Posted by Jay Livingston
How do we assess the different risks in our lives?
Her name was Paige,* but New Yorkers in the 1980s knew her as “the sign-the-petition lady.” She would set up at her anti-pornography display at various locations around Manhattan and chant endlessly, “Sign the petition. Sign the petition.”
In her right hand was some offensive image from a porn mag (often, the meat-grinder cover from Larry Flynt’s magazine Hustler). Her other hand invariably held a lit cigarette. I was always tempted to say to her, “You know, you’re at greater risk from what’s in your left hand than what’s in your right.” But I never did.
(Click to enlarge. The cigarette in her left hand will still not be clearly visible, but I’m sure it’s there.)
The recent bomb explosion in New York again raised the specter of terrorism and with it the question: how great is my risk from terrorist attacks? For some people, mostly on the right, the message was, “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” Donald Trump said, “ “We better get very tough, folks. We better get very, very tough,” though he did not specify what form this toughness would take.
By contrast, the mayor of New York insisted that “New Yorkers will not be intimidated. We are not going to let anyone change who we are or how we go about our lives.” He’s probably right. New Yorkers would find it difficult to change their daily lives. They could, for example, lower their risk by avoiding crowded places, but that’s where most of them work every day. The mayor’s comment makes sense because the risk of a terrorist attack is very low compared with other dangers, even bomb-like explosion. We’ve had a few of them in the last decade, some of them fatal, but they were from gas mains. And in that same period, at least 1000 people have died just walking the streets, the victims of automobiles.
In the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik, trying to estimate our risk from terrorism repeats the statistic from The Economist “the risk of an American being killed by terrorism in the decade after 9/11 and up to 2013 was one in fifty-six million.” He then asks, “Why [do] we develop such a high level of fright about such a low-level probability. Why are so many still so easily panicked?”
Gopnik gives two reasons – politicians and human psychology. The political angle is obvious. If a politician can get people to fear some thing and then present himself as the person best able to fight that thing, he’ll get a lot of votes. So some politicians like try to amp up our perception of the risk, taking their cue from Prof. Harold Hill in “The Music Man.” (See this post from a year or so ago.)
Gopnik’s second factor is “the eternal human propensity to overstate and overimagine risks and loss and underimagine and understate gains and benefits.”
Maybe. But Gopnik misses the moral angle. People react on the basis of moral judgment, not just rational risk calculation. Causes of harm that are immoral inflate our perception of their probability. We think we have more to fear from bad people – people who do want to do us harm – than from bad drivers, who do not want to do us harm. This moral judgment also draws a line between Us and Them – and we perceive Them as dangerous to Us. Bad drivers do not constitute a Them. Neither do apartment owners who install illegal gas lines. They are not some group we are at war with.
This moral Us/Them basis of risk assessment may also figure in the Black Lives Matter response when someone points out that Black people are more at risk from Black civilians (Black-on-Black crime) than from White cops. That’s irrelevant to their issue, which is that They (cops) target Us (Black people).
In the same way, anti-Muslim politicians and their supporters dismiss statistics about risk. In fact, my impression is that people who live in low-risk places but who are more militantly anti-Muslim are more concerned about the risk of terrorism and more likely to demand anti-Muslim measures than are those who live in places most likely to be terrorist targets – cities like New York or Los Angeles.
And in the same way, the sign-the-petition lady would have dismissed my suggestion that she had less to fear from Larry Flynt than from Philip Morris. **
* Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York has more about her. A streetcorner very near where I live was one of her locations, so I often saw and heard her. But I never once saw anyone stop to sign the petition. According to one of the comments on the Vanishing New York blog, she used the petition mostly to get the names and phone numbers of women she could then hit on.
** There is an extensive literature in psychology on perceptions of risk which I am leaving out.