They Won’t Thank You

People are weird.

We’re weird about a lot of things, but we’re particularly weird about fear. We’re weird about what we fear and how we react to fear. Phobias are clear examples of irrational human fears, but they’re hardly unique, just extreme.

Security guru Bruce Schneier has written an excellent, extensive essay on the ways in which people screw up fear and their reactions to it. (One caveat: Don’t get too caught up in the evolutionary psychology. It makes for great just-so stories and mnemonics, but it’s untestable speculation.) In particular, he focuses on the trade-offs we make in order to feel secure.

There are several specific aspects of the security trade-off that can go wrong. For example:

1. The severity of the risk.
2. The probability of the risk.
3. The magnitude of the costs.
4. How effective the countermeasure is at mitigating the risk.
5. How well disparate risks and costs can be compared.

The more your perception diverges from reality in any of these five aspects, the more your perceived trade-off won’t match the actual trade-off. If you think that the risk is greater than it really is, you’re going to overspend on mitigating that risk. If you think the risk is real but only affects other people–for whatever reason–you’re going to underspend. If you overestimate the costs of a countermeasure, you’re less likely to apply it when you should, and if you overestimate how effective a countermeasure is, you’re more likely to apply it when you shouldn’t. If you incorrectly evaluate the trade-off, you won’t accurately balance the costs and benefits.

A lot of this can be chalked up to simple ignorance. If you think the murder rate in your town is one-tenth of what it really is, for example, then you’re going to make bad security trade-offs. But I’m more interested in divergences between perception and reality that can’t be explained that easily. Why is it that, even if someone knows that automobiles kill 40,000 people each year in the U.S. alone, and airplanes kill only hundreds worldwide, he is more afraid of airplanes than automobiles? Why is it that, when food poisoning kills 5,000 people every year and 9/11 terrorists killed 2,973 people in one non-repeated incident, we are spending tens of billions of dollars per year (not even counting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) on terrorism defense while the entire budget for the Food and Drug Administration in 2007 is only $1.9 billion?

Much of the essay is devoted to the factors that disproportionately enhance our perceptions of risk, such as novelty, whether a risk is chosen or forced, and the detail with which a risk is described. None of these, of course, affect the actual degree of risk involved, but they all affect our perception of it.

Knowing that we have these biases should allow us a respite from fear. Discovering that our fears are irrational should provide us the ideal solution for that security trade-off: diminished fear at no cost to us. But what happens in real life? I got to find out this week.

Princeton, Minnesota, a good-sized small town just outside the Twin Cities metro area, experienced an event earlier this week. Three packages, consisting of glass bottles filled with an inert powder plus some wires, were found outside three public buildings. They were treated as potential bombs until analyzed, and the town was searched for more, with none found. The three packages were variously described as “suspicious” and as “incendiary devices” before it was determined what they were.

On the same day, five plastic bottles were found in ditches outside of town. They contained ingredients that produce gas when combined, such as vinegar and baking soda or Diet Coke and Mentos. Four of the bottles had ruptured from the gas.

Two young men have been arrested, although they haven’t yet been charged.

When Quiche Moraine’s Greg Laden reported the incident on his personal blog, he noted that the likelihood that these were anything other than an ill-conceived prank by local teenagers was very low. Teenagers are, after all, notoriously bad at predicting the outcomes of their “funny” ideas, and it was homecoming week in Princeton.

All of this is true and, one would think, reassuring for the residents of Princeton. After all, shouldn’t they prefer to treat this as a prank until they know there’s a reason to be afraid? Shouldn’t they want a reason to say, “Oh, yeah. Whew!”? Apparently not.

I actually go to Princeton.Look up your facts turns out they found 4 more.Totaling up to 7.This is not some homecoming prank.

I to live in Princeton and what happened here today is not some high school prank please get your facts straight..Princeton and Zimmerman are also the fallout centers in the event of a problem or threat at the Monticello nuclear plants…just a little to coincedential.

Those of you NOT in Princeton, your speculation tries to make our situation trivial. It wasn’t YOU that got the call to pick your children up at their (or other) schools because of suspicious packages found around town. It wasn’t you that had to explain to the kids why their school wasn’t safe on Wednesday, but that they had to go back on Thursday. It wasn’t you who’s entire security was shaken…so maybe you should get the facts straight. It is confirmed that one of the packages was an incendiary device…in other words, contained materials used to make a “fire bomb”. It is not confirmed whether there were “only” the three packages, or if four more were indeed found. HOWEVER, our small, tight-knit, community needs support & encouragement right now. Not a bunch of BS from those removed from the scene…

Interestingly enough, everyone in Princeton (or at least everyone who was following events online) seemed to resent the idea that they might not be in danger. Not only did they not take the opportunity to relax, the idea that they could just made them more angry, even though, in the end, there were no bombs and it was a pair of teenagers who were arrested, just as the odds would lead us to expect.

