Why People Stay Scared After Tragedies Like Boston Attack

Why People Stay Scared After Tragedies Like Boston Attack

The great psychologist William James was Gertrude Stein’s teacher and mentor. As legend tells it, James once posed a single question on a final examination: “What is risk?” Stein wrote, “This is,” walked out of the examination room, and went about her business. Supposedly James gave Stein an A.

After a tragedy such as the one last week in Boston, people have a heightened sense of risk. If a flood, an earthquake, a violent crime or a terrorist attack has occurred in the recent past, people tend to have a feeling of vulnerability, captured in the alarming idea that “you can’t be safe anywhere.” Often that feeling is far greater than reality warrants. This is so because of two facts about how human beings respond to risk.

The first is that we often assess probabilities not by looking at statistics, but by asking what events come readily to mind. If you are unable to think of a case in which a crime occurred in your neighborhood, or of a situation in which an accident resulted from talking on a mobile phone while driving, you might not much worry about crime or distracted driving. But if your neighbor was recently robbed, or if a friend was badly injured in a crash caused by distracted driving, you might think that the risk is pretty high.

Social scientists emphasize that people use the “availability heuristic,” which means that we assess risks by asking whether a bad (or good) event is cognitively “available.” It is hardly unreasonable to use the availability heuristic, yet we can be misled by it, and far more frightened than we need to be.Magnifying Risks

A bad event may have occurred in the recent past, but it might have been a fluke, and the risk might be really low. Even if there was a robbery in your neighborhood last month, there might be no reason for alarm.

When a terrible event produces widespread fear, it is often because of the availability heuristic. A tragic event becomes so public, and so memorable, that people feel at risk whether or not they really are.

The second problem is that for some risks, we tend to focus mostly on the possible outcome, and not so much on the likelihood that it will actually come to fruition. Much of the time, of course, we really care about probability. If you are asked how much you would pay to buy a 1 percent chance of winning $500, you will say a lot less than if you are asked how much you would pay to buy a 99 percent chance of winning $500.

But when people’s emotions are running especially high, the outcome is the dominant consideration, and it can crowd out consideration of probability. Studies show that when people are asked how much they would pay to avoid a 1 percent chance of getting a painful electric shock, their answer is only slightly lower than what it is when they are asked how much they would pay to avoid a 99 percent chance of getting such a shock.

The lesson is straightforward. In situations that trigger strong negative emotions, people tend to focus on the very worst that might happen, and the question of probability turns out to be secondary. Those who sell life insurance exploit this feature of human nature. You might be able to persuade people to buy insurance if you can get them to think about the economic risks faced by their family.

When terrorists succeed in generating widespread fear, it is also because they get people to focus on terrible outcomes, and not on the likelihood that they will come about. Because strong emotions are produced by the prospect of a terrorist attack, people might well become more frightened than reality warrants.

Rational Response

It is hardly irrational to be scared in the immediate aftermath of an attack, when people may not know the scope of the threat and the extent of the danger. An elevated sense of vulnerability is hard to avoid. Yet even when individuals are highly unlikely to be at risk, they might remain fearful, simply because the horrible outcome is so vivid.

Nonetheless, it is possible for people to have a realistic sense of what risk is and what it isn’t. Going about your business can be a good way to reduce individual, social and economic harm — and it can be a forceful answer to those who seek to frighten us.

(Cass R. Sunstein, the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard Law School, is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the former administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the co-author of “Nudge” and author of “Simpler: The Future of Government,” just published by Simon and Shuster. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Cass R. Sunstein at csunstei@law.harvard.edu.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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