Sharks, terror attacks and the quest for rationality

It is customary for scientists to highlight how irrational our fears are. People fear flights more than car crashes although the risk of dying in a car crash is much higher. People fear sharks but rarely drowning, although drowning is the much more likely cause of death at sea. And they fear terrorist attack although this is a really unlikely way to pass away compared, to say, being a crime victim. The idea of such scientific interventions is to rationalize discussion by calibrating our expectations realistically and give people assurance.

It is true that, in part, there is irrationality, an irrationality that leads us to make wrong decisions, underestimating certain risks, overestimating others. But it is also in part untrue. We need to factor in that people do not only fear whether they die, but also how they die. After all, not all types of death are equally pleasant. Some evoke very profound fears, based in evolutionary psychology of being eaten alife, falling from a cliff etc. Whether or not these are maladaptions in a modern system is a different story. Sometimes they are, sometimes they are not. But scientists shouldn’t simply discard these fears as irrational. They are very easy to rationalize. This is why terrorism works, and why all documentaries about the sea invariably end up in the shark-eats-seal dramaturgy.

Once we acknowledge the fact that people care about the way how we die new cost-benefit calculations seem necessary. And new forms of interventions: targeting the spread of the fear rather than merely the probability of the incident happening. It should also make us sensitive to the fact that other people have a very real feeling of threat and fear. The the last thing these people want to hear is that they are irrational.

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