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Storytelling In The News: #89

Rational vs narrative angst: terrorism vs cars

March 15, 2004

The horrible toll of death and injury from last week's terrorist bombing in Madrid gives pause for thought about the fragility of human life, while at the same time affording us the rational comfort that in terms of statistical risk,terrorism poses virtually no threat at all.

Thus Nicholas Kristof in the New Yort Times notes that in a typical year terrorism claims virtually no U.S. lives — with horrific exceptions like 2001. Compared to this, Kristof notes that there are much more imminent risks from more familiar and seemingly unthreatening phenomena.

Thus the cars that we love so much kill 43,000 people in the US each year.

Flu kills 36,000 per year.

Guns kill 26,000 people.

Even good old food kills 5,000 people a year.

And terrorism is down near zero in an average year. Even in a horrific year like 2001, it was less dangerous than food.

So why are so mesmerized by terrorism when other much bigger risks get no attention at all?

Similarly, why was the Washington DC area almost paralysed a year ago when two snipers killed a handful of individuals at random, when the statistical risk of being affected was much smaller than any of these bigger but more familiar risks?

Our fear of terrorists seems only remotely connected with the rational possibility that terrorists could get hold of a nuclear weapon that might kill millions. Even an event like the Madrid bombings would, if it occurred in the US, undoubtedly paralyze and traumatize the country yet again.

Kristof notes that the road toll translates into 117 deaths a day or 3,500 a month. If the deaths occurred in one big accident that killed 3,500 at one time in each month, the it is likely that some action would ensue. If plane crashes were killing 117 people a day in single accidents, there wouldn't be a plane in the sky until something was done about it. But we stare at 117 people dying each day on the road without blinking an eye.

It's not that nothing can be done about road deaths. Sweden has reduced traffic deaths by encouraging seat belt use, converting intersections to traffic circles (they "soothe" traffic), replacing rigid guardrails with new rails or cables that absorb or "catch" cars, and exhorting cyclists to wear helmets. The upshot is that Sweden 's accident rate is one of the lowest in the world. If the United States could achieve Sweden's current standard, this would save 12,500 lives per year. There is however no political momentum behind doing anything of the kind.

Terrorism, by contrast, which kills relatively few people compared to road accidents is the centerpiece of the political debate, and mobilizes immense expenditure and effort to deal with it.

What's the difference?

Earlier in this series, we noted the work of Nobel-Prize-winner Daniel Kahneman who since 1970 has been documenting the predominance of intuitive thinking over rational thought processes. Contrary to the standard picture of man as a rational animal, Kahneman’s research showed that most of our thinking is fast, associative, governed by habit and emotionally charged: even people who have been trained for many years in statistics and risk analysis to think analytically make the same mistakes. Storytelling is our way of connecting with these intuitive, associative mental processes.

It would thus be easier to craft a compelling story about an accident that killed 117 people in a single day or 3,500 in a single monthly accident than it is to craft a story that would wake people up to the rational fact that getting into a car is about the dangerous thing we do every day.

The stories associated with terrorists or snipers are fresh and unexpected: it is easy to put together a story about them that gets people alarmed and compels action.

The stories associated with daily road accidents have become blah. Until we can connect the horrific death toll associated with cars with more powerful narratives, it seems unlikely that anything will be done about this massive social problem, about which any rational analysis should compel action.

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