Post No.: 0655
The tragedies that have been most recently reported in the press become more conspicuous, salient or ‘available’ in our minds. We consequently tend to overestimate their risk. This can happen with recent aeroplane crashes or terrorist attacks, even though they’re statistically extremely rare. We can, at that moment, become more worried about flying and being in a plane crash or being caught in a terrorist incident compared to driving and being involved in a road traffic accident, even though the latter are far more common and likely than the former. We can even break road traffic accidents down further – a few driverless-vehicle-related deaths currently draw more media attention compared to each of the thousands of human-driver-vehicle-related deaths on a per-mile basis.
When something is or becomes so common, it is no longer interesting news, thus the media will report on fewer of these common incidents, which in turn may skew the perception of their actual frequency and risk. Thus things can be salient, attention-grabbing and memorable precisely because they’re uncommon and relatively low risk, rather than common and high risk – which distorts the true fair picture unless we conduct our own dedicated research to find the statistics, and perhaps draw a visual graph.
Our perception of risk is heightened when we have an emotional response. Emotional affect is a key aspect of salience, and this skews our perception of risk and divorces it from the actual probabilities. For instance, cows actually kill more people per year than sharks, yet more people vilify sharks more considerably than cows (although far more people encounter cows than sharks so really neither should be vilified – and neither are worse than humans!)
Also, risks that one perceives one can control seem less scary than risks that seem out of one’s own control, thus driving might not feel as bad as being a passenger on a plane (even if one doesn’t know how to pilot one!) or indeed as bad as being a passenger in a car if one normally drives. Hence the things that people tend to be scared of most aren’t always the things that statistically kill or injure the most people.
‘Dread risk’ is when we are more fearful of low probability, high consequence events. Being aware of one nuclear power station accident can lead people into believing that nuclear power as a source of energy should never be attempted again. Meanwhile, being aware that hundreds of thousands of traffic accidents happen per year will barely make people think about banning motorised transport. They both have pros and alternatives yet are mentally treated differently.
Intention also matters. So terrorists are out to deliberately harm civilians, compared to car accidents, even though car accidents again kill hundreds of times more people in the world. People generally do not drive to kill other people, whilst terrorists specifically aim to harm and terrorise others. Intention increases our emotional response, which can manifest as an urge to seek revenge on those who deliberately set out to hurt us or others.
So some deaths seem worse than others. Intentional murder feels far worse than an accidental death. A death caused by a person directly operating a machine might possibly feel different to a death caused by a self-driving vehicle or autonomous robot. A long-premeditated intentional murder feels worse than a heat-of-the-moment intentional murder, which in turn feels worse than gross negligence manslaughter, which in turn feels worse than a reasonably unforeseeable accidental death – even though the end results are all physically identical. Immediate threats seem worse than distant ones too, hence we might lack enough present concern for slowly looming dangers like climate change.
Perception is all that matters with risk and fear, and with most other living experiences of ours (such as the way most of us don’t feel like we’re being conned by overpriced branded products because of our perception that they’re always worth the extra). Our perceptions are our reality. Having one less separate thing to worry about is preferred over reducing one’s overall risk. For some reason, the deaths of astronauts/cosmonauts seem far less acceptable than the deaths of sailors, cave divers or mountain climbers – even though they’re all explorers, and even though outer space is known to be more hostile than the seas, caves or mountains of Earth.
Drone and guided missile strike footage from high in the sky is occasionally shown in mainstream news reports because, despite being violent and deadly events, we don’t see blood or even human figures getting blown apart in the footage. The infrared vision (translated into high-contrast black-and-white images) looks like a close air support mission in the videogame series Call of Duty. This could give the impression that modern conflicts are less bloody, there’s minimal pain and suffering, the targets aren’t really human, and it’s all clinical – even though the soldiers on the ground know that it’s as bloody, scary and as anxiety-inducing as ever; and numerous civilians have died as collateral damage in many of these kinds of missile attacks.
