I’m writing this just after the bombs in New York and New Jersey, when the political world seems once again to have gone bonkers about terrorism. To me with my background in psychology, this is quite a normal reaction. Unfortunately, our brains are wired to have us do certain sorts of crazy things and think them quite normal, and politicians feed on the madness for their own purposes. The remedy is awareness of how our brains steer us wrong so we can resist.
Psychologists have known for a long time that we humans are absolute geniuses at estimating certain sorts of risks – especially if they’re short-term and immediate (think of someone taking a swing at you with a stick, or a predatory animal in the bush). But our brains don’t compute other risks – especially long term ones, or ones about rare events, very well. Then our estimates of real danger get crazy and out of whack with reality.
For example: few people are truly, viscerally afraid of milkshakes and fast-food hamburgers; but many are afraid of flying on a commercial airliner. The real, calculated odds? That you’ll die in a plane crash: One in 7 million. That cardiovascular disease (aided by those burgers and shakes) will kill you: 1 in 2.
Plane crashes are dramatic, out of the ordinary, out of our control, and heavily covered in the media (like terrorist attacks): that’s why they’re so frightening, even when they’re extraordinarily rare. Burgers are ordinary, run of the mill, within our control to enjoy or avoid, and rarely publicized as a cause of death; that’s why we treat them so casually. Our risk-evaluation system doesn’t even peep at a burger; but being seven miles up in the air and with our fate in the hands of the people up front behind the locked cockpit door – that causes the risk-alarm to scream in many people.
So let’s think about reactions to the recent terror attacks in these terms. Terrorism has as its purpose – well, to terrify people. Exactly because it’s out of the ordinary, out of our control, and heavily covered in the media, it drives our danger-sensors off the scale; but the odds of being killed in a terrorist attack are estimated at 1 in 20 million. By the numbers that’s three times less dangerous that flying, ten million times less dangerous than cardiovascular disease. Our crazy brains – with a multiplier effect through media coverage that reflects and emphasizes the craziness – are at it again. (If you’d like another comparison, you’re more than 120 times more likely to die from a handgun – murder, suicide, or accident – than from terrorism.)
The cultural/political result of this brain-failure is that political leaders spend more time and energy (and try to whip up dollars and votes) around “terrorism-threats” than they do around much more realistic threats to our well-being. Our common life is distorted to avoid highly-unlikely (but much-feared) dangers, while we underinvest social capital (money, attention, energy) in fixing things that are truly dangerous to people.
Why does this matter? Because any society has a limited amount of resources (time, money, attention, talent) and what we spend on one thing we can’t spend on another. As Catholics we have an obligation to care for the common good – at the very least, to do what we can to keep it from foolishness. Certainly society has to protect itself from terrorism. But it also has to protect itself from adulterated foods, rusting bridges, the growth of ignorance and falsehood, and a lot of other things.
We serve ourselves, our church, and our country badly when we pay attention to things that don’t matter that much. Certainly, terror threats merit some appropriate attention by experts (which I, and probably you, do not qualify as). But we need to give our energies to things that can make a difference for the better in people’s lives. Let’s not let our “normal” but misguided emotions lead us astray. Until next week, peace.