn't work like the media/dramatic world, and yet those are the structures present in our minds for all unfamiliar social terrain. It reminds me of the quote I read once by someone from the former Soviet Union who said something like, "Yes, we know Pravda is propoganda, but with no other information available we still talk and think as if it were true".