If this is your first time reading, please check out the overview for Poor Ash’s Almanack, a free, vertically-integrated resource including a latticework of mental models, reviews/notes/analysis on books, guided learning journeys, and more.
Executive Summary Of The Salience / Vividness Mental Model:
If you only have three minutes, this introductory section will get you up to speed on the salience/vividness mental model.
The concept in one sentence: things that stand out as noticeable – i.e. those that are highly salient, vivid, recent, or easily recalled (available) – disproportionately influence our decision-making,
Key takeaways/applications: Salience/vividness is a function of human memory and closely related to storytelling: understanding how it works can prevent us from being overly influenced by highly salient information rather than base rates, and can also help us more effectively communicate with others around us.
Three brief examples of salience/vividness:
Look, it’s a bacillus, catch him! Today, pretty much every twelve-year-old in America could tell you that we wash our hands to reduce germs (even if, ahem, some of us don’t do that as frequently as we should.)
But this was not always obvious to much older, more educated people: in fact, most American doctors made fun of germ theory for years, despite strong scientific evidence from Europe, where it was mainstream.
What changed this? As David Oshinsky explains in his medical-history “ Bellevue” ( BV review + notes), President James Garfield wasn’t killed by an assassin’s bullets – rather, Garfield perished thanks to his doctors, who contaminated his wound with their dirty bare fingers, leading him to succumb to blood poisoning.
The death of a President did for Germ Theory what statistics-filled presentations never could: it got people paying attention, and saved countless lives.
Financial decisions. I discuss in my activation energy mental model how businesses ranging from vending-machine operators to home security monitoring services have increased their revenues by making consumers’ spending less salient with techniques like auto-pay (which literally enables us not to ever notice our monthly bills if we don’t want to). Similarly, t’s well-documented that counting out cash is a more salient transfer of money than swiping a credit card, that thus leads people to spend less, as Megan McArdle explores in “ The Up Side of Down” ( UpD review + notes).
Similarly, Richard Thaler discusses in “ Misbehaving” ( M review + notes) how large up-front expenditures ahead of deferred consumption – while salient at the time – can eventually be forgotten, leading consumers to forget to amortize those up-front costs over their daily commute (in a paid-for car), or their never-ending stream of purchases from Amazon Prime after an annual subscription fee. (On that last one, I’m guilty as charged!)
Fighting the last war. Dr. Jerome Groopman discusses, in “ How Doctors Think” ( HDT review + notes), one radiologist who, after being sued for missing a patient’s breast cancer on her mammogram, now calls back 50% more women for follow-up examinations than typical radiologists. This is one of many examples of recency bias discussed in the book; others include doctors’ tendencies to fit diagnoses to recently-seen conditions – Groopman explores how one doctor missed an easy case of aspirin poisoning because the flu had been going around, so the doctor just assumed it was the flu again.
This tendency to “fight the last war” – because, of course, the last war (especially if we “lost” it) – is highly recent and salient – pops up all over the place. In the insurance industry, for example, rates tend to jump after hurricanes (the faulty mental logic goes: there’s been a hurricane recently = there’ll probably be one soon!), then slowly creep downward as complacency sets in over time (there’s not been a hurricane recently = there probably won’t be one soon!)
Parallels exist in investing: some previously-successful investors seemed to be so shaken by the financial crisis of 2008 that they were thereafter unable to make reasonable investment decisions. The fear of another market crash prevented them from participating in many years of strong returns from reasonably-priced securities. On the other hand, as Howard Marks points out in “The Most Important Thing” (MIT review + notes), long bull markets where risk is universally rewarded can also, like a lack of hurricanes, lull investors into thinking risks don’t exist – because they haven’t been salient recently.
If this sounds interesting/applicable in your life, keep reading for unexpected applications and a deeper understanding of how this interacts with other mental models in the latticework.
