State of fear

The latest Crypto-gram from Bruce Schneier has a piece about the massacre in Aurora which should be mandatory reading; young, old, employed, unemployed, lawyers, legislators, politicians, policemen, soldiers, sailors, teachers, technicians, programmers, plumbers, civil rights activists, sportsmen, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers to name a few. Everyone should read it!

I offer the following extract, with my added emphasis:

Overreaction and Overly Specific Reactions to Rare Risks

Horrific events, such as the massacre in Aurora, can be catalysts for social and political change. Sometimes it seems that they’re the only catalyst; recall how drastically our policies toward terrorism changed after 9/11 despite how moribund they were before.

The problem is that fear can cloud our reasoning, causing us to overreact and to overly focus on the specifics. And the key is to steer our desire for change in that time of fear.

Our brains aren’t very good at probability and risk analysis. We tend to exaggerate spectacular, strange and rare events, and downplay ordinary, familiar and common ones. We think rare risks are more common than they are. We fear them more than probability indicates we should.

There is a lot of psychological research that tries to explain this, but one of the key findings is this: People tend to base risk analysis more on stories than on data. Stories engage us at a much more visceral level, especially stories that are vivid, exciting or personally involving.

If a friend tells you about getting mugged in a foreign country, that story is more likely to affect how safe you feel traveling to that country than reading a page of abstract crime statistics will.

Novelty plus dread plus a good story equals overreaction.

And who are the major storytellers these days? Television and the Internet. So when news programs and sites endlessly repeat the story from Aurora, with interviews with those in the theater, interviews with the families, and commentary by anyone who has a point to make, we start to think this is something to fear, rather than a rare event that almost never happens and isn’t worth worrying about. In other words, reading five stories about the same event feels somewhat like five separate events, and that skews our perceptions.

We see the effects of this all the time.

It’s strangers by whom we fear being murdered, kidnapped, raped and assaulted, when it’s far more likely that any 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 of which are far more common and far, far more deadly.

Schneier writes common sense that should be common knowledge. However, as a wise man once told me, there’s often a difference between common sense and common practice. We need to view scare stories in context, and it’s important for our society and our individual wellbeing, that the context excludes fear.

[There is a local example of part of this essay: Israel has lost more people to casualties on the roads, than it has in the wars it has fought. And while people long for peace, and an end to the conflict, and many work towards it, few – if any – take the much more accessible, immediate and effective action of driving safely; action that would address a real, day-to-day risk, and reduce it. But while there’s fear in the air over Iran, any road safety initiative is likely to be a waste of time.]