Why is terrorism so frightening? After all, if you just look at the numbers, being blown-up on an airplane is far less likely than dying in a car crash on the way to the grocery store. A Cato report makes this abundantly clear:
In almost all years, the total number of people worldwide who die at the hands of international terrorists anywhere in the world is not much more than the number who drown in bathtubs in the United States.
And yet there is no Department of Bathtub Security. Obviously, America is dealing with an enemy that would stop at nothing to murder us. Mass killing is their objective. And yet it’s also important to not let our irrational fear provoke us into making spectacular strategic blunders. Good decision making begins with a reasonable assesment of threats:
It would seem to be reasonable for those in charge of our safety to inform the public about how many airliners would have to crash before flying becomes as dangerous as driving the same distance in an automobile. It turns out that someone has made that calculation: University of Michigan transportation researchers Michael Sivak and Michael Flannagan, in an article last year in American Scientist, wrote that they determined there would have to be one set of September 11 crashes a month for the risks to balance out. More generally, they calculate that an American’s chance of being killed in one nonstop airline flight is about one in 13 million (even taking the September 11 crashes into account). To reach that same level of risk when driving on America’s safest roads — rural interstate highways — one would have to travel a mere 11.2 miles.
But I still haven’t answered my original question. Why does the possibility of hooded fundamentalists give us national nightmares? Why are we so petrified of a few dozen Islamic lunatics?
A big part of the answer, I think, lies in a paper published in Science in December 2005 by Colin Camerer, a neuroeconomist at Cal-Tech. His experiment revolved around a decision making game known as the Ellsberg paradox. The game itself is simple. A player is asked to decide between two different gambles, each represented by a deck of twenty cards. One deck is composed of 10 red and 10 black cards, while another deck has 20 cards with an unknown mixture of red and black (this is known as the “ambiguous” deck). Players are asked to bet on one of the decks and choose a color. If the chosen color is drawn, the player wins $10.
Classical economics assumes that people will bet equally on the two different decks. Since we have no idea what mixture of cards the “ambiguous” deck contains, we should just assume that it’s split fifty-fifty. Of course, this isn’t what happens; people are naturally scared of what they don’t know. When Camerer played this game with experimental subjects, they almost always chose the known gamble over the unknown gamble. Furthermore, Camerer could see why players were so averse to the unknown. By monitoring their brains using fMRI, he could detect the specific regions activated by the two different decks of cards.
Camerer discovered that, contrary to the predictions of classical economics, gambles in which the stakes were unknown lead to increased activity in the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex, both of which are involved in the production of fear. To see whether this fear was responsible for their avoidance of the unknown gambles, Camerer also tested patients with lesioned orbitofrontal cortices. (These patients are unable to generate and detect emotions.) Sure enough, because these patients couldn’t feel fear, they showed no bias for either deck of cards. Because of their debilitating brain injury, they behaved perfectly rationally.
But the public isn’t so rational. We are scared of the dark. As Camerer recently told me, “People are especially frightened by the prospect of terrorist attacks. Why? Statistics show that you are far more likely to die in a car accident or by a heart-attack. But we have no idea what the probability of a terrorist attack is, and that frightens us.”
I just wish our leaders could see past this mass hysteria, instead of egging it on. I’m not sure anybody benefits when politicians brag about preventing “mass death on an unimaginable scale”. What we need is another F.D.R, a leader brave enough to tell us that we have nothing to fear but fear itself.