Tag Archives: terrorism

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. ♦

Book: The Sociopath Next Door

This book makes you feel more uncomfortable than talking to a shrink. At least Amazon's books are cheap!

Like talking to a shrink: it’s written in obsessive, repetitive language with no intention to cure. The author is sick.
242 pages, ★★★

Sociopaths in this book are only “bad” because of the damage they cause. The Sociopath Next Door tells us that despite the suffering they create and the “crocodile tears” they unleash, sociopaths are in fact having a really great time. So why not become one? The Sociopath Next Door fails to answer that question.

According to this book, the sociopathic 4% among us can do anything without regret. They can extort, murder, rape, declare war, or torture people without feeling empathy. Capitalist society encourages sociopathic behaviour within corporations and some sociopaths have become extremely rich as a result of their ruthless behaviour. But sociopaths without a business talent tend to fare less well: one in five prisoners is also a sociopath.

The Sociopath Next Door is extremely repetitive. Despite being a shrink, the author obsesses over the 4% statistic (which, the author reminds us countless times, equates to one in 25 people). She tells us in each chapter that sociopaths cause great harm (many of the victims have approached the author for counselling) and that sociopaths love to take control of people in strange ways (such as stealing postage stamps or seducing women). Many times, she states that sociopaths love their condition so much that they seldom seek help.

This book is fuzzy. Chapters 1 and 4 both tell us how to diagnose a sociopath using the following six (chapter 4) or seven (chapter 1) criteria. A sociopath is someone who:

  1. Is spontaneous;
  2. Takes risks;
  3. Has charm;
  4. Is never monogamous;
  5. Fails to conform to social norms; and
  6. Fails to honor social obligations.

According to these criteria, I’m a sociopath! However, the book gives us new definitions of sociopathy elsewhere, which include “not having a conscience”, “not feeling regret”, “obsessing over controlling people” and the Dalai Lama’s definition of “not living a fully-developed human life”. According to these criteria, I’m certainly not a sociopath.

The fuzziness starts here: The Sociopath Next Door concludes by telling us that we’re all capable of excising some small fraction of society and labelling them as “inhuman”. Hitler is the favourite example. The book tells us that some people would put Osama bin Laden, capitalists, communists, black people, white people or any other social group and lump them into the same “inhuman” category. We’re all capable of treating some people as inhuman occasionally.

But then the author makes a huge mistake: she tells us that sociopaths lump everyone into the “inhuman” category all the time, and thus treat everyone worse than dogs. It is here that the author fails to realise that the author herself is treating 4% of us as “inhuman” by labelling us as sociopaths and writing an obsessive book about it! Shrinks have a huge incentive to over-diagnose and not to cure, and thus label people (as “ADHD”, “depressed”, “sociopathic” etc) because they want their money; and the only way to escape this dilemma is to reject the notion of sociopathy.

As the conclusion admits, Buddhism gives us far more insight than psychiatry. Eastern religions tend to emphasise loving oneself before one can love others. And if people are in situations where they barely have enough energy to love themselves and their families, they are of course going to show no love for others—particularly strangers in need. Just as we choose which books not to read when we go book-shopping, and which partners not to marry when we get married, we also choose which people not to care for when our spiritual resources are limited. Are all racists, rapists, fascists, and thieves sociopaths? No. They just haven’t been loved. And the answer to that problem doesn’t lie in an expensive shrink’s chair; it comes from falling in love. ★★★