Does this mean that we’re doomed when we try to fight fear? I’m not sure it does. I think it’s more likely that we’re currently fighting fear the wrong way.

Take the classic childhood fear of monsters in the unseen places–under the bed, in the closet, in the dark. How are most of these fears treated? Do we tell children it’s natural to be afraid of the unknown, but that these things don’t need to stay unknown? Do we hold their hands while they open the doors and look under the bed?

No, or at least not often. Instead, we say, “Don’t be silly, honey. There are no monsters. Go to sleep.” And we do it at the same time that we’re teaching them that there are things in the world to be afraid of.

So now people have a choice when they’re afraid. They can be right, or they can be silly. Sometimes we even tell them outright that they were foolish to have been afraid. Given that choice, who wants to do the work required to evaluate unscary alternate explanations?

If we want people to become more rational, particularly about fear, we need to change what we’re telling them. We need to tell them that their fear is understandable even when it’s not justified by the circumstances. We need to stop saying that irrational equals stupid or silly, and we don’t need to do that just because it makes people resist our messages. We need to stop saying it because it isn’t true.

Irrational is human, and pretending it isn’t, expecting people to be anything else is…well, it’s as irrational as anything we’re trying to fight. When it comes right down to it, people are weird, us included.

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9 Responses to “They Won’t Thank You”

  1. October 4th, 2009 at 3:21 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    All I have to say is “I TOLD YOU SO!!!!!”

    Well, I’ll probably have more to say later after my nap.

  2. October 4th, 2009 at 4:49 pm

    MadScientist says:

    As I like to point out: look at the TSA. “We can rob you of your civil rights because we’re so awesome and we’re protecting the country!”

    Let’s look at a few things the TSA does:

    1. check everyone for *metallic* objects like knives, forks, screwdrivers, crochet needles, and knitting needles. This is actually useful because everyone is checked, so the odds of getting a handgun or knife through really drops. Unless you’re one of those “marshalls” – you know, the monkeys who actually bring guns onto the planes – the ones Al Qaida must be thanking allah for. However, anyone who’s ever done window shopping in any mall would see numerous items which will not be picked up by metal detectors; does that mean we should frisk everyone as well?

    2. “random” explosive traces test. Yeah, I’m “randomly” selected 100% of the time by bigots who think they know what a terrorist looks like. Those stupid monkeys probably also believe they know what a muslim looks like, or an Irishman, or a catholic – yeah, they know everything on sight. Now what are the chances that someone is bringing explosives on board? No one really knows, but presumably extremely small because most people don’t handle them and powder monkeys are generally law-abiding folks. How does the TSA check? Do a bigotry-driven search on a very small sample (to detect an extremely improbable event). Anyone who’s done Statistics 101 would know that the failure rate of such a scam is so immense – why is money being wasted on it at all? If the scam ever discovers explosives it will literally be by accident and it’s actually quite safe for terrorists to bring in explosives.

    Just pointing out the huge disconnect between real security and busywork to fool a frightened public. On the other hand, putting bottles of water around the place and claiming a bomb threat is pretty damned stupid; folks doing it probably don’t realize the wide variety of explosives which are out there, so some poor schmuck has got to go out and check on things.

  3. October 4th, 2009 at 5:51 pm

    Jason Thibeault says:

    Consider the recent attempt at advertising for the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie in Boston — a number of devices using LED lights to make images of minor characters flipping you the bird were distributed throughout the city, and citizens called them in as possible bombs. Half the city was shut down at the time. An excuse can’t be made that 9/11 was fresh in everyone’s minds — this was in 2007. I don’t know how much of it is general human irrationality and how much of it is the fear that’s been inculcated in everyone during the Bush administration, is the thing.

  4. October 4th, 2009 at 6:17 pm

    Lilian Nattel says:

    My experience with adults is that sympathizing with the fear while providing information and facts goes no further than lack of sympathy in changing the fear, though it at least doesn’t get someone mad at me. Even more interesting, I’ve had the experience of someone momentarily changing his views, only to almost visibly shake away the facts and a couple of minutes later return to the original view. So I think there is more going on and I don’t know what it is. I do know what goes on for young kids. “You’re silly there’s no monster” doesn’t work, but neither does the sympathy and explanation and opening the closet or looking under the bed. That’s because developmentally they know that there are monsters and fairies and other magic occurrences. What I’ve found works is being mom who is actually more powerful than monsters, and saying in a firm voice, “It’s time for you to go home. Bye bye monsters. It’s sleepy time. You have to go home now.” I wonder what the equivalent would be with adults?

  5. October 4th, 2009 at 9:19 pm

    Dan J says:

    How much do you think misperception of actual risk correlates to other irrational ideas or behavior in a person’s life?

