Tag Archives: risk

Our senses are hopeless at calculating risk

We overestimate danger when we're not in control, such as flying as a passenger in an aeroplane.
We overestimate danger when we’re not in control, such as flying as a passenger in an aeroplane.
Humans are irrational beings. Smoking kills 480,000 people per year in the United States, while an average of 170 lives are lost to terrorism each year in the same country. Counterintuitively, terrorism receives more media attention than smoking despite having a relatively tiny risk because we’re predisposed to fear dangers imposed by other people more than dangers with which we choose to engage ourselves.

Another great example is aeroplane crashes. Airlines today have an excellent safety record and flying is usually the safest mode of transport (safer than making the same journey by road or rail). We overestimate the dangers of flying on an aeroplane because someone else is in control.

Conversely, because summer heat waves are a natural phenomenon, we’re prone to underestimating their danger: tens of thousands of people die from excessive summer heat each year in the United States alone.

Irrational: we worry about terrorist attacks more than summer heat waves

Our ‘perceived risk’ almost never matches the ‘actual risk’. In the bubble chart below, the area of the circles above the line represent how much we worry about each risk. The area of the circles below the line represents the actual size of the risk in terms of how many people are harmed each year. In many cases, there is a huge disparity between ‘perceived risk’ and ‘actual risk’.

Our perception of risk almost never matches the actual size of the risk. Adapted from work by Susannah Ertrich.
Adapted from work by Susannah Ertrich
The table below shows the factors that increase and decrease our perceptions of risk.
table1 risks template chemicals

Let’s evaluate two examples. First, smoking:

table2 risks template chemicals

Conclusion: people are predisposed to underestimate the risks of smoking (9:1)

Second example: azodicarbonamide (dough improver) added to bread

table3 risks template chemicals

Conclusion: people are predisposed to overestimate the risks of adding azodicarbonamide to bread (1:9)

This strange psychological quirk is one of the roots of chemophobia that I discuss much further in my upcoming book, Fighting Chemophobia (coming out late 2017).

Try it yourselves: use the table to find out whether we’re likely to over-fear or under-fear aeroplane crashes, climate change and parabens in cosmetics. You’ll find that we overestimate the risks of chemical ingredients in our food and products not because they necessarily pose any danger, but because we have this strangely irrational way of assessing risk in the world around us. ♦

The Psychology of Chemophobia – Part 5

Bananas contain unpronounceable ingredients, too. Ingredients of an All-Natural Banana by James Kennedy
Bananas contain unpronounceable ingredients, too

What is chemophobia?

The scientific community describes chemophobia as a “non-clinical prejudice” – rather like homophobia or xenophobia – that is, not a true medical phobia but a learned aversion to ingredients created in laboratories. Researchers Paul Slovic and Baruch Fischhoff identified a number of affective characteristics that help to explain deep and persistent overestimation of chemical risk. They found that people tend to overestimate human-made risks, and underestimate natural risks.

On Artificial Formaldehyde

The most dangerous consequence of this quirk is people’s fear of formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is a naturally-occurring compound that is found in fruits such as peaches and pears, vegetables, meat, eggs and foliage, and is found in very high concentrations in Peking duck, smoked salmon and processed meats (e.g. ham and sausages). These so-called ‘natural’ sources of formaldehyde are usually considered acceptable by the public, while artificial sources of formaldehyde such as vaccines and baby shampoo, have caused public outcry.

“People tend to overestimate human-made risks, and underestimate natural risks.” – Slovic & Fischhoff

One such outcry forced Johnson’s to undertake one of the biggest reformulations in history, and remove all traces of formaldehyde from its products. This was despite the fact that there was so little formaldehyde present in their baby shampoo that you’d need to take 40 million baths per day to reach dangerous levels. Johnson’s spent tens of millions of dollars on a reformulation project not because they were legally obliged to, and not because there was ever a safety risk, but because they were under pressure from irrational consumers to change their recipe. I call them irrational because nobody ever petitioned for an expensive reformulation of smoked salmon, Peking duck, peaches or pears because of formaldehyde fears.

Vaccines also contain tiny amounts of formaldehyde. Irrational fear of ‘artificial’ formaldehyde has led some people to avoid vaccinations altogether even though the level of formaldehyde found in a vaccine is 80 times less than in a single pear. People’s irrational fear of formaldehyde has caused many preventable deaths; anti-vaccination movements have caused measles outbreaks in California (2015), Germany (2015), Wales (2013) and other places.

Chemophobia is the irrational fear of chemicals, particularly artificially-created chemicals

People overestimate risks that are imposed on us, like contaminants and pollutants, than risks we engage in voluntarily

Another reason people fear formaldehyde in vaccines (but not in pears) is because humans are irrationally hard-wired to overestimate the magnitude of risks that are imposed upon us. Most people over-fear terrorism and under-fear obesity. Terrorism killed 32,000 people in 2015, yet obesity kills tens of millions of people each year. Despite that, terrorism remains a key subject in American presidential debates because people’s fear of terrorism is inflated out of proportion by the fact that it’s imposed on the public rather than being caused by the public themselves. Americans are 33,000 times more likely to die from a heart-related disease than from terrorism, yet terrorism tops people’s list of fears due to the irrational quirks of human risk perception.

We all are born with these afflictions, and only science education can help us overcome them

The psychology behind these irrational assumptions is innate and is present in all of us. It’s only with science education and a basic knowledge of toxicology that we can begin to assess the risks associated with different compounds in a meaningful way. Only science education can fight chemophobia and allow people to make rational decisions about healthcare, skincare and nutrition.

This post is part 5 in a weekly series about chemophobia. Not only are people less afraid of natural toxins than synthetic ones, but in some cases, safety legislation is more lenient when it comes to natural threats vs artificial ones. Next week, we’ll explore some specific examples of toxins that are present (naturally and artificially) in the foods we eat.