Fear Of Dread Risks

Annual Question: 

Gerd Gigerenzer

Terrorism has indeed caused a huge death toll in countries such as Afghanistan, Syria, and Nigeria. But in Europe or North America a terrorist attack is not what will likely kill you. In a typical year, more Americans die from lightning than terrorism. A great many more die from second-hand smoke and "regular" gun violence. Even more likely, Americans can expect to lose their lives from preventable medical errors in hospitals, even in the best of them. The estimated number of unnecessary deaths has soared from up to 98,000 in 1999 to 440,000 annually, according to a recent study in the Journal of Patient Safety.

Why are we scared of what most likely will not kill us? Psychology provides us with an answer. It is called fear of dread risks. This fear is elicited by a situation in which many people die within a short time. Note that the fear is not about dying, but about suddenly dying together with many others at one point of time. When as many—or more—people die distributed over the year, whether from gun violence, motorcycle accidents, or in hospital beds, it is hard to conjure up anxiety.

For that reason terrorists strike twice. First with physical force, and second by capitalizing on our brains, that is, our propensity for dread risk fear. After 9/11, many Americans avoided flying and used their cars instead. As a consequence, some 1,600 people died from the resulting automobile accidents, which is more than the total number of individuals who were killed aboard the four hijacked planes. That can be called Osama bin Laden’s second strike. All those people could still be alive if they had flown instead of driven, seeing as there was no single deadly accident on commercial airline flights in the US for a number of years thereafter.

Although billions have been poured into Homeland Security and similar institutions to prevent the first strike of terrorists, almost no funding has been provided to prevent the second strike. I believe that making the general public psychologically aware of how terrorists exploit our fears could save more lives than NSA big data analytics. It could also open people's eyes to the fact that some politicians and other interest groups work on keeping our dread risk fear aflame to nudge us into accepting personal surveillance and restriction of our democratic liberties. Living in terror of terrorism can be more dangerous than terrorism itself.


[ Wed. Dec. 23. 2015 ]