How cognitive biases shape our sense of security and why does it matter?
I recently got to meet with security consultants who specialise in securing public transport systems. I took the opportunity and presented them the following question: what do you think is the likelihood of becoming a victim of violent crime in an urban transportations system? Their answers surprised me. One said the likelihood is 1 to 50, his friend noted it might be 1 to 100 and another speculated it is 1 to 1000.
Needless to say all of them were very far from the mark. The actual probability of a violent crime such as robbery or assault is 1 to 5,000,000 trips, as recently published in “Safer Than You Think! Revising the Transit Safety Narrative” report.
How come these experts got it so wrong?
The answer lies in the term “cognitive bias”, coined by Kahneman and Tversky. A cognitive bias results from our brain’s inability to cope with complex problems such as mass media coverage of serious crime, and normalisation of this coverage with the millions of people that are safely using the public transport system every day. In such cases people and even experts use heuristics i.e. simple rules to form judgments. The problem with such mental shortcuts is that they focus on one aspect of a complex problem and ignore others. This results in errors which are the "cognitive biases".
So what can we do about it?
Avoiding these biases can be achieved by grounding our thoughts on facts. I always revert to the equation of risk, that is calculated by multiplying the probability of an event by its overall impact:
Risk = Probability x Impact
If we skew upwards the probability of events, due to their media attention, as we tend to do, it means we are diverting more resources to those hyperbolic threats from mundane ones that are often far more imminent and lethal, but due to their “dullness” fail to get the public and media’s attention.
On the other hand it would be a mistake to dismiss these cognitive biases as an errors. I would argue that those security experts provide us an insight to the way the public perceive the security and safety of the Public transport system. And this perception whether is grounded in facts or not drives public behaviour. As a chief security officer of a large transit system in the US once told us “if people don’t perceive the system as safe they don’t use it and we lose money”.
How do we square these two conflicting perspectives?
The approach that I often take with security and operational managers whom I meet, to counter this cognitive bias and address the public perception, is based on the Broken Window theory. This criminological theory uses broken windows as a metaphor for disorder within neighborhoods. It links disorder and incivility within a community to subsequent occurrences of serious crime. Cities and transportation agencies that adopted the broken window theory as a guidebook, such as NYC where the police forces crackdown on small offenses—petty vandalism, public lewdness, etc.—, saw dramatic crime reductions. In addition, the vigilant presence of police forces that manifested itself in cracking down petty crimes had in addition to the deterrent effect on potential offenders also a positive effect on citizens’ sense of safety and security.
Based on this theory, we at Qognify, created the situations spectrum that charts the likelihood of a security and safety situation vs. its potential impact. The following graph illustrates a city’s situation spectrum, although similar charts for railways, airports, critical facilities and more exist.
City situation spectrum
This simple methodology allows organisations, or in this case municipalities, to take a more holistic view of the situations they face and, thru a thorough risk analysis, create a prioritised list that reflects their true challenges without being skewed by inflated media attention. In the end of such exercise, most organisations realise that long tail situations deserve more attention and resources.
This is not to say that contingency plans for managing crisis situations such as extreme weather and acts of terrorisms/crime shouldn’t exist, as they are an essential element of the holistic management of the complete situation spectrum. Just to Illustrate, I have met airport and public transport organisations who implement a situation management platform to manage anything from a crisis like an emergency landing to routine maintenance tasks.
To conclude, we live in an era where data and technology abound. However, our nature inclines us to rely on our instincts and as a result reach biased conclusions. I’m confident that taking a proactive and holistic perspective in managing security and safety risks that is grounded with facts can both effectively mitigate security and safety risks while restoring people’s sense of safety and security.
Author: Udi Segall, Qognify