Our greatest tragedy

The human mind — our minds — cannot grasp relative risk. We cannot compare dangers and see them in proportion. Or rather, we constantly do compare them, and constantly get it completely wrong. This is our greatest tragedy.

We cannot overcome this tragedy because it is biological: The human mind (meaning, the nervous system in interaction with the endocrine system, which will be a new thread here anon) did not evolve to compare dangers. It evolved instead to respond effectively and immediately to the proverbial Saber-Toothed Tiger you see above — ie, to a few specific and spectacular dangers that presented themselves in the distant past of our species.

And what a pity, when all we need to do to make good decisions and policy is to do this back-of-the-envelope risk calculation:

 R(\theta,\delta(x)) = \int L(\theta,\delta(x)) f(x|\theta)\,dx

(I am kidding, of course. My point is that most of us cannot wrap our minds around the concept of risk, not to mention this equation, and therefore end up getting it wrong.)


So we get it wrong in ways big and small, disastrous and banal. Often the banal errors are the most disastrous ones.

A few anecdotal examples, chosen for their deceptive banality (with a few details altered or recombined to disguise or protect the individuals in them):


While driving alone to the airport, a teenage girl texts her friend that she is nervous because she is afraid of flying.


We’re at a Californian beach, applying top-notch sunscreen to our children, sunscreen that was shipped in by grandparents from Germany upon request because it is organic this and non-toxic that. But this particular sunscreen, being slightly easier to rub in, is marginally less non-toxic than one other alternative.

A friend therefore refuses our sunscreen, leaving her children completely unscreened, because of the risk of that residual toxicity.

After a fun beach outing, that friend cheerfully drives her children away, pulling out of the parking lot while talking on her cell phone.


The parents at a preschool in Los Angeles, wanting to make the child’s “birthday dream” come true (a school tradition), deliver a truck load of snow to the school. For a couple of days, as the stuff melts under the Californian sun, the kids get to build snowmen, throw snow balls and so on.

Some months later, the family sends out invitations to an unrelated event. The invitations are digital as opposed to printed, and arrive via email rather than through the mail.  This is because the family is “green”.


Sitting beside a tall and beautiful shelf which is not bracketed into a wall stud and which holds, among other things, a large flat-screen TV set, also not secured, a cosmopolitan individual in Los Angeles explains why she has chosen to avoid a particular travel destination for the time being.

The reason is the risk of a terrorist attack in that place.


I could go on, but (knowing my readers) I imagine that you are already too busy thinking of your own examples.

Let’s not make the list longer, but instead pause to analyze what we have, and to infer some general themes.

I have not, before choosing these banal examples, “done the numbers”. That is to say: I have not calculated the various risks these people confronted. Instead — and this is open to fine-tuning and correction — I appraised these relative risks the way you estimate how many marbles are in a jar.

Situation 1)

Statistically speaking, even with shoe-bombers in this world, flying is one of the safest things you can do. You are usually safer in a plane than in your own house (especially if that house is the one in Number 4.)

By contrast, driving is surprisingly dangerous, even when your attention is focused on the road. But:

Situation 2)

Here is that risk again: driving distracted. The other risk — toxins from our (organic, imported) sunscreen is infinitesimally small and may not exist at all.

In this case, the two risks are not connected at all, except in the mind of the person perceiving them: She expends mental energy on the non-existent risk, and blithely ignores the large risk.

She also — and this is one aspect of Our Greatest Tragedy — has no sense of irony about the situation.

Situation 3)

This situation does not involve any risks to the children or parents, but represents a collective misperception and another missed opportunity for ironic self-reflection.

The carbon footprint of delivering a truck load of snow to a lawn in southern California is to that of sending out paper invitations as the Eiffel Tower is to a baguette. (Go ahead and calculate your own carbon footprint.)

Situation 4)

Who’s not afraid of terrorism? It is the perfect Saber-Toothed Tiger. All we need to do is think of September 11th.

