Bruce Schneier on Spectacular vs. Ordinary Events

Bruce Schneier, technology expert and author of Liars and Outliers, has a good, well-reasoned op-ed piece in CNN titled “Drawing the Wrong Lessons from Horrific Events.” He reminds us that human brains aren’t very good at probability and risk analysis. We tend to exaggerate the strange and rare events, and downplay the ordinary, familiar, and common ones. We think rare risks are more common than they are. We fear them more than probability indicates we should.

And who are the major storytellers these days? Television and the Internet. So when news programs and sites endlessly repeat the story from Aurora, with interviews with those in the theater, interviews with the families and commentary by anyone who has a point to make, we start to think this is something to fear, rather than a rare event that almost never happens and isn’t worth worrying about. In other words, reading five stories about the same event feels somewhat like five separate events, and that skews our perceptions.

We see the effects of this all the time.

It’s strangers by whom we fear being murdered, kidnapped, raped and assaulted, when it’s far more likely that any perpetrator of such offenses is a relative or a friend. We worry about airplane crashes and rampaging shooters instead of automobile crashes and domestic violence — both of which are far more common and far, far more deadly.

If you want to continue reading on this topic, I highly recommend Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness.

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