[Paleopsych] NYT Op-Ed: Scaring Us Senseless

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Sun Jul 24 15:04:20 UTC 2005

Scaring Us Senseless


    I WAS visiting London last Thursday when a second wave of attacks hit
    the city, just two weeks after the traumatic events of July 7. It is
    hard to avoid feeling vulnerable to this invisible enemy who does not
    play by known or explicit rules. Of course, that is precisely the
    anxiety that terrorists seek to produce. But its opposite -
    complacency - is not an option.

    The truth is that neither human beings nor modern societies are wired
    to respond rationally to terrorism. Vigilance is easy to muster
    immediately after an event, but it tends to wane quickly, as the
    attack vanishes from public discourse. We err twice, first by
    overreacting right after the disaster, while we are still in shock,
    and later by under-reacting, when the memory fades and we become so
    relaxed as to be vulnerable to further attacks.

    Terrorism exploits three glitches in human nature, all related to the
    management and perception of unusual events. The first and key among
    these has been observed over the last two decades by neurobiologists
    and behavioral scientists, who have debunked a great fallacy that has
    marred Western thinking since Aristotle and most acutely since the

    That is to say that as much as we think of ourselves as rational
    animals, risk avoidance is not governed by reason, cognition or
    intellect. Rather, it comes chiefly from our emotional system.

    Patients with brain lesions that prevent them from registering
    feelings even when their cognitive and analytical capacities are
    intact are incapable of effectively getting out of harm's way. It is
    largely our emotional toolkit, and not what is called "reason," that
    governs our capacity for self-preservation.

    Second, this emotional system can be an extremely naïve statistician,
    because it was built for a primitive environment with simple dangers.
    That might work for you the next time you run into a snake or a tiger.
    But because the emotional system is impressionable and prefers
    shallow, social and anecdotal information to abstract data, it hinders
    our ability to cope with the more sophisticated risks that afflict
    modern life.

    For example, the death of an acquaintance in a motorcycle accident
    would be more likely to deter you from riding a motorcycle than would
    a dispassionate, and undoubtedly far more representative, statistical
    analysis of motorcycles' dangers. You might avoid Central Park on the
    basis of a single comment at a cocktail party, rather than bothering
    to read the freely available crime statistics that provide a more
    realistic view of the odds that you will be victimized.

    This primacy of the emotions can distort our decision-making.
    Travelers at airports irrationally tend to agree to pay more for
    terrorism insurance than they would for general insurance, which
    includes terrorism coverage. No doubt the word "terrorism" can be
    specific enough to evoke an emotional reaction, while the general
    insurance offer wouldn't awaken the travelers' anxieties in the same

    In the modern age, the news media have the power to amplify such
    emotional distortions, particularly with their use of images that go
    directly to the emotional brain.

    Consider this: Osama bin Laden continued killing Americans and Western
    Europeans in the aftermath of Sept. 11, though indirectly. How? A
    large number of travelers chose to drive rather than fly, and this
    caused a corresponding rise in casualties from automobile accidents
    (any time we drive more than 20 miles, our risk of death exceeds that
    of flying).

    Yet these automobile accidents were not news stories - they are a mere
    number. We have pictures of those killed by bombs, not those killed on
    the road. As Stalin supposedly said, "One death is a tragedy; a
    million is a statistic."

    Our emotional system responds to the concrete and proximate. Based on
    anecdotal information, it reacts quickly to remote risks, then rapidly
    forgets. And so the televised images from bombings in London cause the
    people of Cleveland to be on heightened alert - but as soon as there
    is a new tragedy, that vigilance is forgotten.

    The third human flaw, related to the second, has to do with how we act
    on our perceptions, and what sorts of behavior we choose to reward. We
    are moved by sensational images of heroes who leap into action as
    calamity unfolds before them. But the long, pedestrian slog of
    prevention is thankless. That is because prevention is nameless and
    abstract, while a hero's actions are grounded in an easy-to-understand

    How can we act on our knowledge of these human flaws in order to make
    our society safer?

    The audiovisual media, with their ability to push the public's
    emotional hot buttons, need to play a more responsible role. Of course
    it is the news media's job to inform the public about the risk and the
    incidence of terrorism, but they should try to do so without helping
    terrorists achieve their objective, which is to terrify.

    Television images, in all their vividness and specificity, have an
    extraordinary power to do just that, and to persuade the viewer that a
    distant risk is clear and present, while a pressing but underreported
    one is nothing to worry about.

    Like pharmaceutical companies, the news media should study the side
    effects of their product, one of which is the distortion of the
    viewer's mental risk map. Because of the way the brain is built,
    images and striking narratives may well be necessary to get our
    attention. But just as it takes a diamond to cut a diamond, the news
    industry should find ways to use images and stories to bring us closer
    to the statistical truth.

    Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who teaches risk management at the University
    of Massachusetts at Amherst, is the author of "Fooled by Randomness:
    The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and the Markets."

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