How to Think Critically II: Salience

“Just another day in the city. A sidewalk grate, the kind that millions of feet trod upon every day, gives way, sending a woman tumbling into the hole and landing her in the hospital. Downtown, a 15-foot pipe falls off a 40-story skyscraper, crashing through a firehouse nearby, injuring two.

In densely packed Manhattan, with so many taxis speeding down the street, so many subways to trip and fall in front of, and of course so many rapes, robberies and murders to contend with, the whole place can seem like a stage set for ‘Fear Factor.’”

—David Freedlander, “To fear, or not to fear, that is the question“. AM New York, 18 May 2007.

During my morning commute the other day, I caught this headline in a daily newspaper. I have no doubt that as a result of this fear-mongering story, millions of people will steer clear of walking on sidewalk grates for a while, “just to be safe”. How many of those same people will take extra care to look both ways before stepping off a curb? After all, falls through sidewalk grates have killed no people that I am aware of, and have now injured a total of one. By contrast, 200 people are killed every year in New York City by cars.

This fallacy is called the availability heuristic: if an outcome is more accessible cognitively, because it is more easily brought to mind, people will tend to view it as more likely. As security professional Bruce Schneier writes, people consistently underestimate the risk posed by common, everyday events, while overestimating the risk caused by rare, spectacular events. In other words:

Novelty plus dread equals overreaction.

…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.

Schneier gives many more pertinent examples. Shark attacks seem more spectacular and frightening than dog attacks, even though far more people are killed each year by dogs than by sharks. Far more people have phobias about flying than driving, even though mile for mile, driving is a much riskier way to travel. We fear being assaulted or raped by strangers, when relatives and friends of the victim are far more likely to be the perpetrators of such an assault. Terrorist attacks like September 11 so terrify us that we are willing to spend billions of dollars on “homeland security” in municipalities across the country; meanwhile, car crashes kill many times more people each year than terrorists ever have. We react with horror to tragedies like the Virginia Tech shooting spree and agonize over how to prevent such incidents in the future, when far more people are killed each year in mundane domestic violence. Spending money to protect ourselves against common threats, which are both more preventable and more often overlooked precisely because they are common, would pay greater dividends than spending the same money to protect ourselves against extremely rare and improbable disasters.

The availability heuristic plays an important role in religion as well. Since billions of people pray billions of prayers per day, it is statistically inevitable that in some cases, the outcome prayed for will occur simply by chance. When this happens, believers seize on these events and promote them far and wide as answers to prayer. On the other hand, the far greater number of occasions when prayers do not come true are less cognitively available, and are therefore ignored and forgotten. This combination of counting the hits and forgetting the misses makes it seem, to people who do not understand statistics, as if prayer is highly effective. A similar fallacy can be seen in faith healers, who endlessly recount the few stories of people who recovered naturally after being “healed” and dismiss the far larger number of people who did not.

In the last installment of this series, I wrote about extraordinary claims and under what circumstances we should believe or disbelieve them. But the important corollary is that, even when extraordinary claims are true, we should not let them unduly shape our thinking. They still represent an exception, not the norm. Understanding this would keep many people from accepting claims born of superstitious fear.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Freeyourmind

    Very good post. I have to admit that I had overlooked such circumstances as well. Interesting how the mind works.

  • http://lackingthewords.wordpress.com kris

    This is the kind of stuff I really wish people would realise more often, especially those screaming about how much the US needs to protect themselves from terrorism when there are clearly much bigger and more important things to deal with. Not to mention the whole issue that in fact by freaking out so much after terrorist attacks you just demonstrate how successful they can be and thus encourage more of them.

    Good post.

  • jtwurth

    Great post. Unfortunately I was brought up in a Catholic school system where I was instructed to believe, without question, everything the nuns told me. It wasn’t until I went to college and my professors started challenging me to think for myself that I broke free of the religious dogmatism that had ruled my life through most of my formative years. I recently heard a story on NPR that served to confirm what you posted here. Chicago Schools Suffered 27 Deaths in 2006

  • Alex, FCD

    It’s a powerful fallacy. I once heard a respectble historian claim with a straight face that, in his opinion, Grigory Rasputin had magical healing powers; on the grounds that he caused Alexei to recover from bouts of hemophilia in exactly the same way that he did before Rasputin showed up.

  • http://kellygorski.blogspot.com Kelly Gorski

    Thank you!

