1.Why is your book important now? Why did you write it?
As a journalist, I often found myself writing about threats to life and limb. Crime, cancer, terrorism. All sorts of things that worry people. And I started to notice some patterns. First, I saw that when I really dug into the evidence, the threat wasn’t nearly as great as it was made out to be. Second, I noticed that the really big trends – child mortality, disability, life span – were all steadily improving, but this good news wasn’t reported in the media and wasn’t widely known.
In fact, sociologists say we are more worried about risk than ever before – that we live in a “risk society,” as one called it. So here we are, the safest and healthiest humans who ever lived, and we are increasingly worried about threats that are, by any rational measure, trivial. I found this indescribably strange. And important.
As luck would have it, that was about the time I met Paul Slovic, the American psychologist who pioneered the study of risk perception. That’s when the pieces started to fall into place.
2. What should we do to anticipate and better react to risks?
Think. It’s that simple. And that difficult.
Modern psychology has demonstrated that our perceptions are the product of two minds, not one. The first is the unconscious mind. I call it “Gut” in the book. The other is the conscious mind, or “Head.”
Gut is quick, primal, intuitive, emotional. And it’s very persuasive. We tend to unquestioningly accept that the hunches and feelings Gut communicates are accurate. But sometimes they’re not because the mechanisms Gut uses to form judgements can occasionally lead to terrible mistakes. To catch those mistakes, we have to get Head involved: We have to slowly and carefully examine our perceptions and ask ourselves if the evidence truly supports them. In a word, we have to think.
3. What’s the riskiest thing you’ve ever done?
I write about it in the book. I was on assignment in Lagos, Nigeria. It was after midnight, I’d had some beer, and my wallet was stolen – along with a photograph of my kids. And so I spent several hours wandering alone, looking for a worthless photograph, in one of the biggest, toughest, scariest slums on the planet. Not recommended. The next day I was amazed by my stupidity. How on earth could my brain have concluded that that was a good idea? I discovered the answer while doing the research for Risk.
4. What do you think is the most unreasonable fear rife in the Western world?
One is certainly “stranger danger.” Parents everywhere imagine perverts lurking in bushes, waiting to snatch away their children. But abduction by strangers is almost indescribably rare. In the United States, a child is 26 times more likely to die in a car crash. And yet, because of this irrational fear, parents won’t let their children play outdoors or even walk to school – which contributes to the rising rates of childhood obesity that really do threaten the well-being of children.
Terrorism is also grossly exaggerated. I know this is controversial and so I go to great lengths to substantiate my views in the book. Over the last 40 years, fewer than 15,000 people have been killed in international terrorist attacks. That figure includes the Sept. 11 attacks, incidentally. And so, on average, international terrorism takes the lives of 379 a year around the world. Let me put that risk in perspective: In 2003, in the United States alone, 497 people accidentally suffocated in bed; 396 were unintentionally electrocuted; 515 drowned in swimming pools; 347 were killed by police officers. And 16,503 Americans were murdered by garden-variety criminals.
5. Is there anything we should fear but don’t?
As a general rule, we exaggerate dramatic, vivid, violent and emotional risks. We tend to underestimate the slow, quiet, undramatic, routine killers. Now guess which of these two categories is responsible for the overwhelming majority of all deaths? Yes, it’s the latter.
We’d all be better off if the thought of lying on the couch eating junk food, guzzling beer, and watching television gave us a little jolt of fear. Alas, it doesn’t.
6. Do you think governments play on our fears more since 9/11?
No, I don’t. Fear has always been a useful tool in politics.
I also think we should be careful about the way we talk about fear-mongering. People who warn against it usually portray politicians (or corporate executives, as the case may be) as cackling puppet-masters who deliberately spread fears they know to be irrational in order to advance their interests. I think that’s a serious mistake. It neglects a fundamental psychological concept: cognitive dissonance.
Each of us wants to believe we are basically a good person. But it’s hard to think that when we are terrifying people to suit our own selfish purposes. The solution? Convince yourself that the fear isn’t irrational. The danger really is great. People should be afraid — and you are doing a public service by making them so.
I have no doubt that Tony Blair advanced his political interests by claiming that terrorism is “an existential threat.” But I also have no doubt that Tony Blair genuinely believed it was an existential threat, despite abundant evidence to the contrary. That’s how the human brain works: Self-interest and sincere belief seldom part company.
7. What do you fear most?
After that night in Nigeria, I don’t fear anything.
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