However, if this doesn’t sound like something you need to learn right now, no worries! There’s plenty of other content on Poor Ash’s Almanack that might suit your needs. Instead, consider checking out our learning journeys, our discussion of theoverconfidence, path-dependency, or opportunity cost mental models, or our reviews of great books like “ The Checklist Manifesto” ( TCM review + notes), “ Deep Work” ( DpWk review + notes), or “ The Great A&P” ( GAP review + notes).
Salience/Vividness Mental Model: Deeper Look
If tomorrow I tell the press that, like, a gangbanger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all ‘part of the plan.’
But when I say that one little old mayor will die… well, then everyone loses their minds!”
The general premise here is pretty straightforward: we respond more to things that stand out than things that we’ve come to expect, or things that fly under the radar. Richard Thaler discusses this a lot in “ Misbehaving” ( M review + notes).
For example, he discusses the value of “statistical lives” (like those anonymous people who would be saved by, say, a ban on public smoking) vs. “identified lives” (the kind we can see on the news with a face and a backstory, being rescued by heroes from the clutches of death.)
Citing earlier work by economist Thomas Schelling, Thaler notes the difference between the two in real-world terms:
As Schelling notes, we rarely allow any identified life to be extinguished for lack of money.
But of course thousands of “unidentified” people die every day for lack of simple things like mosquito nets, vaccines, or clean water.”
Thaler’s thought a lot about salience bias, as we’ll explore more later.
Salience is also explored more via the storytelling model: Shawn Achor notes on pages 213 – 214 of “ Before Happiness” ( BH review + notes), for example, that presenting a salient “story” from someone affected by your work – a testimonial, in other words – is more impactful than just facts and figures alone.
Dying in a plane crash, or dying in a car crash?
Being murdered, or killing yourself?
Dying from Ebola, or dying from heart disease or the flu?
In these three scenarios, most people, in most cases, tend to pick the former options over the latter – both due to the sense of agency associated with the second options, and due to the salience/vividness of the first options.
This sort of thinking leads us astray. I’ve stitched together data from reliable sources like the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to demonstrate that, factually speaking, we’re worrying about the wrong things:
|U.S. Deaths from Heart DIsease (2016)||~ 630,000|
|U.S. Deaths from Suicide (2016)||~ 43,000|
|U.S. Deaths from Car Crashes (2016)||~ 37,000|
|U.S. Deaths from Flu (average year)||~27,500|
|U.S. Deaths from Homicide (2016)||~ 17,000|
|U.S. Deaths from Airline Crashes (CUMULATIVE, Feb 2009 – June 2018)||46|
|U.S. Deaths from Ebola (2014)||2|
Murder is hard to forget (it’s scary, and you see it every night, either on the news or on your favorite cop show.) So is Ebola, as we’ll touch on in the next section.
On the other hand, car crashes, cancer, heart disease: these are somewhat easier to forget unless you’re close to someone suffering from them. Our organs, arteries, and other internal body parts are pretty much the opposite of vivid: they theoretically exist in our bodies somewhere, but not anywhere we can see. Meanwhile, the gustatory pleasures of bacon are very salient.
So when we’re eating dinner, our cardiovascular system might as well be on Mars for all we can visualize, and that’s how you get otherwise-thoughtful, intellectual, rational people thinking red-meat heavy diets are a good idea despite a substantial body of research linking a higher frequency of red meat consumption with higher all-cause mortality (i.e. dying) and higher frequency of whole grain consumption with lower all-cause mortality.
I about fell out of my chair at dinner one day when a highly intelligent friend of mine called steak “healthy.” Tasty, yes, and I enjoy a good ribeye every so often. But let’s be clear: it ain’t lacinato kale.
Although we’ll spend most of our exploration here focusing on examples of vividness and salience, it’s worth noting that the concepts of “recency bias” and the “availability heuristic” are closely related.