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    Great post. The examples of this fallacy are all around us. The one that instantly sprung to mind for me, was the drugs debate: one girl out of millions and millions, has a bad reaction to an ecstasy tablet and dies, and everyone panics and says you can’t legalise drugs. Meanwhile, legal tobacco smoking claims millions of lives a year.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    I came across an article today that further substantiates my point: a piece called Predator Panic from the Skeptical Inquirer. It discusses how society’s fear of children being molested by roaming sex predators, though justifiable, has become exaggerated out of proportion to the threat that predators actually pose, resulting in wasteful, ineffective and even counterproductive legal measures. Meanwhile, the number of children who are harmed or die each day from abuse and neglect by parents or caretakers is far greater than those who are kidnapped or assaulted by sexual predators. The article mentions the availability heuristic and how it relates to this issue. (HT, Greta Christina’s Blog).

  • Polly

    Not to make light, but “South Park” had an episode that described exactly this: where the parents actually ended up sending their kids away because statistics showed that children were at risk of molestation from close relatives and parents.

  • Jeff T.

    I agree with your blog, however, I have never liked the comparison between flying and driving. I admit, I am scared of flying. I hate it. My job requires it, so I do it. One year I had 11 trips.
    The difference to me is that if I am driving, I know what I am capable of doing. I am in control of the vehicle. I am the one making the decisions. I am the one reacting and judging the environment around me. If I am flying, the only thing that I am in control of is how many Bloody Mary’s I order as I sit helplessly fastened down while strangers that I ‘hope and pray’ know their jobs make life decisions for me…

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    The perception that you’re more “in control” when driving may well contribute to the feeling that driving is safer. Nevertheless, despite your lack of control over the operation of a large commercial aircraft, the statistics are clear: you are safer in the plane. According to surveys like this one from the Department of Transportation, the average American has 1 chance in 7700 of dying in a motor vehicle accident in any given year, but only 1 chance in about 2,000,000 of dying in a plane crash.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    @ Jeff T.

    The difference to me is that if I am driving, I know what I am capable of doing. I am in control of the vehicle. I am the one making the decisions. I am the one reacting and judging the environment around me.

    I agree that when driving you feel more in control, but in the cold light of day that ‘control’ is an illusion. You are capable of mistakes, errors of judgement and lapses of concentration. A tyre could burst, your brakes could fail, a pebble could even skip up and crack your windscreen. Not to mention that you have no control over the weather, or the activity of other vehicles and road users. When we’re driving, we have control over a lot less than we think.

    Not that I’m trying to make you scared of driving! I just think don’t think the difference between flying and driving is as clear cut as you think.

  • http://badnewsbible.blogspot.com XanderG

    I agree with Tobe and Ebonmuse that flying is safer; my rational mind knows the statistics. And yet when I fly I get this pit of fear in my stomach. I can understand the lack of control thing, but for me the fear is dying. Not being dead, but the actual process of falling out of the sky. Coupled with my vertigo, that is what scares me, so I have sympathy for Jeff T. But mind you I hate driving as well. So I guess I’ll just have to walk and cycle, and even then I’m quite likely to be hit by another car. You just can’t win.

  • Alex Weaver

    I’m sure it doesn’t help that while the rate of vehicle accidents is vastly higher than the rate of plane crashes, one’s chance of surviving a vehicle accident one does become involved in is, under most circumstances (“wearing one’s seatbelt” comes to mind), much higher than one’s chance of surviving a plane crash (excluding emergency landings).

  • Alex Weaver

    …and the topic of plane crashes and irrational instinctive beliefs in turn reminds me of one of the (on further reflection) sillier suggestions I’ve ever read:

    If when a plane crashes the only thing to survive is the black box. Why don’t they make the whole plane out of the same material?

    This seems like a good idea at first. With a moment’s reflection and a technician’s understanding of basic physical engineering principles, however, I can think of good reasons why it isn’t:
    1) I am not at present familiar with the material composition of the “black boxes” but it is conceivable that acquiring enough of this material to make an entire plane may be prohibitively expensive or logistically impossible.
    2) Even if the material is available, the sort of structural design factors likely involved in rendering the black box virtually indestructible are not at all guaranteed to either A) scale up well or B) work well in an object in the shape of a plane, rather than a box. It is also likely to lack the limited flexibility that is important for the strength and functionality of the plane’s wings and such.
    3) Even if the above problems can be solved, the material used is likely to be far too heavy for the fuselage to be rendered airborne by any realistic propulsion technology.
    4) Even if these could all be overcome it’d be pointless; hitting the seat in front of you at 350-odd miles per hour while the plane’s fuselage remained intact would not, I expect, be significantly less lethal than if the fuselage were pulverized by the impact.

