Humans are Terrible at Assessing Risk

Kimberly Forsythe
4 min readAug 28, 2019
Photo by John Moeses Bauan on Unsplash

Which one should you be more concerned about: Riding in a car or an airplane? If you answered “airplane”, you’re terrible at assessing risk.

Globally, every year about 1.25 million people die in car accidents. Whereas, the typical worldwide average deaths in airplane accidents rarely tops 1,000, but is usually much less. Similarly, 20,000 Chinese coal miners die each year, but if one dies in a nuclear accident, it would be mainstream news for days.

Now, you may argue that we make such a big deal out of rare instances because they are just that: rare. Perhaps we are so used to the idea of dying in a car accident that it no longer makes us as afraid. But, think about that sentiment for a moment. After all, there are stringent safety regulations on aircraft and flights are orchestrated in a mid-air symphony, whereas ground vehicle traffic is more chaotic.

Well, it turns out humans are actually terrible at assessing risks. This is especially true when it comes to ideology or political beliefs. Sometimes, people will simply ignore logic because near-term implications are more acceptable.

The Psychology Behind This Phenomena

Scientists have studied this topic for decades and have been able to isolate a few key characteristics that zero-in on the reason we are so terrible at assessing risks:

  • Catastrophes — Where large numbers of people are affected at once as opposed to over a period of time.
  • How familiar they are with the risk and how well they understand it.
  • How much one can control a situation or their reaction to a situation.
  • When something can harm you, even though you didn’t intentionally put yourself directly in harm’s way.
  • If children are involved, the impact is much stronger.
  • Relating to the victim identity. Who the victim is can be almost, if not more, as important as the circumstance.
Kimberly Forsythe

I lean so far to the left that I circle back to the right & vice versa. Beware: I have a Paradox Mindset.