The Herald Banner, Greenville, TX

Community News Network

April 23, 2013

Why do people stay scared after sudden tragedies?

The great psychologist William James was Gertrude Stein's teacher and mentor. As legend tells it, James once posed a single question on a final examination: "What is risk?" Stein wrote, "This is," walked out of the examination room, and went about her business. Supposedly James gave Stein an A.

After a tragedy such as the one last week in Boston, people have a heightened sense of risk. If a flood, an earthquake, a violent crime or a terrorist attack has occurred in the recent past, people tend to have a feeling of vulnerability, captured in the alarming idea that "you can't be safe anywhere." Often that feeling is far greater than reality warrants. This is so because of two facts about how human beings respond to risk.

The first is that we often assess probabilities not by looking at statistics, but by asking what events come readily to mind. If you are unable to think of a case in which a crime occurred in your neighborhood, or of a situation in which an accident resulted from talking on a mobile phone while driving, you might not much worry about crime or distracted driving. But if your neighbor was recently robbed, or if a friend was badly injured in a crash caused by distracted driving, you might think that the risk is pretty high.

Social scientists emphasize that people use the "availability heuristic," which means that we assess risks by asking whether a bad (or good) event is cognitively "available." It is hardly unreasonable to use the availability heuristic, yet we can be misled by it, and far more frightened than we need to be.

A bad event may have occurred in the recent past, but it might have been a fluke, and the risk might be really low. Even if there was a robbery in your neighborhood last month, there might be no reason for alarm.

When a terrible event produces widespread fear, it is often because of the availability heuristic. A tragic event becomes so public, and so memorable, that people feel at risk whether or not they really are.

The second problem is that for some risks, we tend to focus mostly on the possible outcome, and not so much on the likelihood that it will actually come to fruition. Much of the time, of course, we really care about probability. If you are asked how much you would pay to buy a 1 percent chance of winning $500, you will say a lot less than if you are asked how much you would pay to buy a 99 percent chance of winning $500.

But when people's emotions are running especially high, the outcome is the dominant consideration, and it can crowd out consideration of probability. Studies show that when people are asked how much they would pay to avoid a 1 percent chance of getting a painful electric shock, their answer is only slightly lower than what it is when they are asked how much they would pay to avoid a 99 percent chance of getting such a shock.

The lesson is straightforward. In situations that trigger strong negative emotions, people tend to focus on the very worst that might happen, and the question of probability turns out to be secondary. Those who sell life insurance exploit this feature of human nature. You might be able to persuade people to buy insurance if you can get them to think about the economic risks faced by their family.

When terrorists succeed in generating widespread fear, it is also because they get people to focus on terrible outcomes, and not on the likelihood that they will come about. Because strong emotions are produced by the prospect of a terrorist attack, people might well become more frightened than reality warrants.

It is hardly irrational to be scared in the immediate aftermath of an attack, when people may not know the scope of the threat and the extent of the danger. An elevated sense of vulnerability is hard to avoid. Yet even when individuals are highly unlikely to be at risk, they might remain fearful, simply because the horrible outcome is so vivid.

Nonetheless, it is possible for people to have a realistic sense of what risk is and what it isn't. Going about your business can be a good way to reduce individual, social and economic harm - and it can be a forceful answer to those who seek to frighten us.

               

Cass R. Sunstein, the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard Law School, is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the former administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the co-author of "Nudge" and author of "Simpler: The Future of Government," just published by Simon and Shuster.

 

1
Text Only
Community News Network
  • Smartphone kill switches are coming

    Smartphones need kill switches. It's a relatively easy solution to the pricey (and irritating) problem of smartphone theft. But who would have thought that the big carriers would team up with Apple, Google, Microsoft, Nokia, Samsung and lots of other manufacturers to voluntarily begin adding the technology by July 2015? The cooperative spirit! It makes so much sense!

    April 18, 2014

  • Why do wolves howl?

    Of all the myths that dog the wolf, none is more widely accepted than the idea that wolves howl at the moon. Images of wolves with their heads upturned, singing at the night sky, are as unquestioned as a goldfish's three-second memory or a dog's color-blindness (both also myths).

    April 18, 2014

  • Biggest student loan profits come from grad students

    This week, the Congressional Budget Office projected that the federal government would earn roughly $127 billion from student lending during the next 10 years.

    April 18, 2014

  • quake.jpg Pennsylvania won’t take action following Ohio ruling on quakes, fracking

    Pennsylvania officials plan no action despite new Ohio rules on drilling that affect a seismically active area near the state line.

    April 18, 2014 1 Photo

  • VIDEO: Boston bomb scare defendant appears in court

    The man accused of carrying a backpack containing a rice cooker near the Boston Marathon finish line on the anniversary of the bombings was arraigned Wednesday. He's being held on $100,000 bail.

    April 17, 2014

  • Consumer spending on health care jumps as Affordable Care Act takes hold

    Nancy Beigel has known since September that she would need hernia surgery. She couldn't afford it on her $11,000 yearly income until she became eligible for Medicaid in January through President Barack Obama's signature health care law.

    April 17, 2014

  • The case for separate beds

    The other night I slept on a twin bed in the guest room of the house I share with my husband and our two kids.
    It was the best night's sleep I've had in years.

    April 17, 2014

  • Raw oysters spike U.S. rise in bacterial infections, CDC reports

    Raw oysters, so good with hot sauce, increasingly can carry something even more unsettling to the stomach: A bacteria linked to vomiting, diarrhea and pain.

    April 17, 2014

  • To sleep well, you may need to adjust what you eat and when

    Sleep.  Oh, to sleep.  A good night's sleep is often a struggle for more than half of American adults.  And for occasional insomnia, there are good reasons to avoid using medications, whether over-the-counter or prescription.

    April 16, 2014

  • Doctors to rate cost effectiveness of expensive cancer drugs

    The world's largest organization of cancer doctors plans to rate the cost effectiveness of expensive oncology drugs, and will urge physicians to use the ratings to discuss the costs with their patients.

    April 16, 2014

Featured Ads
Promotions
Poll

Who should the Houston Texans take with the first pick of the 2014 National Football League draft?

Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel
South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney
Central Florida QB Blake Bortles
Auburn OT Greg Robinson
Buffalo OLB Khalil Mack
Clemson WR Sammy Watkins
Texas A&M WR Mike Evans
     View Results
Facebook
Must Read
Photos


See more photos and purchase prints here.

AP Video
Raw: Fire Engulfs Tower Block in China Ocean Drones Making Waves in Research World Breakfast Foods Are Getting Pricier Raw: Ferry Captain Received Medical Treatment Hundreds Gather for Denver Pot Rally on Easter Transcript Reveals Confusion in Ferry Evacuation Raw: More Than 100,000 Gather for Easter Sunday Raw: Greeks Celebrate Easter With "Rocket War" Police Question Captain, Crew on Ferry Disaster Raw: Orthodox Christians Observe Easter Rite Raw: Four French Journalists Freed From Syria
Hyperlocal Search
Premier Guide
Find a business

Walking Fingers
Maps, Menus, Store hours, Coupons, and more...
Premier Guide