AS279: No Child Left Alone, Part 2

Today we delve even further into the study found here. We talk more about the implications and possible explanations for the ultimate finding, which of course was a strong effect of people evaluating the danger of a situation not based on actual risk but on moral judgment.

8 thoughts on “AS279: No Child Left Alone, Part 2”

  1. I was saddened by the excessive use of “crazy” and “insane” and the like to refer to decisions and attitudes motivated by poor data and lack of critical thought. I understand that they were being used colloquially, to signify incredulity at the behaviours being described, but equating the two – even indirectly – seems condescending to people who believe they’re making good decisions, while also undermining the efforts that folks with mental health problems go to in order not to make poor decisions.

    Also, your guests seemed prone to the same post hoc rationalisation they assigned to their survey participants, when assessing the reasonableness of calling the police about a child left in a car (for example). There didn’t seem to be any consideration given to the reality of being faced with the circumstance as discussed without the knowledge of the parent’s intent.

  2. Thomas,

    I wanted to share some thoughts I had regarding these last two podcasts.

    First of all, you and the guests kept saying that people are making “moral” judgments versus assessing the actual danger. But it seems it is actually both. If I recall correctly, you believe morality has to do with keeping or raising the well-being of sentient beings (i.e. people), yes? If that is true, and someone sees a situation in which they suspect a danger to the well-being of a child, they might feel they have a moral obligation to protect the child. And for the most part, we WANT people to feel this way. When we see a child left in a car alone on a warm day, we certainly want them to take action. Yet, they are supposed to turn off like a switch on days where it is maybe not so warm? Wouldn’t we prefer that they be safe rather than sorry? Isn’t a sign of *compassion* for another person to care enough to take action? We would condemn a parent for sending kids alone in a car with a complete stranger, how hard is it to image that this is what we are doing more or less when we let them play in a public park alone?

    Here’s the thing; sometimes it is rational to be irrationally afraid of something. This is what Sam Harris was talking about a few podcasts ago in the context of terrorism. The reason people are so disproportionately afraid of a child being abducted as opposed to, for instance, your car being stolen while at an ATM is because we VALUE people more than cars. And so we should. We want people to value people more than material things.

    We also have a source of information that is extremely bias towards out of the ordinary events, namely the news and media. We are inundated constantly with Amber Alerts, and children being left in cars on hot days. We praise those that take action when a life is truly in danger, yet your guests seem to be saying that we should just be able to differentiate these from similar situations where the danger is not as high on the spot and without any expertise.

    I also wanted to reiterate what others have said on the other podcast, namely that it would seems true that the more occurrences of someone leaving their child alone at the park, the more likely it is that something bad will happen. If the “predator” only comes once in a while, and one leaves their child just once, the chances are objectively lower than if they leave their child every day. I think that is subconsciously influencing the judgments made in the study. This is why one would judge the danger higher, since it is believed that the parent is prone to a more “liberal” sense of danger in all other cases if they willingly leave their child.

    As far as the researchers themselves, they didn’t seem very professional. Much of their motivation for doing the study seemed based on anecdotal evidence. “There was a video on YouTube…” or “I know a man that…” I wonder how many actual instances there are of people being reported for abandoning their child versus them leaving them and no one saying or doing anything. I suspect the occurrences are much lower than they seemed to be suggesting.

    And as physiatrists, I would not have expected them to use words like “crazy” and “insane” in the context of someone acting on value judgments. They also used a lot of hyperbole which always puts up a red flag for me.

    1. From across the Atlantic: I am very happy things are different here. It is very common for kids to play outside on their own. And nobody is calling the police.
      I would say the ‘better safe than sorry’ only holds to a certain extent. Otherwise you should put your child in a locked cotton-walled room. Better safe than sorry!
      I think the point that rationality should play a larger role than it appears to do know is a valid point. No parent should be legally condemned for leaving their kids at home for a short while rather than taking them in a far more dangerous car ride to eg the bank. It is rational.
      On the other hand, we don’t have to condemn parents who do take their kids along. But if their motivation is risk reduction, some informing of the facts would be in place imo.

    2. The desire to have people act is distinct from the need to punish “perpetrators”. So, we can accept the idea that we want people to call the police if they see a child left in a car and deem it risky, whilst simultaneously rejecting the need to punish parents who do so under circumstances that are unlikely, under a reasonable assessment of the facts, to have a significant risk associated with them. That way, there’s no need for an untrained observer to exercise discretion, and they can err on the side of caution, and we can indeed praise them for taking action in the face of a potentially dangerous situation; but, simultaneously, we don’t need to go overboard and take children away from perfectly competent parents simply because a bystander made a judgement call – we can assess the circumstances of each case and deal with them appropriately.

