The barrage of tragic images continues to haunt us. The horrible pictures and video show people’s lives painfully altered in a split second. The sickening accounts pour forward from eyewitnesses and trauma surgeons. The stark and depressing shots of the aftermath, reveal debris filled and blood soaked streets. Then, we hear the heartbreaking stories of the actual people that were hurt or killed. We are racked with fear and uncertainty, with an endless series of negative thoughts cycling through our minds:
- Was anyone I know hurt in the incident?
- That could have been me, I’ve run in these types of events.
- I’m flying next week, will my plane be a target?
- Is this the new normal; will there be constant bombings?
Terrorism continues to be a popular tactic precisely because it evokes these types of reactions in people. For a relatively small “investment”, it generates a massive amount of fear, economic loss and publicity. In an age of social media, all of these effects are dramatically amplified, offering free “advertising” for the sick individual, or movement, sponsoring the act.
Why is it that terrorist acts are so effective? Why do they stoke our fears in ways that “ordinary” risks don’t? Is there anything we can do to combat our fears and put this incident into perspective? Psychologists have long understood that people have innate tendencies to have poorly calibrated reactions to different types of risks. From an evolutionary perspective this makes sense. Our ancestors that were able to quickly recognize a threat, and react swiftly to it (e.g. running for cover), were able to survive and pass down their genes. It was better to have a high number of false alarms then to miss that one threat that resulted in your demise.
Unfortunately, in a world of pervasive media, our inherent tendencies work against us, causing us to miscalculate risks, and worry about the wrong things. A significant body of research has demonstrated a behavioral tendency known as availability bias. Availability bias occurs when people associate the probability of an event with how easy it is to envision that event. A classic 1978 study showed availability bias at work. Subjects were asked to guess the likelihood of death resulting from different causes. On average, they believed that accidents and disease were approximately equal. In fact, diseases cause about 16 times as many deaths as accidents. Similarly, they thought that homicide was a more frequent cause of death than suicide. In fact, suicide causes twice as many deaths.
Researchers believe that availability bias occurs because some events are more vivid than others. Accidents, by their very nature, conjure up horrifying images of mangled cars or planes. On the other hand, respiratory disease, which kills more people than all accidents combined, is tougher to visualize. Similarly, homicides are constantly covered in the media, in graphic detail. Suicides, though twice as common, receive minimal news coverage, and are an infrequent subject of television or movie drama.
Terrorist acts have a tendency to impact people even more than accidents and conventional homicides. They are highly vivid and dramatic events. They create an endless trail of disturbing imagery that is instantly recallable. This makes them appear more likely and more threatening than they actually are. This was demonstrated by a recent survey by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), a research effort based at the University of Maryland. In the survey (taken prior to the Boston Marathon tragedy), 15% of people thought about the prospect of terrorism in the United States in the preceding week. This compared to only 10% thinking about the possibility of hospitalization or becoming the victim of a violent crime. Let’s compare that to the actual data about these risks. Since 9/11, and prior to the Boston tragedy, there have been 26 terrorist acts on U.S. soil, resulting in 22 deaths. In contrast, in 2010 alone, there were over 1.2 million violent crimes, including 16,000 homicides. In just 2009, almost 8% of the population had an overnight hospital stay.
Another psychological tendency that makes terrorist acts scarier than everyday risks is something known as the illusion of control. The illusion of control is the tendency to believe that we can influence events or phenomena that we actually can not control. A trivial example would be the superstitions involved in blowing on dice or crossing one’s fingers. Another simple example is the “body english” employed by bowlers to attempt to modify the course of a ball that they have already thrown.
But beyond these minor examples from superstition and sport, there are serious consequences resulting from the illusion of control. Despite the fact that flying on commercial planes is significantly safer, many people choose to drive, believing that they are in control, and therefore can guarantee their safety. Since 9/11, there have been no successful acts of terrorism against U.S. based carriers. Additionally, there has been only one fatal crash of a domestic carrier involving large, commercial planes (i.e. mainline as opposed to regional jets). But the illusion of control makes us more comfortable in our own car, directing our vehicle’s course and speed. It also makes us relatively less comfortable in large public settings, where we feel no control over potential risks.
Another unfortunate byproduct of terrorist events exploits the natural human tendency to seek order in randomness. We see “faces” in clouds and look for meaning in coincidences. This is once again our ancestral nature betraying us. In a prehistoric world filled with threats, quickly identifying patterns of potential harm was a useful attribute. In the modern world of instant news, our pattern matching tendency leads to hypersensitivity to potential threats. After the initial two explosions at the marathon, a fire at a nearby library was immediately, and incorrectly linked to the bombings. A letter containing Ricin, addressed to a Senator, raised immediate alarms of broader, connected terrorist activities. Any suspicious news story over the next several months will be immediately viewed through the lens of potential terrorist activity. This again allows for free amplification of the impact of a single actual event.
It’s important that we don’t allow the demented, morally bankrupt perpetrators of this act to achieve their objectives. Recognizing our natural tendencies to react unproductively to vivid tragedies can allow us to reflect more rationally about the future. Let’s stop, take a deep breath, and look at some statistics. There were 8.4 million domestic flights last year on scheduled, commercial airlines. If the world was somehow turned upside down, and terrorists could consistently destroy one plane a month, your odds of being on a fated flight would be close to one in a million. Iraq, with one of the highest rates of terrorism in the world, had a peak of activity in 2005, with just over 13,000 people killed. Even in this war zone, in its worst year, a citizen had about a 1 in 2,500 chance of being killed in a terrorist attack. Neither of these scenarios is even remotely likely.
We can’t say for sure what the future will bring regarding terrorist activity. And we can never live in a world of perfect safety. But based on historical data of the last 40 years, even with a large increase in frequency, terrorism is unlikely to represent a significant source of risk for the average citizen. There will continue to be many other greater risks (e.g. car accidents, heart disease) that we have traditionally lived with each day, without being paralyzed by fear. Don’t allow this one, tragic incident to change your life or your concerns. Stay strong, continue your daily routines, and don’t permit these pathetic individuals to accomplish their twisted objectives.