By contrast, how boring is it to talk about bolting furniture into wall studs in homes near the San Andreas fault?

Well, I believe we’ve got that one backwards again. I looked into this because I once interviewed all sorts of geologists and building engineers when researching a piece for The Economist. The big one is a matter of when, not whether. It is likely to be of magnitude 8.1, or about 1,000 times as strong as the biggest earthquake most Angelenos can remember, with the waves amplified in the soft-rocked Los Angeles basin like those in the water of a swimming pool.

What happens when the Big One ruptures depends on 1) the time of day, 2) the depth and location of the rupture and 3) pure chance. But securing water coolers, TV sets, knife holders and so forth (all of which would turn into lethal projectiles) could make the difference.



Why are we so atrociously bad at assessing danger? Maybe you can help me figure it out in the comments. Here are some observations:

1) Is the risk photogenic or familiar?

A Saber-Toothed Tiger is above all photogenic. It is frightening in a spectacular way. It taps into the neural patterns of our limbic system and mobilizes, hormonally, all our defenses.

Another example of a Saber-Toothed Tiger is the horrendous killing of a 12-year-old girl in California, Polly Klaas, who was kidnapped from her own home during a slumber party and later strangled. It shocked everybody who heard about it, and especially every parent. Californian voters quickly passed a sweeping new law, called “tough on crime”, with huge and unintended consequences.

By contrast, the best example of an un-photogenic and familiar threat, one that is not spectacular because it is commonplace, may be distracted driving. (And yes, I am indeed obsessed by this issue.)

It kills many Polly Klaases every year (about 6,000 people, ie twice as many as died on 9/11) and maims half a million, ie more than 80 times as many again.

But if a distracted driver runs through a Stop sign and over Polly Klaas who is riding her bike, the news report (if there is one at all) will not mobilize society into action. The event is too common, too familiar. It is not a Saber-Toothed Tiger.

So the laws against distracted driving will be lukewarm and ignored.

2) Over-confidence

One factor that seems to distort our risk perception is our perception of whether or not we are “in control”.

When flying, our control ends when we step onto the airplane. But when driving and texting, ‘I can handle it’. Others may run over and kill Polly Klaases but I can drive safely while texting, and I am important, so I must answer my friend’s text, asking ‘Wazzup?’

Well, I cannot. Because my species has brains that have not evolved for this situation. We all face the same cognitive limit.

3) The lack of irony

I already mentioned irony. I mourn its absence not just for aesthetic reasons. Irony actually seems to help us to readjust our relative risk assessments.

The humor seems to coincide with re-calculation, which then leads to insight: ‘I am being ridiculous. Let’s try this again.’

44 thoughts on “Our greatest tragedy

  1. Ironically I did not get your point. Being allergic to mathematics the equation freaked me out. Every time I see such a thing, I’m at high risk of getting lost and my little grey cells shortcircuit. Not to be looked at while driving.

  2. I was at first puzzled by your inserting a maths equation which almost no normal person would make head or tail of. Then I realised you were having fun. Silly me.

    “…….Statistically speaking……flying is one of the safest things you can do…….”

    This depends on the numbers one uses. Based on miles travelled, air travel is as safe as you say. But based on the numbers of flights, air travel is arguably only as safe (or even less safe) than travelling in a car. Therefore when next you go to New York, you night best take a train or bus, or just drive.

    The best antidote to having a nervous breakdown about all the well-nigh non-existent dangers which you list, is don’t watch or listen to the TV news. TV newspeople need to spread alarm and despondency so to get their terrified watchers to keep coming back for more.

    Spreading alarm and despondency is a life-saver for the news business, and for *the security business.*

    • “……Yup. I was having fun with that equation……”

      Actually, until I read your reply I thought you were being serious about putting in that equation.

      Hence, when I said “….I realised you were having fun……” I was being sarcastic!!

      As a maths illiterate, I thought that I should have known the meaning of this equation had I been educated in mathematics to the level of that of most most normal people, for whom I assumed this equation would be common knowledge.

