Jared Diamond has an op-ed in the New York Times where he talks about how we overestimate rare risks and underestimate common ones. Nothing new here — I and others have written about this sort of thing extensively — but he says that this is a bias found more in developed countries than in primitive cultures.
I first became aware of the New Guineans’ attitude toward risk on a trip into a forest when I proposed pitching our tents under a tall and beautiful tree. To my surprise, my New Guinea friends absolutely refused. They explained that the tree was dead and might fall on us.
Yes, I had to agree, it was indeed dead. But I objected that it was so solid that it would be standing for many years. The New Guineans were unswayed, opting instead to sleep in the open without a tent.
I thought that their fears were greatly exaggerated, verging on paranoia. In the following years, though, I came to realize that every night that I camped in a New Guinea forest, I heard a tree falling. And when I did a frequency/risk calculation, I understood their point of view.
Consider: If you’re a New Guinean living in the forest, and if you adopt the bad habit of sleeping under dead trees whose odds of falling on you that particular night are only 1 in 1,000, you’ll be dead within a few years. In fact, my wife was nearly killed by a falling tree last year, and I’ve survived numerous nearly fatal situations in New Guinea.
Diamond has a point. While it’s universally true that humans exaggerate rare and spectacular risks and downplay mundane and common risks, we in developed countries do it more. The reason, I think, is how fears propagate. If someone in New Guinea gets eaten by a tiger — do they even have tigers in New Guinea? — then those who know the victim or hear about it learn to fear tiger attacks. If it happens in the U.S., it’s the lead story on every news program, and the entire country fears tigers. Technology magnifies rare risks. Think of plane crashes versus car crashes. Think of school shooters versus home accidents. Think of 9/11 versus everything else.
On the other side of the coin, we in the developed world have largely made the pedestrian risks invisible. Diamond makes the point that, for an older man, falling is a huge risk, and showering is especially dangerous. How many people do you know who have fallen in the shower and seriously hurt themselves? I can’t think of anyone. We tend to compartmentalize our old, our poor, our different — and their accidents don’t make the news. Unless it’s someone we know personally, we don’t hear about it.