Tuesday, 13 January 2009

The fear of strangers

We have it ass-backwards apparently..

What do Bruce Pardo and Atif Irfan have in common?

In case you’re not familiar with their names, let me rephrase:

What do the white guy who dressed up as Santa and killed his ex-wife and her family (and then committed suicide) and the Muslim guy who got thrown off a recent AirTran flight on suspicion of terrorism have in common?

As we wrote in Freakonomics, most people are pretty terrible at risk assessment. They tend to overstate the risk of dramatic and unlikely events at the expense of more common and boring (if equally devastating) events. A given person might fear a terrorist attack and mad cow disease more than anything in the world, whereas in fact she’d be better off fearing a heart attack (and therefore taking care of herself) or salmonella (and therefore washing her cutting board thoroughly).