  3. Very good post. The difficulty most people have in making good decisions is something I’ve discussed in the past on my own blog, largely because they lack a good rational framework and so use wildly inaccurate emotional heuristic shortcuts. I’m all in favour of heuristics, but they’re best used to fill in the blanks when logic cannot cope with a quandary rather than being the first attempt at solving a problem.

    A relevant pair of article I wrote a while ago: http://beyondanomie.wordpress.com/2010/08/21/one-reason-is-never-enough/and http://beyondanomie.wordpress.com/2010/08/22/wicked-problems/

  4. Agreed. In addition to factors such as risk-familiarity and feeling in control, the human brain is mainly wired to perceive things as dangerous if they are similar in nature to threats that have been around to hundreds of thousands of years, and for most of human history, threats were mostly short-term, i.e., the interval between the appearance of the threat and its undesirable consequences (= injury or death) was seconds, minutes, perhaps hours, e.g., being mauled by a bear; getting sick from eating poisonous berries, etc.

    In other words, we are least afraid of those dangers that are most likely to do us in as individuals or wipe out humanity altogether. No one is actively afraid of that cigarette or the drink in their hands, or the fries on their plate. If we don’t see immediate ill effects, our limbic system refuses to register something as dangerous. And so our hands won’t tremble at the thought of climate change and the gradual depletion of global resources in the face of an ever-growing population.

    If a danger—no matter how potentially devastating— is creeping and cumulative over time, don’t expect an actual fear response by the human nervous system. Thus we are afraid of getting bitten by a snake more than we are afraid of World War III fought over the world’s dwindling fresh water resources.

    • Absolutely, although there are interesting twists:

      How, for instance, would you explain the exaggerated perception of risk from the sunscreen in my Example 2? Is an a modern analog to our fear of the “poisonous berries” you refer to?

    • No. I think what we have here are two fairly modern and hence mostly neo-cortical concerns about long-term consequences competing against each other. Our forebears in the Savannah were afraid neither of UV radiation exposure nor of low-level toxins, as the ill-effects of both wouldn’t manifest for years or decades. The ingestion of poisonous berries, on the other hand, would have taken its toll within hours at the most, and this is the stuff our true gut-level limbic/reptilian fears are made of.

  5. However it is that you’ve shrunk your blog, you certainly haven’t shrunk it in terms of interesting ideas!

    You are probably right that the control issue is a key part of it. We fear what we cannot control (and demonize it too, I think).

    Your claim of “our greatest tragedy” is probably not too much of an overstatement because this blind spot could well be our undoing, as Cyberquill points out. For example, we can’t do anything about fundamental race relations problems, so we redefine the problem in terms we think we can control–i.e., by policing language rather than providing education. Race relations are deteriorating globally but we expend energy on the Rick Sanchez’s of the world and think we are fixing the problem. Etc.

    • Spot on. (And thanks for sticking with my shrunken blog.)

      Speaking of language: I have been trying to figure out the perfect bumper sticker against distracted driving.

      I haven’t succeeded yet. “Don’t text and drive” is simple but might give people the impression that it’s OK to “talk and drive”.

      “Distracted” has too many syllables and is too vague….

  6. I am forever snickering at some of my mommy friends who insist on feeding their chilren organic food but think nothing of driving them 1.5 hours round trip to send them to the “right” school. And they cluck their tongues at me because I let my 6 year old bike around our (gated) neighborhood by himself.

    I’ve often thought the human advantage was our ability to recognize our often mistaken emotional responses to situations and use our giant brains to reason our way out. I feel a twinge of anxiety when I get on a plane or send my son out to play with the neighbor kids. But I know it’s not a warrented fear so I move forward anyway. Too bad so many people fail to use that evolutionarily hard won ability to think logically.