The general idea is that our analysis and decisions tend to be heavily influenced by what’s easiest to call to mind, and recent events, highly visible ones, and easily “stereotypable” ones are all obviously more available in memory. Of course, this is a generally adaptive trait, as Daniel Schacter explains on page 188 of “ The Seven Sins of Memory” ( 7SOM review + notes):
“A system that renders information less accessible over time is therefore highly functional, because when information has not been used for longer and longer periods of time, it becomes less and less likely that it will be needed in the future.
On balance, the system would be better off setting aside such information… [our memory] makes a bet that when we haven’t used information recently, we probably won’t need it in the future.
We win the bet more often than we lose it, but we are acutely aware of the losses… and never aware of the wins.”
There is, of course, an amusing recursion of salience here: the times when our memory doesn’twork are very salient, but we never notice it humming along adaptively the vast majority of the time, as Schacter’s excellent book explores in detail.
Availability heuristic, where people incorrectly reason with easily available stereotypes, is similar: my favorite example comes from Jordan Ellenberg’s “ How Not To Be Wrong” ( HNW review + notes). We’re all familiar with the classic stereotype of an incredibly smart but socially inept scientist / mathematician / etc. Think Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory.
But is it really true? In “ Intelligence” ( Intel review + notes), Stuart Ritchie notes that there’s no statistical correlation between high intelligence and poor social skills; my view is that it may just be an availability heuristic or schema bottleneck. Sans official math, Jordan Ellenberg makes a similar point in “ How Not To Be Wrong” on pages 361 – 362 regarding the seeming inverse correlation between attractiveness and kindness in prospective dating partners.
Ellenberg makes the case, essentially, that even if the traits were evenly and randomly distributed, there’s some sort of threshold of attractiveness where you’re never going to notice the “mean uglies” anyway – in a friendship or professional context, perhaps you only choose to associate with people who have some combination of intelligence and social skills.
If someone is dumb and has no social skills, you’re not likely to even spend enough time around them to notice. On the other hand, maybe there’s someone in your life who you’re friends with because you’re wowed by their intelligence… but over time you keep noticing they’re not really very nice people. (I’ve had this happen to me a lot.)
That is to say, all the not-intelligent, not-nice people never even come across your radar, because if you meet someone who doesn’t seem nice or intelligent, they don’t make it to the point of having a relationship with you.
None of this is to suggest that there couldn’t perhaps be a weak inverse correlation between IQ and social skills… but it’s likely not as universal as stated.
Salience/Vividness Bias x Feedback x N-Order Impacts
You miss me when I’m gone
But when I’m around,
It’s like I’m hidden behind the paint on the walls.
The loneliness will keep me warm tonight,
seeing as you won’t.
I guess I’m looking for something more than this.”
– “Loose Ends” by Real Friends, off “Maybe This Place Is The Same And We’re Just Changing”
A lack of salient feedback is one major contributor to relationship failure. It’s also a major contributor to other sorts of failures.
From a design perspective, Don Norman discusses this concept in “ The Design of Everyday Things”( DOET review + notes), noting how frustrating it can be for users not to receive clear feedback, and how that can make it difficult for them to know what to do next. This is a concept that has real-world consequences far beyond product design – overfishing and other environmental concerns, for example.
For now, though, we’ll stick to one paradoxical aspect of salience/vividness bias: the n-order impacts of solving a salient problem can, paradoxically, lead them to become problems again… since they aren’t around anymore, nobody thinks they need solving.
Here’s one example: it’s easy to make fun of engineers for being somewhat anal about safety. You see this every so often: analysts roll their eyes when manufacturing-company management teams start talking about their safety records. Shawn Achor, as much as I like and respect his work, makes light of IRS agents pointing out the fire exits during one of his presentations.
Yet it’s precisely that diligence and vigilance on the part of engineers that keeps us safe. In “ To Engineer Is Human” ( TEiH review + notes), civil engineer Henry Petroski points out that the reason that collapsing bridges and crashing planes are so noticeable when they happen is because they’re so rare.