      The idea that it’s rational to be irrationally afraid of something has to be completely irrational by definition – you can’t base a rational conclusion on irrational premises. If you want to say it’s rational to have greater fear of some outcome for a human compared to the same outcome for a car, then that’s perfectly reasonable – but then you’re not irrationally afraid, you’re rationally more afraid because of the greater consequences.

      And finally, I don’t think the argument that more occurrences lead to greater risk is a particularly useful one here. Certainly, if risk = hazard * frequency, then greater frequency leads to greater risk. But, if the risk is very low, then multiplying the frequency still results in a very low risk – if 1 child in 1.4 million is abducted by a stranger, and we assume it scales linearly, then if we let our kids go to the park alone twice as often it’s still only two in 1.4 million. However, I don’t know that it’s likely to scale like that – it doesn’t seem like the primary factor currently limiting the number of children a person can abduct is the availability of unsupervised children, and if that’s true, then having more children to choose from may not significantly increase the risk to any particular child.

      Finally, there’s nothing wrong with anecdotes providing a spark for research – that’s the whole purpose of all the case reports in the medical literature, to provide some baseline information which might spark further studies of some observation. If they came on and talked about their anecdotes as if those proved something, that would be a problem; but instead, they took those anecdotes as inspiration and then did a proper study to test the hypothesis suggested by those media stories and YouTube clips. There also doesn’t have to be many instances of a (potential) problem to make an observation worth investigating – I mean, how many cases of microcephaly do you need to see in Brazil before you start looking for a possible cause?

      1. Cheomit,

        Thank you for the thoughtful response. You make some very good points and I completely agree with your first paragraph.

        As far as the rationality of the fear, I just mean that people could be considered justified in their fears. I don’t think it’s like arachnophobia. In this case, the fear is somewhat based on easily available information. It’s just that the information is incorrect. I guess I would say it this way; the fear is largely due to the media reports being biased toward singular events so much to the point that they seem to occur more than reality. One cannot blame the individual to be ignorant of facts that are difficult for lay people to ascertain.

        As far as how much of a problem this actually is, I haven’t read the study, but they didn’t state what the rate of cases of parents being punished versus the police being called but not taking action was on the show. It also seemed to lump many different situations together and I think some granularity is called for here. And I agree that anecdotal evidence can spark the investigation, but shouldn’t be used to call this a “crisis” or that the occurances is happening at an “insane” rate, like the researchers seemed to imply on the podcast. No actual data that this was a real problem was forthcoming, but perhaps it is in the study. I’ll have to take a look.

        1. I can see what you mean now, regarding rationality. I suppose you could make a case that the fear is a rational response to the skewed information that we typically receive about these things, although even granting that I’m not sure it’s reasonable. I mean, I think everyone’s aware to at least some degree that the media is skewed on any issue of importance, and so it’s not rational to rely on a single source – particularly a source which is known to be biased – when it comes to important matters like the safety of children. So, I don’t know if I fully agree with you, but I’m at least more sympathetic to what you’ve described now!

          I admit I wasn’t looking for it, but I didn’t notice a huge amount of hyperbole regarding the frequency of these cases where an apparently reasonable parent was punished for their choices. I got the impression that they were concerned about the magnitude of the consequences, rather than the actual frequency of these cases. Ironically, perhaps, they may be responding to a large harm from a low frequency event, in the same way that law enforcement may be responding to a low frequency, high potential damage issue!

          As always, it’s probably difficult to account for the cases where police don’t take action, since they’re probably not as well documented as the extreme ones which sparked the study. And to be fair, that wasn’t what they were interested in anyway. The idea that you can’t leave your children alone for any length of time does seem to be a growing issue (even if it’s only amongst a minority of people), and they were interested in figuring out the source of that idea and why it would seem to have come to even the point it’s at when, just a few years ago, it would have been seen as absurd. I do know that there are laws where I am that could see me punished for leaving my son in the car for the two minutes it would take me to go in to the service station to pay for fuel, which were put in place relatively recently, and I certainly think that trying to understand the reason for such changes in attitude is worthwhile – particularly if we’re going to start punishing people on the basis of those changes!

  3. Nice episode. Makes me wonder how many of our other decisions are being affected by moral judgements we’re unaware of. I’d be interested to know if there were any individuals in the study who rated the case of accidentally leaving a child unattended as more dangerous. This was my initial reaction as I thought a child who wasn’t expecting an absence would be more likely to cause themselves injury through anxiety.

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