    I now have a working hypothesis that I shall explore, through various online sources, when I have the chance and clarity to do so, rather than simply accepting as “common sense.” A sizable proportion of the population should be taking notes. :/

  • James Bradbury

    Great article showing where our insincts fail us in assessing situations.

    The thing to keep in mind when comparing statistics on the relative dangers of things you should take into account the frequency of exposure to that danger – this may be taken into account by the stats but it’s good to check. People drive much more often than they fly. I expect that a 2 hour flight is still safer than a 2 hour car journey, but it’s probably not 260 times safer.

    The reason I’d try to avoid flying is the insane amounts of pollution it produces – aeroplanes make cars look positively frugal.

    People meet a lot more dogs than sharks. Perhaps a more fair comparison of the relative danger could be made if sharks could breath air and be taken for walks in the park? Hmm, that’s a strange image!

  • valhar2000

    To those who are afraid of flying: does the consideration that flying is clearly safer than driving, according to the available statistics, not asway your fear in the least? I probably have a lesser degree of phobia than you do, but in my case it certainly does. Whenever a feel any sort of aprehension about being in the air, such as when turbulence strikes, I remind myself of that and it does the trick.

    Can you not remind yourself over and over again of what you know? Do you forget to do so? Or is it just not effective in your case?

  • http://badnewsbible.blogspot.com XanderG

    To valhar2000, I wish it did. Flying is the one area where my rational mind shuts down and refuses to come back. I have a fear of heights, even now as I write this thinking about heights I’m palpatating. And yet I enjoy rock climbing. The fear of going up is not there, it’s only the coming down.

    My main fear in planes, was of this phenonenon of air gaps, where air density disappears and the plane plummets. Now I had partly heard this some place or another and it had got the idea stuck in my head. The idea taking off, ascending and then suddenly crashing to earth did not appeal. However in looking around the web, the only place I have found reference to such phenomena is a website where they dispute global warming and say its all lunar. If more evidence could be provided to show that these air gaps are rubbish then I would fly much easier. Really my problem I think is fear due to ignorance, but as I dont fly often it doesn’t normally become a problem.

  • Polly

    I think part of the fear of flying comes from our individualism. It’s one thing to die behind the wheel by yourself, it’s another thing to die en masse, where you’re automatically rendered a nameless statistic. You die in your car and it is YOUR tragedy. You die in a plane and the PLANE CRASH is the tragedy.

    Wow, a lot of fear of flying. I absolutely love flying and rarely get to do it (less than once per year). I’m especially glad when the plane hits turbulence. Flying to Lake Tahoe one year, the plane actually used propellers! The turbulence was awesome! My wife wasn’t nearly as pleased, to put it mildly.

  • http://infophilia.blogspot.com Infophile

    4) Even if these could all be overcome it’d be pointless; hitting the seat in front of you at 350-odd miles per hour while the plane’s fuselage remained intact would not, I expect, be significantly less lethal than if the fuselage were pulverized by the impact.

    Actually, the laws of physics being as they are, you’re actually better off if the fuselage crumples under you than if it stays solid. The trick here is the same amount of work has to be done on you to slow you down in either case, but if the fuselage crumples, it’s done over a greater distance. Since Work = Force * Distance, this means that less force will be exerted on you throughout this. (The force on you is what actually causes harm.) Similarly, it’s safer to sit in the back of planes as most of the time when they crash, the nose hits the ground first so those in the back will have more “crumple room.”

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ John P

    To riff off of valhar2000, isn’t the fear of flying, more so than driving, (or fear of sharks, not dogs) also fueled by the availability heuristic that Ebonmuse writes about? It’s a fallacy of thinking, but it is still common, and particularly human in nature. Who knows? There may even be a reason why evolution selected for it. (Can’t think of one, but I hold the option open.) In any event, if we didn’t think so fallaciously, perhaps we wouldn’t have the fear we do have. Graphic news reports of every plane crash, where most car crashes are ignored, doesn’t help.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    To those who are afraid of flying: does the consideration that flying is clearly safer than driving, according to the available statistics, not asway your fear in the least?

    I wouldn’t say I have a phobia of flying, but it does scare me. Remembering the stats is the only thing that helps me. Personally, I hate the feeling of moving at high speed when I’m not in control (I hate roller coasters!), but using critical thinking skills to put the chances of crashing in perspective does make me feel better.

