Pool party anyone?

How do we perceive risk?


Our daily lives are full of dangers, from driving our cars to cholesterol in our food. But how good are we really at assessing these risks? And when do we feel safe making these decisions? It appears our emotions are back in the picture when we make these judgments, surprise! 

Take for example, parents : a social group that takes danger very seriously but often worries about the wrong things. A great illustration of that of a small child wanting to play at one of her friends’ house. Her parents know that the father of one of her friends keeps a gun in their house, so they decide that she is not allowed to play there. Instead they feel that she would be much safer spending time at another friend's house, where there are no guns, but there is a swimming pool. You may think this is the right choice, but according to the statistics, you would actually be wrong. Every year, one child per 11,000 private swimming pools is drowned in the United States. However, only one child is killed by a gun for every million guns. This means that a child is 100 times more likely to die in a swimming accident than because of playing with a gun.

The parents of this child are not unique in their decision making. Generally people are just not very good at assessing risk. The risks that scare people and the risks that kill people are very different things.  Compare the dangerous bacteria in our kitchen and diseases such as mad cow disease: the first is very common, but for some reason not very frightening; the second is extremely rare, but it somehow terrifies us. It is simply a fact that risks that you can control are much less worrying than risks you can not control. We can not tell if our meat is infected, whereas we can control how clean our kitchen is.

This 'control factor' probably explains the typical example of why flying tends to scare people more than driving.  People tend to think that since they control the car, they are the ones keeping themselves safe; but because they do not have control over the airplane, they are without any protection against external factors and have no control over their fate. So is the well known theory that planes are safer than cars true? Statistics show that, although a larger amount of people die each year in car accidents than in plane crashes, driving is not automatically more dangerous. This is because generally people spend far less time flying than driving. In fact, statistically, the number of deaths for each hour of driving compared with each hour of flying is about the same. So flying and driving carry a very similar risk. It is just our lack of control when flying that makes it seem more scary.

Another aspect of risk behavior is that people tend to be much more scared of short-term dangers than long-term ones. The chances of someone being killed in a terrorist attack is immensely smaller than the chances that this same person will eat too much junk food and die of heart disease. This difference in thought arises, because a terrorist attack happens now, right at this moment. Yet death from heart disease is a distant and quiet tragedy. The control freak in us is just screaming at the top of its lungs. The acts of terrorists lie beyond our control, but chomping down Happy Meals do not.

Finally there is 'the dread factor', that is how terrifying we consider something to be. We are horrified by the thought of being killed in a terrorist attack, but for some reason we are not horrified by the thought of death from heart disease. It is simply explained by this equation: for most people risk = hazard + outrage. When the hazard is high but the terror is low, people underreact. When the hazard is low and the outrage is high, people overreact. Which is why so many parents will do more to protect their children from a gun accident than from a swimming pool accident. Little do we realize that we built the real risk in our own backyard.