Afraid of [x], when [y] is a bigger risk

(… Where x=some threat that has really low probability and y=something that is far more likely but less scary.)

A comment to my blog post on gun control reminded me of the writings by David Ropeik on the Risk Perception Gap. In his book “How Risky Is It Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match The Facts“, he explores twelve Risk Perception Factors. The perception factors help explain why I’m more afraid of air travel than car travel, when the statistics tell me that car travel is the greater danger. Am I the only one?

One perception factor is control. I readily relate to how this impacts my airplane fears. I’m completely out of control when I’m suspended 35,000 ft up in the air in a thin metal tube. I have no idea how this technology really works, but because of another perception factor, trust (in technology and the other passengers’ judgement to board the plane), and yet another one, benefit (speed and convenience), I’m willing to take the risk.

Why are we suddenly very concerned about the deaths caused by assault weapons and not more worried about the many more deaths caused each year by all the other kinds of guns in circulation? …. or the even greater number of deaths caused by other unrelated, unregulated killers, such as distracted drivers texting and talking on cell phones?

One possible reason is that the fear perception factors relating to assault weapons have been dialed up several notches by recent events. Not just dialed up by the media, but ratcheted up by our own fear perceptions. Just look at the control factor alone. Unless we lock ourselves up in our homes, we can’t control being in a seemingly wholesome community space at just the wrong time. The likelihood is very small, but the prospects are very scary. Rather like my fear of flying.

Other gun related deaths have the perception of greater personal control. If you stay out of certain neighborhoods, then …. If you don’t get involved in certain illegal activities, then …. If you avoid certain kinds of people, then ….. If you follow good gun-cleaning safety practices, then ….. To name a few.

Is this the most important concern of our nation right now? It doesn’t appear that we have a good method for evaluating these priorities, when fear is part of the equation.

As David Ropeik writes in a 2011 Huffington Post article:  “When we all fear similar things for similar reasons, we press the government to protect us from what we fear more than what may actually threaten us the most (for example, we spend way more on the threat of terrorism than the threat of heart disease), in which case the Perception Gap leads to policies that raise our overall risk.”


About lynnmorstead

Writing about the small things that shape our lives
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One Response to Afraid of [x], when [y] is a bigger risk

  1. Rhonda says:

    Excellent followup! Looking forward to a more in depth discussion in person! I think that the reaction on Sandy Hook was as much due to the fact that the shooter killed himself and there was no one on whom we could take out our anger. In the case of Aurora, Virginia Tech, Texas A&M, and Tucson shootings, I think we had the shooter to put through the justice system, maybe not all of them, but when there is no one left to put through the justice system, we take our anger out on society at large. There are some who feel that society can be perfected, largely through laws and regulations. This is not always the case. Gun deaths are on the decline, though gun suicides are on the increase. Are we concerned at all about gun suicides, or only gun homocides? Fewer gun homocides that automobile deaths each year. Food for thought!

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