Why you should not be afraid of terrorism

By Dion, Sat 26 March 2016, in category Blog

Psychology, Thoughts

Introduction

In the wake of the recent terror attacks in Western Europe (Jan 2015 and Nov 2015 in Paris; Mar 2016 in Brussels), I started observing the dynamics of the European society’s reaction to events of this kind. I find it remarkable how impactful these events seem on both the general public, including political decisions, the rise and fall of political parties, and mass-media coverage, and people in my personal social circles. One of the oldest, most important emotions in the whole animal kingdom seems to be the prime reason behind the vehement, sometimes even violent, reactions: fear.

In this blog post, I will examine where this fear comes from and why it is absolutely understandable - but most importantly, I will show my reasoning as to why it is both irrational and dangerous to be afraid of terrorism in Western Europe.

General human risk-assessment mechanisms

Human intuition is without a doubt one of the greatest achievements in the history of evolution. Paired with some strategical thinking, it helps us to quickly make decisions without having to consider every possible action. Intuition allows us to play the game of Go nearly as well as a computer network consisting of 1202 processors and 176 graphics cards, to learn and speak languages fluently (even those with a highly complicated underlying grammatical structure), or to evaluate risks the second they manifest. However, despite its usefulness, human intuition is definitely not flawless, especially in situations that are relatively new to mankind (i.e., that have not been around for thousands of years). Luckily, we have reason to deal with these cases, but this requires some more work.

One particular thing that humans are generally pretty bad at is making decisions that may have a life-changing impact when small probabilities are involved. When using simple intuition, the actual probability (whether given or estimated from a frequency of events) becomes less and less important the more extreme it gets, and the outcome of the decision becomes dominated by all kinds of biases.

One example where (biased) intuition is present is gambling. Any commercial gambling operator has to be sustainable and thus make money, so every gamble of pure chance will be designed in a way that favors the operator. The most popular lottery in Germany, Lotto 6 aus 49 (comparable to the US-American Powerball), with around 21 million weekly players, offers a chance of 139,838,160 to 1 to win the jackpot of averagely 9 million Euro. One lottery ticket is currently priced at 1€, but the mean winning money (including all winning categories) lies at only 50ct. To make this clear: instead of buying a lot of lottery tickets, you might as well shove half of your money out of the window (with the possible side effect of making some homeless people’s day)1. So, why are people even playing the lottery (or even worse, slot machines and alike)? The answer is biases:

  • Outcome bias: the notion to only take into account the possible outcomes of the decision (i.e., buying a lottery ticket), while disregarding or misjudging their corresponding likelihood. Either you win, or you lose, or also: winning the jackpot makes my life much better, while spending 1€ on the ticket barely affects me.
  • Some sort of selection bias: Someone winning the lottery will be reported on the news (or will at least be talked about in their social environment), and winning the lottery has a huge emotional impact. This is why we tend to ignore the millions of losers while focusing on a few winners, and put ourselves in their shoes.
  • (Non-)zero-risk bias: If one doesn’t play the lottery, there is no way they can win - buying a ticket will give them a chance at the jackpot, how slim it may be (even though the money could be spent better). Someone is going to win the lottery, so it could as well be me.

Both biases are naturally strongest when considering low-probability, high-impact events.

The reasons behind a fear of terrorism

I have chosen playing the lottery as an example for a simple intuitive risk-assessment because most people can relate to it; but of course, the exact same analysis can be applied to events that are very unlikely, but have a huge negative impact, such as a terroristic attack. All that is needed is to re-label some terms:

  • winning the lottery becomes being killed or injured in an attack (low probability)
  • not winning the lottery becomes not being involved in an attack (high probability)
  • buying a lottery ticket becomes leaving the house (assuming you are safe at home, and putting yourself at risk in public spaces)

Applying the exact same analysis as before:

  • Outcome bias: Going outside can get you killed, while staying at home seems safe, whatever the chances are.
  • Selection bias: Without a doubt, terrorist attacks and their victims receive massive media attention, triggering human empathy, and making terrorist attacks seem like something that could happen to anyone, anytime.
  • Zero-risk bias: People would rather reduce the risk of being killed in an attack to zero (by staying at home) than taking this slim risk and, e.g., quit smoking (which increases life expectancy by a much larger amount, but does not eliminate the risk of falling ill with lung cancer entirely).

