Fearsome Risks

A new paper coins a phrase and makes an important point:

Fearsome risks are those that stimulate strong emotional responses. Such risks, which usually involve high consequences, tend to have low probabilities, since life today is no longer nasty, brutish and short. In the face of a low-probability fearsome risk, people often exaggerate the benefits of preventive, risk-reducing, or ameliorative measures. In both personal life and politics, the result is damaging overreactions to risks. We offer evidence for the phenomenon of probability neglect, failing to distinguish between high and low-probability risks. Action bias is a likely result.

This is no surprise to any student of human nature (but it’s great to have some “scientific” confirmation). We humans tend to be poor at probability calculation, not only in terms of fearsome risks, but in all kinds of ways. Are we then doomed by biology? Thankfully, no. With thought and discipline, we can overcome, or at least minimize, our naturally bad thinking. Of course, most people won’t do this, so the societal impact of bad thinking will remain even if you get yourself under control. Why bother then? Well, you can profit from being right when most people are wrong! You may regret the lunatic action of others, but there’s some consolation (and sometimes a teaching moment) in learning to think things through.


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