Poor Risk Assessment for Improbable Events

From Wired: Virginia Tech Lesson: Rare Risks Breed Irrational Responses

The article discusses how our brains are not very good about judging the probability of rare yet horrible events, and consequently overreacting to them.

Here are some interesting tidbits:

  • “We fear being murdered, kidnapped, raped and assaulted by strangers, when it’s far more likely that the perpetrator of such offenses is a relative or a friend.”
  • “We worry about airplane crashes and rampaging shooters instead of automobile crashes and domestic violence — both far more common.”
  • “In the United States, dogs, snakes, bees and pigs each kill more people per year (.pdf) than sharks. In fact, dogs kill more humans than any animal except for other humans. Any given shark is more dangerous than any given dog, yes, but we’re far more likely to encounter dogs than sharks.”

I thought this comment on “news” was particurlarly interesting:

I tell people that if it’s in the news, don’t worry about it. The very definition of “news” is “something that hardly ever happens.” It’s when something isn’t in the news, when it’s so common that it’s no longer news — car crashes, domestic violence — that you should start worrying.

One thought on “Poor Risk Assessment for Improbable Events”

  1. Oh my, this really is a pet peeve of mine! I don’t know whether it’s a particularly American issue (it seems to be), especially when it comes to the puke-inducing “ZOMG! Think of the children!” irrational crap.

    I actually wrote an entry a while back lamenting our inability to intelligently assess and react to risks:
    http://www.bladam.com/main/entry/comparative-risks-assessment/

    Sadly, I see no evidence that — as either a species or as Americans — we’re getting any better. If anything, the obnoxious 24-hour news cycle (part of the reason I have refused to watch TV news for the last five years) has intensified folks’ irrational and counter-productive fears.

    Indeed, it’s the counter-productiveness of the fears that really makes me sad. If people don’t want to get on a plane personally, that’s fine. But when they start encouraging the passing of costly and otherwise harmful laws, it hurts all of us :-(.

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