The psychology of why 94 deaths from terrorism are scarier than 301,797 deaths from guns
Jenny Anderson writes at Quartz:
According to the New America Foundation, jihadists killed 94 people inside the United States between 2005 and 2015. During that same time period, 301,797 people in the US were shot dead, Politifact reports.
At first blush, these numbers might seem to indicate that Donald Trump’s temporary ban on immigrants from seven countries—a goal he said was intended to “protect the American people from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals admitted to the United States”—is utterly misguided.
But Trump is right about at least one thing: Americans are more afraid of terrorism than they are of guns, despite the fact that guns are 3,210 times more likely to kill them.
Chapman University has conducted a Survey of American Fears for more than three years. It asks 1,500 adults what they fear most. It organizes the fears into categories that include personal fears, conspiracy theories, terrorism, natural disasters, paranormal fears, and more recently, fear of Muslims.
In 2016, Americans’ number-one fear was “corruption of government officials”—the same top fear as in 2015. Terrorist attacks came second. In fact, of the top five fears, two are terror-related. And number five is not fear of guns but fear of government restrictions on guns. Fear of a loved one dying—whether by gun violence or anything else—came next.
One reason people’s fears don’t line up with actual risks is that our brains are wired by evolution to make fast judgements which are not always backed up by logical reasoning. “Our emotions push us to make snap judgments that once were sensible—but may not be anymore,” Maia Szalavitz, a child psychiatrist, wrote in 2008 in Psychology Today.
Also, fear strengthens memory, she wrote, so that one-off catastrophes like plane crashes or terrorist attacks embed in our memories, while we blank the horrible accidents we see daily on the highway. “As a result, we overestimate the odds of dreadful but infrequent events and underestimate how risky ordinary events are,” Szalavitz explained.
Risk perception (pdf) used to be based on an analytical equation: you multiply the probability of an event by the potential damage of its outcome. But Paul Slovic, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, understood the powerful role of emotions in decision-making and altered that equation, noting that many things affect how we perceive risk:
- do you trust the person you are dealing with
- control vs. lack of control (lack of control inflates risk perceptions)
- is it catastrophic or chronic (catastrophic inflates risk perceptions)
- does it incite dread or anger (dread inflates risk perceptions)
- uncertainty (lack of knowledge about something inflates risk perceptions)
“Most people do not distinguish well between a one-in-a-thousand risk and a one-in-a-million risk,” said Mark Egan, an associate advisor at the Behavioral Insights Group in London.
Baruch Fischhoff, a decision scientist at Carnegie Mellon, said . . .
It would seem that such cognitive biases could be overcome by education, information, and self-discipline. One of the great benefits of science is the way it evaluates the truth of statements (i.e., how well they coincide with reality) without involving emotional arguments but relying instead on factual evidence and reasoning. It seems something worthy of aspiration.