Ten years ago, during a routine checkup, my doctor asked me if I had a gun in the house. He thought that having a gun in the house was a serious hazard to my young children. What a dufus. Since my children were not safe crackers, I didn't worry about it. Besides, according to economist Steven D. Levitt, yearly in the U.S. "there is 1 child killed by a gun for every 1 million-plus guns." Levitt also observes that yearly there is one drowning of a child for every 11,000 residential swimming pools.
So why didn't the doctor ask me if I had a swimming pool? Why do people people grossly overestimate the danger of trivial risks, while ignoring the danger of greater ones? Why do I see obese people smoking cigarettes slopping on sunscreen to avoid skin cancer? Why do people who spend hours driving to work each day on busy freeways worry about dying in an airplane crash? Cripes, auto accidents and falls kill 25 times more people in the U.S. each year than airplane crashes and firearms accidents combined. So what's wrong with these people? I want to hit them on the head with a bat.
The answer is The Availability Heuristic. Airplane crashes are far more dramatic than auto accidents, and remain more accessible in a person's memory. Similarly, an accidental gun death, especially if a child is involved, is far more dramatic than a falling, choking, or drowning death -- and so also remains more accessible in a person's memory. A mass homicide causes widespread consternation, even if the risk of dying in one is vanishingly small.
This problem is compounded by the news media, which (1) perseverates over dramatic
events, regardless of how inconsequential they may be to the reader or viewer, and
(2) never puts anything in perspective.
At 6:05 p.m. CDT on August 1, 2007 the main spans of the I-35W bridge crossing the Mississippi river in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota collapsed. Thirteen people died as a result. A media feeding frenzy ensued with calls for reconstruction of practically every bridge in the United States, regardless of cost. These demands were supported by authoritative statements from such unbiased authorities as the CEO of the Minnesota chapter of the Associated General Contractors, who "said everything MnDOT does is based on cost-benefit analysis." (See Minneapolis Star Tribune, August 3, 2007). The death toll amounted to 1/3,000 th of annual U.S. highway fatalities (42,642 in 2006, according to the NHTSA), but of course nobody in the news media mentioned this fact. Widespread discussion of gephyrophobia ensued, with post-traumatic stress counselors offering advice to Californians traumatized by media coverage of the event. The story soon faded as attention turned to a Utah mine collapse in which three (3) miners and as many rescuers were lost. Mooing and lowing about workplace safety quickly replaced babbling about bridge safety.
The net result of all this is that public policy is distracted in bizarre and useless directions. Instead of cautioning Americans to watch their weight, quit smoking, wear seatbelts and life jackets, and take care when using ladders, we have endless grandstanding over safety measures like trigger locks on handguns (a gun safe would make ten times more sense), radon amelioration, and photocells on garage door openers. These are nice ideas, but require much effort and expense for trivial results. Better to spend the effort where it will have a detectable effect.
©Copyright 2000, 2006, 2013 Chuck Anesi all rights reserved