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The Availability Heuristic and American Fear

Posted Oct 19 2009 10:01pm

Afraid of sharks? After watching Jaws, most people are. As we’ve pointed out in previous posts, however, there are very few fatal shark attacks world-wide. You are far more likely to be killed by a dog than by a shark, but few of us run away screaming, “Look out! A dog!” when we see one.

This is less likely to kill you than a dog....

This is less likely to kill you than a dog....

The availability heuristic [1] suggests that if you can imagine something easily, you inflate its probability. Being attacked by a shark is certainly more vivid than imagining being attacked by a dog. One of the things that increases our ability to imagine something is news coverage. Shark attacks are news, dog attacks, even fatal ones, are much less likely to be.

My students seem unaware that out of the 300,000 to 400,000 children we are told are “missing ” on milk cartons and grocery bags, only about 100 per year are kidnapped by strangers in the US, according to FBI stats. The others are custody disputes and runaways, not good things for children, but much different from a stranger grabbing your child on the way to school. Unfortunately, all the coverage of those 100 kids per year leads to the idea that kidnapping really does happen to perhaps hundreds of thousands. One of my neighbors was fretting when her 12 year old son was riding a bike with a friend the one mile to our local ice cream store because he might get kidnapped. I’m not sure how parents today are making the transition from worrying about a 12 year old’s 1 mile bike ride to putting the keys to the family car in the hands of a 16 year old to sending an 18 year old off to college.

I don’t know why, but sometimes I compulsively read Dear Abby, and a few weeks ago, she published a doozy that truly illustrates the current American paranoia. Janet, from the “dangerous” town of Aurora, Illinois, has the following advice for parents with cell phones:

Parents should take advantage of these photo opportunities. Before leaving home for the day on a shopping trip or family outing, take a picture of your children in the outfits they are wearing that day. Once you are all back home, safe and sound, you can delete that picture and the next day take a new one. That way, you’ll always have a current photo of how your child looks “today,” not six months or more ago at a special event. You also won’t have to rely on your memory of exactly what your child was wearing if he or she should go missing.

You have GOT to be kidding. Janet, like many Americans, seems to think that “going missing” is a regular occurrence. Instead of worrying about the chances of our children ”going missing,” we should warn them about the uncles, coaches, teachers, camp counselors, and others who are much more likely to be the pedophiles than strangers jumping out of bushes.

The world is a very unsafe place–always has been, probably always will be. But it seems to me that our fear today is misplaced and inconsistent. People wear bike helmets, but then drive drunk and have sex with people they don’t know.

1.  Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1973). Availability: a heuristic for judging frequency and probability. Cognitive Psychology, 5, 207-232.

2.  Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. (1974). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Science, 185, 1124-1130.

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