It didn’t used to be this way; Petroski discusses the many failures in the early days of iron bridges. Thanks to the mostly-hidden, not-salient work of engineers, including the constant application of a margin of safety, our structures usually remain quite sound, so it’s easy for us to cross bridges cavalierly. For example, the explosion of an engine on Southwest Flight 1380 in early 2018 resulted in the first U.S. commercial airline fatality since 2009, or almost a decade. Think about how many people have flown how many miles during that time.
The fact that our planes usually stay in the air, and that our bridges don’t usually collapse, makes it easy for us as a society to not worry so much about infrastructure investments, because, y’know, they’re boring. Waldman notes this in his wonderful “ Rust: The Longest War” ( Rust review + notes), which notes the lack of salience of modern miracles like – you wouldn’t expect it – aluminum cans, the kind you’ll find in a 12-pack of Coke. Rust is very un-vivid, as Waldman explains:
“[R]ust sneaks below the radar. Because it’s more sluggish than hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, blizzards, and floods, rust ranks dead last in drama. There’s no rust channel.
But rust is costlier than all other natural disasters combined, amounting to 3 percent of GDP, or $437 billion annually, more than the GDP of Sweden. […] rust is glossed over more than it’s taught, because […] it’s just not sexy.”
The lack of salience of infrastructure is also examined by one hilarious John Oliver skit (highly recommended; click the image below to watch it.)
Just to drive the point home: on page 310 of the previously-referenced “ Bellevue” ( BV review + notes), Oshinsky discusses the eponymous New York hospital’s challenging experience during Hurricane Sandy, which – again – was partly due to salience. Due to the salience of the opportunity costs and the lack of salience of the benefits, the hospital hadn’t adopted some post-Katrina best practices for backup power generation, with its backup generators in the basement where they could be flooded:
Put simply, infrastructure is invisible until the very moment it fails. As one expert put it: ‘People don’t pick hospitals based on which one has the best generator.'”
Oshinsky goes on to note that flooding from Sandy led to the death of many research animals, which halted research progress for years thereafter. These animals were in the basement (which flooded) rather than higher floors (which didn’t), again, because of salience:
“the desire to keep [research animals] hidden almost certainly played a role. ‘Our centers are the site of massive rodent slaughter,” a researcher noted. “It’s ugly work, even when it’s useful and important.”
I think I’ve driven the infrastructure point home. Let’s move on to another example: public health. The best longitudinal example I’ve seen of how solving salient problems can lead to complacency is public opinion about vaccines. One of my favorite science/medicine books is the concise, engaging, Pulitzer-prize-winning “ Polio: An American Story” by the aforementioned David Oshinsky ( PaaS review + notes).
Oshinsky provides insightful analysis of a number of topics, including a treatment of salience/vividness. He notes this throughout the book in different ways. Here, for example, is a quote from page 5, where he’s introducing the topic:
Polio hit without warning […] it killed some of its victims and marked others for life, leaving behind vivid reminders for all to see: wheelchairs, crutches, leg braces, breathing devices, deformed limbs.
In truth, polio was never the raging epidemic portrayed in the media, not even at its height in the 1940s and 1950s. Ten times as many children would be killed in accidents in these years, and three times as many would die from cancer.”
Although the recent scare over Ebola is not a great parallel because very few people actually died from Ebola (whereas polio was a “real” epidemic), metaphors are, as John Lewis Gaddis discusses in “ The Landscape of History” ( LandH review + notes), often helpful in trying to understand things we can’t be present for.
As many readers may remember, Ebola was *terrifying.* The idea of being quarantined from others while you waited to die from an incurable disease with blood pouring out of every orifice… that’s scary, it’s vivid, and it’s very hard to forget. Any disease that promises to make us bleed out of our “wherevers” is bound to catch our attention.
