Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Toxic Apple Juice

Written by: on February 28, 2024

Is it “safer to pour apple juice down the drain or to take it to a toxic waste dump?”[1] Out of context it feels like such a foolish question, but concluding that a substance one has been blithely consuming for years is suddenly become toxic was the result of what Kahneman calls the availability heuristic. When everything one knows about apples can be summed up in “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” then apples are healthy.  After media begins telling the story that apples are coated with a substance found to cause cancer in rats, the brain’s easiest association with apples turns into risk of a dreaded disease. Apples then become a source of fear and consuming them, or products made from them, is a risky behavior. That’s what happened during the so-called “alar scare” of 1989 which resulted in the opening quote. Although later research showed the risk to be very small, a full-blown availability cascade was already underway.

Availability cascade describes the way that media, fear, and public demand shape public policy.[2] First, media reports an incident or, perhaps, a small study. It might be paired with a click-bait headline. Citizens become concerned and consume more media, fear grows. To alleviate their anxiety, citizens triangle in the government by demanding action.[3]  With voters riled up, what was once a media story is now a political topic with each side projecting blame and further inflaming coverage. Celebrities testifying before congress is the quintessential image indicating an availability cascade is underway. Eventually there is some sort of action taken by government. In the case of alar, the manufacturer withdrew it and the FDA banned it. Kahneman concluded that the final impact of the alar scare of 1989 was probably negative towards people’s health because less apples were actually consumed. It so happens that there is more to the story because the availability cascade does not happen just once, but again and again in overlapping cycles. [4]

Media coverage about alar produced, at least for a season, fear of chemicals on produce. This fear not only temporarily reduced apple consumption, it also led to a widespread public interest in, and demand for, organic produce.[5] In1989, organic growing was still small-scale. To meet the growing demand, some farmers invested heavily in land and equipment. Time passed, and one may speculate further availability cascades happened, which soon pushed the memory of fear and sense of risk further and further into the background for most Americans. To save their farms, some of the now indebted organic farmers were forced to partner with food growing giants and “industrial organic” was born.[6]

With food industry giants like Con-agra now invested, organic food became another product line to market. Organic food was eventually pushed permanently into the mainstream. It is estimated that the industrialization of organic food prevented the use of hundreds of thousands of pounds of pesticides and over 8 million pounds of petrochemical fertilizer by 1999.[7]

In the case of alar, later research determined the actual risk was very, very small, but was the resulting policy a mistake?[8] Fast forward 35 years and in addition to immediate and personal concern for cancer, there is also a global concern for climate change and long-term viability of Earth. Perhaps what now amounts to uncounted pounds of petrochemicals saved is an upside of an earlier overreaction? (In making this statement I am may be operating from my own bias!) Following the chain of events of the alar scare further in time supports Paul Slovic’s view in Kahneman that when public interest and expert opinion disagree, there is insight and intelligence on both sides.[9]

I find great value in better understanding the ways that psychology influence public opinion and public policy. It shows me that “democracy is inevitably messy” so why get all bothered about it?[10] Instead of avoiding media because I don’t want to deal with my own emotions when hearing statements in the nature of ‘apple juice is toxic,’ perhaps I can exercise my ‘less-anxious’ muscles and trust in the long game.

[1] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013),143.

[2] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, 142.

[3] Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (10th Anniversary, Revised Edition) (New York: Church Publishing, 2017). See chapter 7 for explanation of emotional triangles.

[4] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 143.

[5] Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York: Penguin Press, 2006), 153.

[6] Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 153.

[7] Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 164.

[8] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, 143.

[9] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, 140.

[10] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, 145.

About the Author

Julie O'Hara

12 responses to “Toxic Apple Juice”

  1. mm Ryan Thorson says:

    Thanks Julie. Fascinating story and I appreciate your posture of trusting in the long game and practicing a less-anxious presence.

    Where have you seen the availability cascade within the world of Church?

    • Julie O'Hara says:

      Hi Ryan,
      I’m not completely sure about my reply…I’ve thought of this off and on for a couple of days. There is not one serious issue I feel comfortable dropping in to a blog response – too much conversation required. Can I just say I will be paying closer attention?

  2. Adam Cheney says:

    That section on the media coverage reminded me of seeing roller coaster incidents covering the news for a season. It was about a decade ago or longer but there was a summer when almost daily the news was showing more people needing to be rescued from a roller coaster. It seemed odd that all the roller coasters all broke down in the same season and haven’t really had issues since or before. It was just the re-occurring story of the season.
    I love the reference to Michael Pollen as well. He has some insightful things to say. Have you seen a similar situation as the apple juice played out in the church culture? Do you think we do this in all aspects of our society?

    • Julie O'Hara says:

      Hi Adam, Well, ‘all’ is really broad, but I do think we tend to do this a lot…in families, businesses and on national and global stages. You know in Friedman when he talks about blaming to maintain the anxiety balance? I think an availability cascade is related. If “something terrible” becomes the focus of collective anxiety, and the anxiety triangle is brought back into balance by “action”…then the anxiety moves elsewhere. Something like that.

  3. Christy Liner says:

    Hi Julie – thanks for your post. I grew up with my grandmother eating an apple every day – but also scraping the wax off of them. I wonder if she knew about the alar scare.

    What are some ways you have experienced the availability heuristic in your own work?

    • Julie O'Hara says:

      Hi Christy, ew, yes, the wax.
      I have just this week been addressing an “issue” with a survey. 96 people are involved in this survey and 4 people have had questions. 2 of the questions could be classified as “problems” that need to be addressed. 92 people have simply completed the survey without issue.
      Here is where I think the availability heuristic comes into play. The person in our organization who received the 4 questions drafted a very lengthy email to all participants to address the “problems” with the surveys. I think that person was reacting to the “availability” of the 4 questions in their inbox.

      Perhaps we will tweak a future survey based on these questions, but a long, detailed explanation to the whole group was an over-reaction in my opinion and connected to anxiety and a sense of needing to “do” something because 2 people were unsure.

  4. Debbie Owen says:

    Julie, in which ways do you think you can use some of these psychological understandings in your work?

  5. Julie O'Hara says:

    Hi Debbie,
    When a person comes with a report that “everyone” is saying something or do something, I think it is important to ask “how many?” or “Who?” and take that real number and compare it to the whole set. That will keep me from joining automatically in the availability cascade myself. This is part of being less-anxious…and making sense of the world with numbers 🙂

  6. Chad Warren says:

    I’m not very familiar with your NPO. How do Kahneman’s theories interact with what you are researching?

  7. Diane Tuttle says:

    Hi Julie, I found your blog informative and also wondering as Ryan had about how this might relate to your work. That being said, I appreciate your reply to him that you would like to think through it more and it may be too much for a blog post. So, on a different note, how might you live out a less anxious presence in either work or personal life?

    • Julie O'Hara says:

      Hi Diane,
      Thanks for your question. There is someone in my life that I might describe as very reactive and this person often brings up political topics from a right/wrong perspective. This relationship is giving me an opportunity to practice several things at once: being less-anxious, listening and practicing curiosity. It is this last, practicing curiosity, that really guides me.

  8. Noel Liemam says:

    Hi, Julie, thank you for your post, it brought to my attention the ‘availability cascade.’ Do you have any example of how ‘availability cascade affects leadership?

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