Of course, these cognitive biases are by far not the whole truth why terrorist attacks are scary. One very important aspect is also the lack of feeling in charge or being familiar with the situation. This is also the main reason why people tend to be much more scared of crashes with an airplane compared to crashes with a car. In an airplane, or a terrorist attack, there is nothing much you can do apart from praying or running for your life, while in a dangerous situation involving a car you have the *illusion of being in charge (obviously, there are many car accidents that no one saw coming, or were able to prevent).

It is very human to not be afraid in everyday situations where you have some way to react, or where one has the feeling that fate lies in their own hands (*I am not going to get cancer, since I’ve never smoked in my life). This feeling of safety is obviously false, but it is what gets us out of bed every day, and there is no evolutionary need to be afraid.

A more rational risk analysis2

Well, let’s have a look at some numbers. The statistics portal Statista has created a really nice diagram (using the global terrorism database), putting terrorism into perspective:

Infographic: Victims Of Terrorist Attacks In Western Europe | Statista

As you can see, the death toll from terrorism in Europe has been way higher in the 70s and 80s than today. Another very interesting diagram is the deaths through terrorism outside the EU:

Infographic: Victims Of Terrorist Attacks outside Western Europe | Statista

Yep, that’s 420 deaths in Western Europe vs. over 100,000 in the rest of the world. So, obviously, terrorism is a much bigger threat in the rest of the world, and terrorism death tolls have been way higher in the past. But these are only relative statements; it doesn’t tell us how large the absolute danger of terrorism is today. To put things into perspective, I have made the following diagram with data from Eurostat:

The most common ways to die in the west

This diagram shows how irrational a fear of terrorism really is - it causes an absolute minor contribution to the total deaths in Western Europe, of about 1 in 10 Million people. In comparison, lung cancer accounts for over 5000 times as many fatalities. Smoking increases the risk to fall ill with lung cancer by about 1000%. If everyone stopped smoking, about 16% of all deaths could be prevented - in contrast to the 0.001% of deaths that could be prevented by if no terroristic attacks were taking place.

This huge disparity shows the power of cognitive biases at work. Because terroristic attacks receive immense media coverage, because they create so much empathy with their victims, and because none of us is familiar with this kind of threat, they are perceived as unproportionally dangerous to each and every one of us, while their real threat is far less severe.

Wrapup: Don’t be afraid, or you are supporting the terrorists

I’m sorry, but I just have to quote Star Wars here:

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” – Yoda

Fear of terrorism is not only dangerous because you could be missing out on some fun if you’re staying at home. It causes overreactions, irrational behavior, blaming innocent people as scapegoats. It blurs people’s view, de-empathizes, and radicalizes them. It is also the main reason why these terroristic crimes are committed in the first place.

A terrorist probably has the immediate goal to kill as many people has possible. The actual goals with this action are diverse; on one hand, they may want to fulfill some kind of sacred mission and become a hero by killing non-believers. On the other hand, they want to create awareness for their cause and provoke the western society into making mistakes. The more violent the West’s reaction on a terroristic attack is, the more people the terrorists will be able to recruit. The main goal behind a terroristic attack is to cause fear, chaos, and mayhem. Don’t let them win.


1 Of course, there are indeed situations where playing the lottery can be a quite a good idea. For example, if you happen to live by the credo “get rich or die trying”, i.e., you consider your life a complete failure in case you don’t have six figures on your account by the time you die. In this case, playing the lottery might be an appropriate - though a little desperate - strategy.

2 I won’t call my analysis unbiased, since there is no such thing when humans are involved.