Ebola doesn’t get all the way to, but perhaps starts to approximate, the level of fear Oshinsky describes when it came to parents and polio: public swimming pools abandoned in the heat of summer, dustbunnies rolling in front of movie theaters in small-town Texas… kids crying uncontrollably when they accidentally fell in a puddle and got a little water on them, because they knew it might contain polio. You get the picture.
On top of the salience of polio itself, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis did a great job of leveraging the popular Franklin Delano Roosevelt – a highly salient example of someone suffering from the long-term chronic effects of poliomyelitis, just as President Garfield was a salient example of the need for handwashing and sterile medical operating environments.
Oshinsky explores how community events and, eventually, the March of Dimes leveraged this salience, along with social proof, to fund research by Jonas Salk and others to come up with a vaccine, and then a better vaccine.
You know how nowadays, kids hate shots? Well, they loved ’em back then. Kids lined up to get the polio vaccine in the 1954 field trial; they were proud to get it. In fact, one of the most difficult situations facing the scientists was deciding whether it was even ethical to run a controlled experiment on the polio vaccine (thereby depriving the control group kids of the real vaccine and, statistically, thus condemning some of them to death.)
When the vaccine worked, Jonas Salk became a national hero, even if he maybe didn’t quite deserve to. Indeed, vaccines remained a hot topic of research for quite some time, as explored by Meredith Wadman’s “ The Vaccine Race” ( TVR review + notes).
And then something funny happened: vaccines against the vast majority of immunizable killers became standard practice, and as a result, basically nobody got those diseases anymore.
Or, in other words, infectious epidemics became far less salient. They became less recent. They might as well have never existed, for all we care on a day-to-day basis. Oshinsky notes how polio very quickly became a disease people used to get. And who the hell’s ever actually heard of anyone getting whooping cough?
Well, it turns out the post-credits scene ruined the vaccine story’s happy ending. To the right is some data from the CDC on whooping cough (pertussis) cases. Notice the little spike this decade.
When kids don’t die during childhood from communicable diseases thanks to vaccines, it’s easy to forget why those vaccines are necessary, and the stage is set for salient, albeit unscientific, stories – and fabricated data – questioning the safety of vaccines.
That was my mental-models driven conclusion after reading Polio, and I’m not alone in making it. Dr. Paul Offit – himself the co-inventor of a rotavirus vaccine – explores in “ Deadly Choices” ( VAX review + notes), how very scary-sounding and prominent, yet completely scientifically unfounded, claims about the safety of vaccines by those like Jenny McCarthy led an astonishing number of parents – highly intelligent, highly educated, well-to-do parents, mind you – to make the empirically indefensible decision to not vaccinate their children. Research links these decisions with the recent outbreaks.
As Offit puts it on pages 191 – 192 of “ Deadly Choices”:
“In the first phase, people are afraid of infections […] in the 1950s, parents rushed to get the polio vaccine because they saw what polio could do; everyone knew someone who had been paralyzed or killed by the virus.
[…] as vaccines cause a dramatic reduction in diseases, vaccines become a victim of their own success. Now the focus is on vaccine side effects, real or imagined […]
In the next phase, as fear of vaccines continues to rise, immunization rates fall. And preventable diseases increase. It’s in this phase that America now finds itself.”
In fact, vaccination rates in certain wealthy, highly educated communities dropped to similar levels observed in sub-Saharan Africa, with the obvious consequence of the revival of previously well-controlled (and potentially deadly) diseases like whooping cough.
Of course, it’s not just parents who’ve made this mistake. The U.S. military did too – as Meredith Wadman explores in “ The Vaccine Race” ( TVR review + notes), adenovirus was once a killer of young men in the military. An adenovirus vaccine took care of that. With adenovirus no longer salient, it was easy for military leaders to say “meh” when the supply of vaccines ran out:
Within a short time the rate of adenovirus infections in boot-camp barracks returned to what it had been in the 1950s, prior to mass vaccination, when physicians estimated that 10 percent of all new enlistees were infected.”
