n the 1980s, there was a widespread conspiracy theory that young people who played the Dungeons & Dragons fantasy game were prone to murder and suicide.
There was the story of Irving Pulling, an avid role-playing gamer who, at age 17, committed suicide after returning home from his high school in Hanover County. He left a weird suicide note.
Before that was the story of James Dallas Egbert, a child prodigy who enrolled in college at 16 and disappeared from Michigan State University, leaving an ominous note that some perceived to mean he was missing. had committed suicide. He too was a fan of Dungeons & Dragons.
Both cases came at a time when the United States was in the grip of “satanic panic”. Halloween candy was doctored. The media fanned stories of sectarian activity and child abuse. The Dungeons & Dragons murder/suicide theory was even featured in a 1985 segment of TV magazine “60 Minutes.”
There was just one problem. The theory, so widely accepted, was wrong.
All it would have taken to debunk the idea was to look at the numbers. But as James Zimring says in his new book, “Partial Truths: How Fractions Distort Our Thinking,” humans are generally not good at understanding the probability of things.
“One reason is that we are story-telling creatures who primarily use anecdotal evidence, and we are not inclined to wait or seek broad statistical data that paints the full picture of a circumstance,” said Zimring, Thomas W. Tillack of the University of Virginia. Professor of pathology. “The probability of misunderstanding has very poor results.”
The numbers tell a different story
For about five years in the 1980s, 28 cases of teenagers played Dungeons & Dragons and then committed murder or suicide. Then came a public outcry to ban the game.
“It’s a very human thing to do and it’s a good thing to do, isn’t it? Because sightings start with anecdotal evidence,” Zimring said. “If there is an association of children dying, we should pay attention to it.
“In 1984, 3 million teenagers were playing Dungeons & Dragons in the United States, and the baseline suicide rate for teenagers overall would have been around 360 suicides each year,” he said. “So when you look at the bottom of the fraction, in the denominator, Dungeons & Dragons was pretty protective. It had the opposite effect.”
In other words, children who played Dungeons & Dragons were less likely to commit suicide than teenagers as a whole.
Zimring said humans still haven’t learned to look at issues holistically.
“Leaving aside the controversy surrounding Dungeons & Dragons, people are now claiming that dark music and/or violent video games increase teen suicide, but it seems we haven’t learned our lesson because instead of saying “Okay, well, let’s look at those factors and taking into account those probabilistic determinations, people jump right to a causal conclusion,” he said. “That’s an example of a human tendency to ignore the whole fraction.”
Zimring offers several other examples in his book to prove this point. One is the sad story of a huge marketing flop by A&W Restaurants, which thought it had a home run.
The burger joint has decided to tackle one of MacDonald’s signature sandwiches, the Quarter Pounder. A&W’s burger tasted better in blind taste tests. It costs less. It was bigger. They called it the “Third Pound Burger”.
He bombed. A market post-mortem would reveal why. “The best they could determine was that people didn’t want to buy it because they thought a third of a pound was less than a quarter of a pound because three is less than four. “, Zimring said.
However, this human shortcoming of ignoring statistical data when trying to understand a situation has a silver lining, he said. It resides in something called heuristics, a cognitive framework that humans rely on to make quick, albeit sometimes imperfect, decisions.
“You can’t pay attention to every leaf blowing in the wind while you’re driving,” Zimring said, for example. “But if one of those leaves suddenly explodes and bursts into flames, you should probably pay attention. We use heuristics to allow our limited brains to process information fast enough for us to navigate through the world in real time.
“We sacrifice the most logical reasoning systems for these shortcuts because they pass us by and they usually work,” Zimring said. “It’s just that when they fail, they can fail disastrously.”
2020’s ‘Dark Alliance’ Video Game Features Iconic Dungeons & Dragons Characters, Location
Provided by the University of Virginia
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