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.’