Pella Chronicle

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
  • Wal-Mart to cut prices more aggressively in back-to-school push

    Wal-Mart Stores plans to cut prices more aggressively during this year's back-to-school season and will add inventory to its online store as the chain battles retailers for student spending.

    July 21, 2014

  • Hospitals let patients schedule ER visits

    Three times within a week, 34-year-old Michael Granillo went to the emergency room at Northridge Hospital Medical Center in Los Angeles because of intense back pain. Each time, Granillo, who didn't have insurance, stayed for less than an hour before leaving without being seen by a doctor.

    July 21, 2014

  • Starved Pennsylvania 7-year-old weighed only 25 pounds

    A 7-year-old Pennsylvania boy authorities described as being so underweight he looked like a human skeleton has been released from the hospital.

    July 21, 2014

  • Malaysians wonder 'Why us?' after second loss of airline jet

    It was all too familiar. Grieving families rushing to airport. The flashing television graphics of a plane's last radar appearance. The uncomfortable officials before a heavy thicket of microphones.
    For many Malaysians, the disappearance of Flight 370 in March has been a long trauma from which the nation has not yet recovered.

    July 18, 2014

  • A quarter of the world's most educated people live in the 100 largest cities

    College graduates are increasingly sorting themselves into high-cost, high-amenity cities such as Washington, New York, Boston and San Francisco, a phenomenon that threatens to segregate us across the country by education.

    July 18, 2014

  • Your chocolate addiction is only going to get more expensive

    For nearly two years, cocoa prices have been on the rise. Finally, that's affecting the price you pay for a bar of chocolate - and there's reason to believe it's only the beginning.

    July 18, 2014

  • Facebook tests button to let people shop from its website

    Members on desktop computers or mobile devices can click a "buy" button to make purchases through advertisements or other posts on the world's largest social network, the Menlo Park, California-based company said Thursday in a blog post.

    July 17, 2014

  • The terrible history of passenger planes getting shot out of the sky

    What is more clear is that, if initial reports are true, this would be the deadliest incident of a civilian passenger plane being shot down in modern memory. In some instances, the causes of the disaster are still shrouded in mystery. Here are some of the worst events.

    July 17, 2014

  • 130408_NT_BEA_good kids We're raising a generation of timid kids

    A week ago, a woman was charged with leaving her child in the car while she went into a store. Her 11-year-old child. This week, a woman was arrested for allowing her 9-year-old daughter to go to the park alone. Which raises just one question: America, what the heck is wrong with you?

    July 17, 2014 1 Photo

  • web_starbucks-cof_big_ce.jpg Starbucks sees more Apple-like stores after Colombia debut

    This week Starbucks opened its first location in Colombia — a 2,700-square-foot store with a heated patio, concrete columns, mirrors on the ceiling and walls of colorful plants.

    July 17, 2014 1 Photo

Features
Facebook
AP Video
Raw: MH17 Passenger Remains in Kharkiv, Ukraine Raw: Israel Hits Gaza Targets, Destroys Mosques ShowBiz Minute: Hoffman, Oberst, Box Office WWII Vet Gets Medals, 70 Years Late Raw: Israel Bombs Multiple Targets in Gaza Veteran Creates Job During High Unemployment Raw: Cargo Craft Undocks From Space Station Widow: Jury Sent Big Tobacco a $23B Message New Orleans Plans to Recycle Cigarette Butts UN Security Council Calls for MH 17 Crash Probe Obama Bestows Medal of Honor on NH Veteran Texas Sending National Guard Troops to Border Hopkins to Pay $190M After Pelvic Exams Taped Foxx Cites Washington 'Circus Mirror' NASA Ceremony Honors Moon Walker Neil Armstrong
Hyperlocal Search
Premier Guide
Find a business

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