The number of people who died from the effects of radiation as a result of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power station disaster is disputed, but it could be as low as just one single person. (Many more confirmed casualties resulted from the evacuation itself, but of course we could argue that there would’ve been far more without proactive intervention. And how many would’ve died from radiation if people didn’t evacuate the area due to the radiation risk? Regarding any kind of tragic incident in general – if the number of deaths are high, people could argue that it could’ve been worse; or if the number of deaths are low but not zero, people could argue that it could’ve been even better… or alternatively the interventions were a waste of time, money and they unnecessarily violated people’s liberties!) Whatever the case, the physical health risks of a nuclear disaster, like the one in Chernobyl, to a population are small compared to smoking, excessive alcohol consumption or obesity, yet the psychological fear for many appears to reflect the opposite – more people hold placards to protest against building nuclear power stations than protest against building cigarette, alcohol, ultra-processed foods or sugary drinks factories or breweries.
We sometimes, either intentionally or unintentionally, exaggerate a problem we’ve emotionally dedicated ourselves to solving and we forget about the amount of progress we’ve made. Yet if we forget to notice and highlight these progresses in tackling a problem (such as global poverty or famine) then prospective charitable donors may think ‘what’s the point in helping this cause because people have donated towards solving it for years yet it doesn’t seem to have made a difference?’ Therefore if positive impacts have been made – make these known to new potential donors, not just the job that remains still to be done. Woof!
So we don’t want to resort to messages of doom and gloom because people have a tendency to just switch off or feel that something is ultimately futile. Yet we also don’t want to present messages of ‘it will be/is alright’ either when it’s not looking that way because people will just carry on as usual. Maybe we’ve got to be more like good doctors and be honest about the expected values i.e. account for all of the permutations and their odds (although people don’t always make use of such information even when provided). We’ve got to present viable and specific actions or modifications of behaviours to follow (although not everyone will follow them). And somehow allow for no diffusion of responsibilities (the passing of the buck onto others). In some urgent situations, legal measures and enforcement appear to be the only answer.
When populations start to panic at the sound of backfiring cars for thinking that it’s gunfire because of the cognitive availability (availability heuristic) of recent mass shooting incidents – it demonstrates the main objective of terrorism. Terrorism is about far more than the body count from the physical attacks themselves – it’s about the psychological anxiety it causes to communities every single day. We can end up terrorising ourselves with constant fears about terrorist attacks. It also divides communities because citizens are constantly on edge, hence too many start to become too quick to suspect anyone who merely looks or behaves a bit differently because they might be plotting terrorism.
If, out of 100,000 penalty kicks, 3,000 of them are missed, then that’ll be considered a pretty successful rate. But if, out of 100,000 released suspected violent criminals, 3,000 of them later commit a violent crime (especially any individual case that captures the media headlines for days because it was classed as a terrorist attack rather than a regular (double, triple…) homicide case), then that’ll be considered a catastrophic government failure and portions of the public and media will start to call for all released suspected violent criminals to be re-detained or very closely monitored (without consideration for where the funding will come from), or for all violent criminals to be detained indefinitely, perhaps even if they’re only suspects without charge (which would be contrary to their human rights). (At the same time – portions of the public and media will reject the dystopian march towards a heavy-handed authoritarian state, or will criticise such a state from another part of the world regarding how it handles their suspected dissidents.) It is undoubtedly unfortunate for any victims but should we ignore the 97% and decide costly policies based on the 3%?
This is the effect of dread risk. Terrorism is hardly statistically the biggest cause of death for humans but, perceptually, some deaths are considered worse than others and cause more fear and psychologically affect communities more significantly than others. Yet irrational or not, fear is debilitating, and so the public must be protected from too much of it, as well as of course from genuine dangers – hence ‘security theatre’ can sometimes be useful to alleviate or soften the public’s fears. That is, giving the impression that the country is doing something to improve security even though the risks of a particular problem are low and the cost-benefit ratio of actually spending so much to deal with something that has such a small statistical risk of danger isn’t worth it compared to the opportunity cost i.e. what that parliamentary time and public money could be spent on instead to save more lives.
Well, like military defence, and now some pandemic prevention or mitigation response measures in case of future novel infectious viruses if we’ve all learnt our lessons – there are some things we need to invest in but hope to never ever use.