  • Archi Medez

    “We fear being assaulted or raped by strangers, when relatives and friends of the victim are far more likely to be the perpetrators of such an assault.” -Ebonmuse

    Is there more to it than just a difference in the amount of time one spends with strangers vs friends/family members, respectively?

  • Alex Weaver

    To those who are afraid of flying: does the consideration that flying is clearly safer than driving, according to the available statistics, not asway your fear in the least? I probably have a lesser degree of phobia than you do, but in my case it certainly does. Whenever a feel any sort of aprehension about being in the air, such as when turbulence strikes, I remind myself of that and it does the trick.

    Can you not remind yourself over and over again of what you know? Do you forget to do so? Or is it just not effective in your case?

    My observations suggest that most people can’t even get their minds around the idea that they can control their emotional responses in this manner. :/ As for me…I don’t mind flying, except that as a general rule commercial airliners are cramped, inadequately cooled, and have poor meal and beverage options. The main reason I hate to fly is the idiotic lengths the TSA goes to in order to make gullible passengers (who, again, are evaluating threats at an emotional level) *feel* safer without accidentally adding any meaningful degree of protection. I can’t imagine why anyone would think it’s worth giving up that degree of independence and privacy, and wasting that much time and energy, just to be secure in the knowledge that an average Kindergartener would have to work a little in order to smuggle a genuinely dangerous weapon onto a plane.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    I read somewhere a long time ago that an investigation showed that the chances of surviving a plane crash would increase dramtically, if all of the passenger seats faced backwards. I don’t know if this was true (it was pre-critical thinking days), but apparently the airlines carried out surveys and decided it against it because customers were set dead against the idea of having to travel facing backwards.

  • James Bradbury

    @tobe38 – nice choice of words at the end there. :)

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    @ James Bradbury,

    Thanks, the pun really wasn’t intended. In all seriousness though, we all know that the idea would never have taken off.

  • Alex, FCD

    In all seriousness though, we all know that the idea would never have taken off.

    Tobe, you can’t say ‘in all seriousness’ and then make another pun.

  • http://aloadofbright.wordpress.com tobe38

    Alex, FCD,

    It was a joke. This time the pun was intentional and the “seriousness” ironic ;)

  • bassmanpete

    I read somewhere a long time ago that an investigation showed that the chances of surviving a plane crash would increase dramtically, if all of the passenger seats faced backwards.

    Also a long time ago there was a spate of kidnappings for ransom in Italy of children from wealthy families. A specialist driving instructor was teaching chauffeurs of wealthy families how to get away from a pursuing car. Two of the tricks he was showing them were how to do a 180° & a 360° spin at high speed. Whilst being interviewed he said that if he was ever heading for a collision he would always try to go into it in reverse, ie spin the car 180° before colliding. He stated that ones chances of thus surviving the crash were greatly increased but I can’t remember by what factor.

    I would have no problem with rearward facing seats but I remember from train journeys made as a child in the ’50s that my mother always hated it if she had to travel with her back to the direction of travel.

    I agree with XanderG, death itself doesn’t frighten me but the thought of falling from a great height before dying does!! I really felt for all those people on the Pan-Am flight that fell from the sky over Lockerbie – most of them were probably still alive after the bomb blast. However, flying into a mountain at several hundred miles an hour would probably kill everybody before they even had time to be scared.

  • http://www.dangerousintersection.org Erich Vieth

    I also would stir in the confirmation bias to explain how people are so willing to point to coincidences as “more than coincidences.” http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=785 I appreciate your willingness to bring the availability heuristic and salience to bear when you discuss the existence of supernatural belief systems. These concepts from cognitive science often lead to fruitful discussions, in my experience.

    If only more Believers would be willing to stop and consider this possibility that they are misleading themselves.

  • Octavo

    I have never had a fear of flying, except for one occasion when we were flying out of Singapore with a thunderstorm closing in. The turbulence combined with the thunder and bright flashes of lightning outside had just about everyone onboard in varying degrees of panic. It’s a scary experience to be onboard a plane with 200 people around you all muttering to each other quietly (some, not so quietly) and distinctly palpable fear in the air.

  • Bill

    #17.

    As a military (F-16) and civilian pilot (B-737,757,767) for over 25 years, it might help to think of the air as one thinks of water. While there are waves and lots of ups and downs, there’s never a spot of “no water” where a boat would plummet downward.

    Same with an aircraft. There’s always air underneath – even when you get caught in turbulence.

    Does that help ?

  • other scott

    I’ve often wondered if I’m sick because I enjoy turbulence, glad to know i’m not alone Polly!