Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Impact of the Highly Improbable

First, gentle reader, educate yourself about how the human brain assesses risk, using relevant examples such as Virginia Tech and 9/11.

The Virginia Tech massacre is precisely the sort of event we humans tend to overreact to. Our brains aren't very good at probability and risk analysis, especially when it comes to rare occurrences. We tend to exaggerate spectacular, strange and rare events, and downplay ordinary, familiar and common ones. There's a lot of research in the psychological community about how the brain responds to risk -- some of it I have already written about -- but the gist is this: Our brains are much better at processing the simple risks we've had to deal with throughout most of our species' existence, and much poorer at evaluating the complex risks society forces us face today.

Novelty plus dread equals overreaction.

Tie this into an obvious truth:

In other words, proximity of relationship affects our risk assessment. And who is everyone's major storyteller these days? Television. (Nassim Nicholas Taleb's great book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, discusses this.)


I tell people that if it's in the news, don't worry about it. The very definition of "news" is "something that hardly ever happens." It's when something isn't in the news, when it's so common that it's no longer news -- car crashes, domestic violence -- that you should start worrying.

You have today's lesson! Read it again, and think how it applies to you.

Also Useful:
Word of the Day
Salient means:

1. Projecting or jutting beyond a line or surface; protruding.
2. Strikingly conspicuous; prominent. Noticeable.
3. Springing; jumping: salient tree toads.

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