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.
This entry was posted on Sunday, October 4th, 2009 at 2:09 pm and is filed under Stephanie Zvan. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.