Unfortunately, some of these adenovirus cases proved fatal. And, bringing it back to salienceintersecting with storytelling, here’s the kicker: one study found (predictably) that anti-vaxxers didn’t respond to facts and figures from the CDC, but did respond to vivid/gruesome photos of measles and the story of a mother who almost lost her 10-month-old.
See the parallels between this and bridge collapses?
Similar arguments could be made for handwashing, in an era where the consequences of not doing so have become far less salient thanks to medical advances. Dr. Atul Gawande’s “ The Checklist Manifesto” explores how – even now that germ theory is, obviously, widely understood and accepted – doctors and nurses can still fail to wash their hands, and how structural problem solving solutions like checklists can help with that.
“As I discovered when I myself had to spend ten days administering IV antibiotics at home, the reason that handwashing is so hard to do consistently is that it’s not actually that risky to forgo it. The odds that any one slip will cause an infection are extremely low, well under 1 percent.
And since it’s tedious and often must be done multiple times while touching a single patient, it’s very tempting to skip it sometimes. Over thousands of repetitions, this kills people.
But most of us don’t judge our actions over thousands of repetitions.”
Application/impact: oftentimes, completely solvable problems – like disease elimination via vaccination and handwashing, and bridge upkeep via proper maintenance – can be neglected because they’re not very salient. Finding a way to make these issues more salient can dramatically improve support and compliance. That can involve highlighting salient stories (one death, long-form) rather than just statistics (many deaths, short-form), or it can involve structural problem solving approaches, like checklists, to make sure we’re not forgetting to take care of non-salient risks.
Salience x Loss Aversion x Inversion
Since this model’s already quite long, we’ll keep the last interaction short and leave some to the imagination.
Most of this model has dealt with how to make things more salient to help us modify behavior in a desired way. Similar ideas are presented in the incentives mental model: making rewards (or punishments) more visible can often have a disproportionate impact at a much lower cost than actually increasing the reward.
As with most mental models, however, salience is equally applicable forward and backward via inversion. As I discuss in the loss aversion / fairness / endowment effectmental model, humans are wired to be particularly sensitive to losses, to the extent that Munger made up a term called “ deprival superreaction syndrome” to describe the level of batshit-crazy people can get when you take away something they feel entitled to.
Of course, there are times when belt-tightening is in order: maybe when economic times are lean, or maybe when we take a look at our waistlines and decide things aren’t so lean. In these sorts of scenarios, how can we take expected things away from ourselves – or others – without triggering loss aversion?
Thaler explores a lot of examples in “ Misbehaving” ( M review + notes) as well as “ Nudge” ( Ndge review + notes), the latter with coauthor Cass Sunstein. Thaler notes, for example, that not providing pay raises to adjust for inflation is a less salient move than cutting wages.
These sorts of calculations aren’t just for bigwig executives: one of Thaler’s most successful applications of salience is his work with colleagues on the “Save More Tomorrow” plan. This is discussed extensively in “ Nudge” and “ Misbehaving”, but the summary is really the exact same as the idea of the pay-raise/inflation issue mentioned above: if you automatically tie major increases in savings to someone’s next pay raise, you completely avoidloss aversion because the “lost” income is unnoticeable – at worst, you have the same amount of income you had previously; at best, you have a little more (and you can’t notice what you could have had!)
Similar techniques pop up everywhere you look. Shawn Achor recommends putting your towel over the timer on the treadmill/elliptical so the time you’ve been exercising is less salient. Similarly, efforts to cut down on spending – or eating – are almost guaranteed to fail if your first step is to cut out all your highly salient enjoyments that provide high marginal utility. Reducing the mindless stuff around the edges that you won’t really notice is much more likely to work without triggering loss aversion.
Application/impact: minimizing the salience of things we take away (from ourselves or others) can diminish the impact and avoid triggering loss aversion.