  7. Interesting blog yet again.

    Surely, this conversation is much more complicated when you consider other aspects like, denial, denial of a denial, indifference, and the most ironical, the love and care one shows towards the wellbeing of loved ones as against their own fears rather than the real ones that are more likely to happen.

    If you consider, in the food chain, the lower the status of a species the less it can analyze risk and hence are more prone to becoming preys (there are exceptions ofcourse). But then my guess is as soon as the human mind realized this, it started carpet bombing and that’s what we are doing till date… almost everything is an enemy and then we get tired, so we miss out on the most obvious ones. Ironic.


    • “… the most ironical, the love and care one shows towards the wellbeing of loved ones as against their own fears rather than the real ones that are more likely to happen…”

      That rings a bell.

  8. “It’s all psychological. You yell barracuda, everybody says, “Huh? What?” You yell shark, we’ve got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July.”

    Did you forget JAWS?

  9. This tragedy, as you say, is biological, since we still tend to react to a Saber-Toothed-Tiger kind of danger with all our resources while we are incapable of comparing dangers etc.

    It could be, in other words – as Walter Gremillion has pointed out – that “we no longer live in the Palaeolithic but we act as if we do.” So while we stick to behaviours that were successful or adaptive at that time – the Saber-Toothed tiger was wiped out as a species by us, not the contrary – these same behaviours may not be adaptive at present any longer.

    I wonder why, and I wonder why this is a big tragedy. Is this endangering us so much? I think we did pretty well from the times of those big-toothed tigers until today. Could the problem be from today on?

    What a silly man I am! I’m finally realising you probably focused on the Big One danger mainly, not on a danger related to the whole species. I understand, the idea of the Big One can be dreadful for the people in California.

    • Actually, that’s a great point. We’ve done pretty dang well in the time since there WERE saber-toothed tigers.

      I suppose the tragedy is that we could be doing so much better now: We could worry less about stupid things, and we could “worry more”, ie deploy our scarce resources toward, those risk that are real and can be fixed.

      -Secure furniture atop eathquake faults (surely a manageable technique of risk management).
      – Stop texting and calling while driving! Costs nothing. Somehow we survived without doing these things for about a century before they became available.

      In each case, small cities of human lives would be saved every year. Or: large multiples of 9/11s.

  10. @Andreas

    It makes sense. Worrying more about real dangers – like texting while driving – and less about improbable plane crashing. Only, I’m not quite sure the Toothed Tigers – I’m using them as a metaphor – are not menacing us any more. We have typhoons in big oceans for example. Or 1 billion people starving that are about to invade us.

    • Aha, but that’s my point: The “1 billion” people are NOT high-priority on most people’s worry list, although they should be, because those people are not, in evolutionary terms, a photogenic saber-toothed tiger. One mad-faced shoe bomber will scare Americans more than 1 billion starving people.

  11. Forgive what may sound like a digression, but I was thinking about this issue of relative risk and the Tea Party and got a little worried.

    In 1970, Joachim Fest, writing about the rise of the Third Reich said some interesting things:

    “The ideology of the SA was activity at any price with the background of a general, totally undifferentiated readiness to believe, and its seductive power upon the generation of those who had been pushed off the rails by the war was further reinforced by the romantic notion of the “Lost Band” claiming to be defending the nation’s value and dignity against a world of enemies, at a time when the nation had forgotten its honour and society was conerned only with its own selfish advantages . . .”

    This was written in 1970 describing events of the 1930’s. But if you substitute the word “war” with “economy” the quote above seems disturbingly timely.

  12. It’s amazing how many Californians ignore all warnings about the upcoming “Big One.”

    I remember when you interviewed someone over at the USGS for your Economist article. We agreed that both of our homes (at that time) were on the Hayward fault line and how scary it was (is).

    Our home sits smack on top of this fault. We have all furniture, water heaters and anything that could fall, anchored to the wall.

    I also remember when you uploaded a YouTube on my blog that had a cracked bloody windshield on it. You were illustrating that the British are taking this problem on. Talk about photogenic. I’ve taken to watching my rear view mirror to see if people in the car behind me are texting.

