Our minds on media.

Musings on the effects of media on cognition.

Media and Crime

A few days ago, I mentioned an article in the economist that discussed Bayesian learning in people. The article led me to wonder if it is this kind of learning in people coupled with the influence of the media that could cause people to overestimate[PDF] their chances of being a victim in a crime. Little did I know… The relation between media and crime has been studied quite prolifically. Honestly, I’m not sure why I initially thought that might not be the case (must have been a bayesian error due to not having seen the research before and not taking sociology my first time around in college). At any rate though, I found a major text on the subject called media and crime by Yvonne Jewkes. Disclaimer here: I haven’t read the book — it’ll show up in the review section once I do — but my initial readings on Google’s book search would suggest that while the relation (between media and crime) is discussed, a mechanism for the relationship and potential cause of overestimation is not. In short, this is to say, I still have homework to engage in on the matter but I’m getting closer.

One of the other, to me, interesting results of discovering relationships like this Baseyian model for learning points to another critical area of cognition. Namely, what happens when you know you’re engaging in a Bayesian process to make a decision. This feedback, this knowing about Bayesian decision-making that comes to us through mediated information, gives us a new ability (a new circuit almost) to avoid critical kinds of mistakes. Think of it this way: if you know you are engaged in making a decision that you are making based on experience, then an intelligent thing to do would be to consult research that shows you where experts differ in their decisions when compared to novices. In a sense, understanding how this kind of decision-making occurs, and knowing what biases exist allows us to ask the question “What mistake am I going to make when I engage in Process X?”

Maybe that doesn’t seem totally revolutionary. We’ve always had experts to turn to when we weren’t sure what we were doing. The point is more subtle than that. Jeffery Schwartz discusses obsessive compulsive behavior (OCD) in The Mind and the Brain and shows how they can benefit from being aware of physical properties of their brain that illustrate their mental difficulty. Dr. Schwartz would literally show his patients MRIs of their brain in order to show them that their obsessive thoughts were in fact due to a malfunction. This awareness made it easier for them to begin to identify and dismiss those thoughts that were obsessive compulsive. In doing so, with practice, they literally change the structure of their brain, creating a new “circuit” between the prefrontal cortex and the caudate nucleus, overcoming the obsessive compulsive thoughts that come from the Orbital frontal cortex and its connections the caudate nucleus and the cingulate gyrus. They physically change their brain structure and likely do so in a way similar to how bayesian learning “programs” us in the first place; therefore, allowing us to re-program ourselves through conscious reflections on events and facts.

Using this kind of feedback to “change your mind” incidentally is pretty widely discussed in Steven Johnson’s book Mide Wide Open. He also points to a number of other feedback mechanisms we can now use to improve our understanding of our own minds.

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