Terror Attacks, Shark Bites, We Are We Scared of Unlikely Events?

In Australia, the terror threat is deemed “probable” In the UK the terror threat was recently at its highest level. With all that going on should we just barricade the doors?

It’s not just the threat of terror either; shark attacks have almost doubled in the past decade. And what about that Zika virus? Best avoid a trip to South America. You’re bound to come back with Zika if you go!

most unlikely

What if I were to tell you that despite all of that sensationalism the chances of any of those things happening are almost minuscule?

Take Australia for instance: since way back in 1996 only eight people have lost their lives as a result of terrorism. That is less than one per year!

But sure those lovely guys down under need to worry about sharks though, right? I mean if the figure is doubling then that’s alarming. Well, not when you consider that between 1990 and 2009 there were only 186 attacks. That’s a twenty year period. I mean yeah, that’s 10 per year, meaning a shark attack is ten times more likely than a terrorist strike ending you. But still, when you factor in how popular water-sports are down under then you question what the fuss is about!

What about Zika Virus? This played a huge factor in poor turnouts for the Rio Olympics. However, estimates suggest that for every one million tourists that visited the country there would probably only be 1.8 cases of Zika virus.

why so serious?

What is interesting is why then, with such a low probability, do we avoid such things? Scientists are studying this very phenomenon. Decision scientists study rare events by questioning people. They ask their subjects to make choices. Take for instance the Nobel Prize-winning work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. In their study, they gave people two options, one that was safe and one with a risk factor.

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Here’s an example of one of the choices that they used. The safe option was a scenario where you would walk away with a guaranteed $5. The second option involved a gamble where you could receive $15, in fact, there was a 90% probability that you would. The downside is that if you lost the bet you’d have to pay $35.

The majority of people chose to just take the $5. Which when you think about it is crazy. There is only a one in ten chance of you losing and you get to treble your winnings. But the idea of losing that $35 put off the majority of people, despite it being very rare that anyone would end up paying it.

Kahneman and Tversky referred to people propensity for making this decision as “overweighting” of small probabilities.

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Obviously, this choice is fairly simplistic. And in the real world events such as terror threats and shark attacks are far harder to predict. Working out the odds is more complex. But when you look at the statistics for these events for a lot of people the process is the same, with people avoiding things due to a risk factor that is incredibly unlikely.

Let’s have a look at a recent poll performed by Chapman University in the United States. In this poll, people were asked if they were afraid of terrorism. 38.5%, that’s more than third, claimed to be either “afraid” or “very afraid” However, prepare to have your noodle blown, between 2005 and 2015 only 71 people in the US were killed by Terrorism. That’s just over 7 per year. What about gun violence, let’s look at that by comparison. In a similar time period, gun violence led to 301,797 deaths. Crazy, right?

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