This is part 7 of my 8 part series on Daniel Gardner's book, The Science of Fear. The ideas from the first part of this post are paraphrased (unless quoted) from Gardner's book. The dog examples are my own.
In the months following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, people dramatically changed their travel habits. Night after night, people watched the dramatic and tragic video footage of two airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center, and all of the media coverage, and coverage of politicians talking about the "War on Terror" that followed.
Because of this, people became scared to fly. So as the following year progress, people continued to choose driving instead of flying for their vacations and to visit family. It is easy to understand why people were fearful.
The problem of course is that flying is statistically significantly more safe than driving. So much safer in fact, that the most dangerous part of most flights is the drive to the airport. According to Gardner:
"The safety gap is so large, in fact, that planes would still be safer than cars even if the threat of terrorisim were unimaginably worse than it actually is: An American professor calculated that even if terrorists were hijacking anc crashing one passenger jet a week in the US, a person who took one flight a month for a year would have only a 1 in 135,000 chance of being killed in a hijacking -- a trivial risk compared to the annual 1 in 6,000 odds of being killed in a car crash....
But car crashes aren't like terrorist hijackings. They aren't covered live on CNN. They aren't discussed by pundits. They don't inspire Hollywood movies and television shows. They aren't fodder for campaign politicians. And so in the months following the September 11 attacks, as politicians and journalists worried endlessly about terrorism, anthrax and dirty bombs, people fled the airports to be safe from terrorism and crashed and bled to death on America's roads. And nobody noticed."
According to one US researcher, the number of people who died in the year following 9/11, directly from the shift from planes to cars, was 1,595.
The 9/11 example is an extreme, and powerful example, of what happens when we ignore statistical risk analysis, and let our gut, not head, make our decisions. When gut makes the decision, we often follow the Example Rule, or the Rule of Typical Things, and make decisions that not only do not make us safer -- but often make us less safe.
In the months following the an attack by a 'pit bull' on a young girl in Omaha, NE, there was a huge media storm surrounding 'pit bulls'. People demanded that "something" needed to be done.
In spite of recommendations by experts in the field of animal behavior, animal control, and animal law, the city councilors of Omaha decided to "do something" to squelch the moral panic about 'pit bulls' in their community. At that point, true risk analysis was worthless. Something had to be done.
So Omaha passed an ordinance that put harsh restrictions on owners of 'pit bulls' -- with a series of criteria responsible owners would need to follow in order to keep their dogs in the city -- while ignoring the fact that the real problem owners would not comply with the law. It just used a huge number of resources to focus on owners who were never a problem in the first place. It was poor risk analysis. But it appeased the masses. And cost the city $75,000 more dollars to enforce.
Meanwhile, the city is facing some real issues. The city is above the national average in most crime categories. And their murder number has climbed from 33 in 2006, to 41 in 2007 and 42 in 2008. If the city was going to spend $75,000 more on enforcement -- for true public safety -- it seems like the police force would be a good spot to start.
But it didn't. Because gut made the decision. And not only did the new law not make people safer, it made them less safe. Through the first 6 months of 2009, the first year of the ordinance, the city saw a 37% increase in dog bites over the previous year -- because their city council made a decision based on gut, not head.
What has happened in Omaha is not unique -- it is just an example of how poor decisions, based on what one Denver city council person who was on the council when the city passed its initial ban in 1989 called the hysteria of the moment, are made when we let gut make the decisions, not head. The examples are everywhere. Denver has spent millions of dollars supporting their breed ban in spite of no evidence that the ban itself has been effective.
Cincinnati, OH passed a breed ban in 2003, and soon after began using their police force enforce the ban -- in spite of the city being among the leaders in the nation in violent crime.
In the United Kingdom, where their breed ban was rushed through quickly after a major attack in the area, has seen a dramatic increase in dog bites -- ranging from 50% nationwide to 150% in some areas -- following the passage of their law.
In Aurora, CO, they passed a breed ban and saw a 26% increase in dog bites over a 2 year period following the passing of the ban.
Not only were people in these cities not safer from dog bites -- they were actually LESS safe from them -- after passing their ill-advised laws. Additionally, several of the cities were pulling resources from their police force (or resources that COULD have been used for the police force) in order to enforce a law that was much less statistically dangerous than the many areas the police force helps.
Like the 9/11 example, it is easy to see how people can become fearful after a major, dramtic event that replayed over and over by the media. And how our gut, following the Example Rule of the recent event, would lead us toward a path of a dramatic change in our legislation, or behavior. Whether this be fear from a terrorist attack, or a smaller fear, such as that of a singular out-of-control dog that attacked.
But if we don't allow our head to step in and really analyze the data, and assess the true risk, we pose a risk to endangering ourselves because we let gut make an ill-advised decision. Not only do we risk not making ourselves safer -- but we make ourselves MORE at risk.
Making smart, educated, well-thought-out decisions matter. And the more we understand how our gut assesses risk, and how our head can over-ride it if we let it, the better, and safer, we'll all be.