Estimating the true threat of terrorism

Over the past couple of months, things have gotten pretty hairy in Europe. Every time there is a shooting or other terrorist massacre, I’m flooded with messages from people telling me to be careful and to come home. And I have to admit, I’ve been feeling a lot more guarded myself, given the high-profile nature of some of the places I’ve visited.

But I’m falling for the same cognitive error that everyone else in the world is. At the risk of going full psych nerd right now, the availability heuristic is a mental shortcut we use to make decisions and evaluate the probability of a specific event. It’s useful, because our minds simply can’t compute all available information all the time. But it also leads to flawed thinking. According to the availability heuristic, we’re likely to overestimate the probability of an event when we have readily available examples of that event.

When a terrorist takes a truck and mows down 84 people in Nice, we hear about it. We hear about it for weeks. Thanks to the news and social media, we are constantly bombarded with information about said attack. So when we think about safety, we’re likely to overestimate the threat of similar attacks in a certain city or country, or sometimes an entire continent. That’s because we have readily available examples of recent carnage in the area. But how statistically likely is this really?

On an average day, about 91 people are killed with a firearm in the US. And that doesn’t include the number of people who are injured by guns each day, which is around 200. But for the most part we’re not afraid to go shopping or go out to dinner. That’s because people also have a flawed tendency to believe that bad things can’t happen to them. We don’t associate with people who might want to shoot us, right? The people who get shot and killed in the US were messed up with the wrong crowd or they pissed someone off, right? That’s inaccurate, but it makes us feel better; it creates a false sense of security.

But for the sake of the argument, let’s pretend that’s true; that we probably won’t get shot by a random stranger at a movie theater on a Friday night. What about car accidents? On average in the first half of 2015, 103 people were killed in motor vehicle accidents a day. I imagine that with the popularity of apps like PokemonGo, which has people wrapping their cars around trees to catch Pikachu, that number will probably be a little higher this year. That’s just as sudden, violent, and unprovoked as a terrorist attack.

The only difference is that it’s not reported as widely. So when we think about things that can kill us, we think of the first available example: terrorists. But let’s compare. How many people were killed by terrorists in Western Europe in 2015?


In one day, American motorists and people exercising their right to the Second Amendment take out more people than terrorists did in Western Europe all year.

Because ultimately, terrorists don’t kill with bombs or assault rifles. They kill with fear. Their war is a psychological one. And every time we decide to skip our vacation to Europe out of fear, they are winning. And the most dangerous terrorists are not ISIS, but the media. They inundate us with messages of fear and non-stop coverage of every major tragedy for days. They distort our ability to accurately estimate the real threats to safety.

I’m not trying to be hypocritical. I was pretty antsy when I spent a couple of days in Paris, especially after a false alarm incident in a huge crowded Euro Cup Fan Zone that caused a stampede. But I have a bigger fear of not living than I do of dying. In fact, my entire life consists of doing things that might kill me, because I’m scared I’ll die at any moment.

And it helps to sit down and remember that what is covered on CNN is a piss poor indicator of things that are likely to kill you. You’re way more likely to meet your maker on one of our beautiful American highways on any given day. Especially now that I’m back on the road.



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