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Evolved human cognition as risk mitigation: Toward a theoretical innovation in risk communication; Lessons for risk communication learned through the Kahneman-Gigerenzer debate

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Essay 1: The foundational premise of this paper is that influencing an organism’s action depends upon intervention into its psychological processes. Risk communication is not merely about the transfer of information regarding the risk. While information transfer is valuable, if that information fails to avert or at least minimize deleterious outcomes from the threat, this is a sterile exercise. Risk communication is designed not only to inform, but also to motivate relevant individuals to take the appropriate actions to avoid or overcome the greatest risks posed by a circumstance. Achieving such risk reduction outcomes requires not only effective communication technique, but an understanding of evolved human cognition. The paper examines three cases of human evolved adaptations with an eye to how evolution has structured risk mitigation into the evolved cognitive apparatus. These are 1) the unique human version of predator detection mechanisms; 2) the evolution of language; and 3) the role of health symptoms as alarm warnings. In all three of these cases, risk mitigation turns out to be a central feature of natural selection. If risk communication practitioners do indeed need to leverage human psychology for effective interventions that reduce risky behaviour, learning more about evolved human psychology and cognition would seem to provide valuable means for accomplishing those ends. In the end, the paper acknowledges, that while natural selection tends toward risk mitigation, sexual selection can move in the opposite direction, actually increasing the likelihood of risk seeking. For an effective psychology of risk communication, much benefit comes from a deep understanding of what these schools of evolutionary scholarship offer. Essay 2: This paper looks more deeply at the role of both mismatch and sexual selection, in the process of exploring one of the most famous debates in psychology, between Daniel Kahneman’s heuristics and biases school and Gerd Gigerenzer’s fast and frugal school. Kahneman’s school emphasizes the heuristic and bias characteristics of those mental modules illustrated by the study of evolutionary psychology and evolved human cognition, while the Gigerenzer school emphasizes the fast and frugal economy of problem solving made possible by those modules, which if anything can be hindered by increased awareness or information. Kahneman characterizes the dynamics to which he points as irrational, while Gigerenzer insists upon a deeper rationality – an ecological rationality. This is a rationality molded by evolutionary pressures. The lesson for a risk communications practice that wanted to learn from the Kahneman-Gigerenzer debate is not to parse out who is right and who is wrong, but rather to recognize the lesson that comes from seeing how little they actually disagree. A risk communication practice that assumed Kahneman’s scepticism was the expected norm would be incapable of taking advantage of all those situations in which natural selection has properly primed humans for effective risk mitigation behaviour and the specific kinds of risk tolerance generated by sexual selection. On the other hand, a risk communication practice that assumed Gigerenzer’s optimism was the expected norm would not be well prepared to recognize and respond to those situations in which mismatch generated abnormal outcomes from otherwise perfectly sensibly, evolutionarily generated, risk responses. There are several ways in which evolved psychology can play into risk related behaviours in the modern world. In some cases, risk communication practice has to get out of the way; in some cases, that practice needs to know how to leverage those evolved dispositions; and, in some cases, it requires a sophisticated understanding of how and why such evolved risk mitigation dispositions may misfire and go astray.
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