    It’s all very scary. I worry about my kids and grandkids more than about myself.

    Hope all is well with you, Andreas.

    • Since you teach teenagers, Cheri, and since teenagers are the most dangerous demographic (dangerous to others as well as themselves), perhaps you could devote a 2-minute meditiation at the beginning of your classes to the evils of distracted driving. Emphasis: You guys THINK your brain can handle it, but it cannot.

      I figure we have to get to the point where many teenagers think that it is so uncool to do it, that they stop other teenagers from doing it (which is what happened with drunk driving).

      If one cute girl says “that’s sooo uncool” as a boy driver pulls out his mobile phone, that boy will stop permanently.

  13. The equation (hieroglyphic) points to two variables; likelihood and consequence. I know you weren’t serious about the equation, but it’s not *that* mysterious. The equation sez that risk is a function of consequence AND likelihood. Some people live for consequences, others live for likelihood. I think it is easy to confuse risk with just likelihood or just consequence. Furthermore, I reckon some people overestimate their luck while others overestimate their ability to deal with consequences. Either way, the personal risk assessment is misguided. Of course, I never do that. Everyone else does.

    Bike helmets are an interesting religion…

    • Mr. C explains what the formula “sez” and irony is safe for another day.

      Riding a bike is all about experiencing freedom. If I have to wear a helmet, I relinquish some of that feeling. Plus, I want to look cool on my bike (and as I lie in a pool of blood, waiting for the ambulance). I have an image to maintain–dead or alive, or alive with brain damage.

      The mother who turns her nose up at insufficiently crunchy-granola sunscreen thinks just as I do when I ride my bike. Skin cancer? Whatever! But you will know WHO I AM: crunchier than thou.

  14. Thank God for Mr Crotchety, who has now explained to us what that equation means.

    But since several people above thought that I was being literal and serious, rather than ironic, in giving the equation, I added a few words in the post (for all subsequent readers) to make clear that, No, I did NOT understand the equation, because my human brain is insufficient to do so in daily life, which was my point. 😉

  15. Hi Andreas; interesting article about relative risks, but would you mind translating your formula for ‘risk’ into an English sentence or two, just for the more mathematically challenged among your readers… such as yours truly! Thanks!


  16. i’m not sure i understand this post (which was part of your point) but in israel statistically more people have been killed in car accidents than in combat.

    that does not mean they ignore nor minimize the risk of a terrorist attack. the two variables/points are parallels not tangent.

    • Actually, that reminds me: I read somewhere an account of an American visiting Israel and being surprised — so surprised that he then chose to write about it — that there, in that land constantly in the news for terrorist dangers, the Israelis were looking at HIM, the American, as though he were a madman when he tried to drive and talk on his phone at the same time.

      That’s way too dangerous, some Israeli said to that American. And suddenly the American understood something: They’ve got it right. Because the Israelis live with both risks, they have become sophisticated in their understanding of them, and know that the risk of dying in a suicide bombing (while in the “saber-toothed tiger” category for evolutionary purposes) is near nil, while the risk of dying in an Israeli car is considerable, so that driving while texting/calling is not done in Israel.

    • Incidentally, dafna, I am planning to look into the Maimonides assignment you gave me. What’s the best brief summary of Maimonides, and the best book on him? (I’m recklessly assuming that you’ve studied him at some length.)

    • well… i don’t have a Maimonides 101 recommendation. he was an extremely prolific philosopher. and if you understand anything about jews, we have opinions about opinions on top of opinions etc.

      check your email, i found an essay; aristotle and maimonides, but the eight steps of tzedaka can be found almost anywhere.

      my thorn is great philosophies reduced to misappropriated “sound bites”. like “teach a man to fish…” (step 8) what about when the man is learning to fish? and what if he/she is incapable of learning to fish? that was maimonides treatise on tzedaka (a hard word to translate).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s