Sometimes our anxieties or fears are misplaced, considering the odds of a given occurrence. For instance, many people are afraid of flying, even though the risk of flying is far lower than driving (Gigerenzer, 2006), an activity that most Americans engage in on a daily basis.
Risk is difficult to assess, even by experts. Psychological, social, cultural, and political factors can serve to amplify risk (Kasperson, et al., 1988). The thinking error in relying on feelings such as fear, anger, or even a false sense of security is known as the affect heuristic (Slovic & Peters, 2006).
The affect heuristic may explain the outsized fear of a terrorist attack. Clara Bayer, a web developer, highlights this common discrepancy with her “Your Cause of Death” page. Refreshing the screen will result in a randomized cause of death based on actual odds. Common illnesses, many of which are preventable in part with lifestyle changes, are far more likely to result in death than a Muslim extremist attack. The likelihood of a terrorist attack is known as a dread risk, in other words, it has low probability but has the potential to result in high damage (Gigerenzer, 2006).
At the same time, low probability events with high consequences can also tend to diminish the perception of risk. Slovic (2000) uses the example of motorists that refuse to regularly buckle their seat-belt. While the odds are low that an accident will occur the next time one drives, over time, after thousands of trips, the likelihood is much higher. The same flawed logic applies for homeowners that hesitate to purchase insurance in case of a natural disaster.
Slovic (2000) found that certain factors were associated with a higher magnitude of fear toward a potential risk. These factors included a lack of control, a lack of understanding, or a lack of familiarity. The potential for catastrophe, inequitable distribution of risk, or a perceived delay in the manifestation of harm also increased anxieties. Understanding probabilities is a good starting point in rationalizing unnecessary fearfulness.
Berry, C. Your cause of death. Retrieved from http://yourcauseofdeath.com/
Gigerenzer, G. (2006), Out of the frying pan into the fire: Behavioral reactions to terrorist attacks. Risk Analysis, 26: 347–351. doi:10.1111/j.1539-6924.2006.00753.x
Kasperson, R. E., Renn, O., Slovic, P., Brown, H. S., Emel, J., Goble, R., Kasperson, J. X. and Ratick, S. (1988), The Social Amplification of Risk: A Conceptual Framework. Risk Analysis, 8: 177–187. doi:10.1111/j.1539-6924.1988.tb01168.x
Slovic, P. (Ed.). (2000). Risk, society, and policy series: The perception of risk. London: Earthscan Publications.
Slovic, P. & Peters, E. (2006). Risk perception and affect. Current Directions in Psychological Science 15(6), 322-325. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8721.2006.00461.x
Patel, S. (2016). Downtown Core, Singapore. [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://unsplash.com/photos/jv15x2Gs5F8