    Thinking back over the last few years, the people I know who are most worried about terrorist threats, etc., are the people who are also most religious, most influenced by woo-peddlers like Kevin Trudeau, etc. Is it part of the same psychological issue that prompts them to misinterpret risk/benefit?

    As Lilian mentioned, acknowledging the source of the fear, and “dealing” with it (real or imaginary) works in most instances for young children, but I certainly wouldn’t consider it an appropriate response for fearful adults:

    Citizen: “I’m afraid! There are terrorists trying to cross the border so they can kill me and my family!”

    Government: “Don’t wory, Citizen. We’ll guard the borders more closely and strip-search everyone who wants to come across. We’ll keep the bad people out.”

    Citizen: “Thanks, Government. I feel much better now (except for that cavity search).”

  6. October 4th, 2009 at 9:25 pm

    hibob says:

    “even if someone knows that automobiles kill 40,000 people each year in the U.S. alone, and airplanes kill only hundreds worldwide, he is more afraid of airplanes than automobiles?”

    Well, I don’t think we fear accidents on a per mile or per year basis, we fear getting killed in the immediate future – hours are a good measure for that.
    driving: .528 fatal accidents and .588 fatalities per million hours
    commercial airlines: .2 fatal accidents and 6.5 fatalities per million flight hours
    http://www.crashstuff.com/driving-or-flying-plane-vs-car-accident-statistics/

    which only makes flying 2-3 times as safe as driving per hour.

  7. October 5th, 2009 at 7:30 am

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    Dan, I don’t know that the misperception is particularly correlated with anything. If you read Schneier’s essay, you’ll see a lot of errors that are pretty general among humans. The willingness to hold on and think beyond the first classifications of risk might be more correlated with critical thinking habits, though.

    hibob, there are lots of ways to crunch the numbers on flying, but people who are afraid of flying aren’t doing that. They’re doing something novel in flying, which is out of their control and which occasionally produces really vivid images of disaster that stick very well in the memory.

  8. October 5th, 2009 at 2:18 pm

    ebohlman says:

    Dan, Stephanie: I think the common psychological trait is in fact the tendency to stick to first impressions regardless what you’re subsequently exposed to. Although everybody does this to some degree, some are more rigid about it than others, and there’s plenty of research (going back at least to the time Allport wrote The Nature of Prejudice that such people are also more prone to prejudice (one study for example, found that when people were asked “who do you fear more, gangsters or swindlers?” highly prejudiced people were more likely to respond “swindlers” than less-prejudiced people).

    I suspect cognitive dissonance explains most of this. Remember the Rind study from 10 years ago showing that not every person who had sexual contact with an adult as a minor developed serious psychological disabilities? It was roundly condemned by a unanimous vote of Congress and was interpreted as the authors advocating pedophilia rather than saying that there was hope for people previously thought to be hopeless. Imagine a well-researched, thorough study finding that the rate of PTSD among Iraq veterans was far less than had been thought; the vast majority of war opponents would simply ask cui bono and then immediately dismiss the results. A rational analysis would show that we can find plenty of solid reasons to say that child molestation and preemptive wars of aggression are bad things without having to resort to psychological doctrines about trauma; after all, we’ve condemned them for far longer than we’ve studied psychology. But it angers us when our expectations are violated, even when it’s the result of good news (similarly, one of the less well-known results from Rosenthal’s Pygmalion experiments was the when kids who weren’t labeled as “bloomers” showed substantial academic improvements, teachers tended to rate them as “disruptive”).

  9. October 5th, 2009 at 4:31 pm

    markb says:

    This

    Take the classic childhood fear of monsters in the unseen places–under the bed, in the closet, in the dark. How are most of these fears treated? Do we tell children it’s natural to be afraid of the unknown, but that these things don’t need to stay unknown? Do we hold their hands while they open the doors and look under the bed?

    and this

    hibob, there are lots of ways to crunch the numbers on flying, but people who are afraid of flying aren’t doing that. They’re doing something novel in flying, which is out of their control and which occasionally produces really vivid images of disaster that stick very well in the memory.

    seem related. Investigating is one way of controlling the situation. When we drive, we constantly make decisions about what to do and not to do, and these affect our safety. We may choose not to fiddle with the radio or to take the route without the blind corner. Accidents happen nonetheless, but I think people tend to feel that there are victims and perpetrators in car accidents. In a plane, passengers are at the mercy of the situation, and generally lack the knowledge as well as definitely lacking weather data, tower chat, diagnostic info, and a view from the front. I can’t even meet the flight crew beforehand to see if they are drunk or overtired. I may not know the plane is at risk until it is going down. My only choice is whether to board or not.

    I had a teacher who used to say that government agencies and regulations were often an effective way of dealing with the perception of risk. But, as previous commenters have pointed out, increasing our perception of control, or even extending actual regulatory control, is not the same as increasing our safety.

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