Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Intersection of Crisis Response and . . . Pretty Much Everything

Last week, Eric Morris wrote on the New York Times Freakonomics Blog about what he called the "Danger of Safety." Referring to the recent crash on the D.C. Metro that killed 9 people, he wrote:
The relative rarity of air and rail disasters makes them novel, and hence news. Car crashes bite man, and rail and air crashes bite dog. Intensive coverage of the few air and rail accidents that do occur in turn promotes the widespread — and erroneous — inference that planes and trains are unsafe. In an unfair irony, in transportation perhaps too much safety can be a dangerous thing.
The Quarterback brings this up because in a recent post about the murder of Neda Sultan, I wrote:
We live our lives based on what is likely, not what is possible, in terms of danger. This video brings home in a very vivid way what of course we already knew -- that the world is not safe, particularly if you are a protester in Tehran.
But Morris brings up the flip side of that, which is that trauma messes with our understanding of what is possible vs. what is likely. When something like this happens, we feel like we've been duped. We've been living our lives in a state of complacency, believing, say, that the Metro is safe, and we feel like all of a sudden we have woken up from our stupor to the horrible truth that it really isn't. And the media coverage reinforces that false perception.

On a related note, on Monday Freakonomics posted the following:
In the 1990’s, a call went out for the F.A.A. to stop letting air-traveling parents carry young children in their laps, making them buy a ticket for their children instead, so that every person could wear a seatbelt. The F.A.A. refused, saying that the cost of an extra ticket could force parents to travel by car instead. Car crashes are the leading cause of death for children. On the other hand, the problem of child safety in air travel, the F.A.A. said, “barely exists.” Yet another example of how terrible we are at assessing risk, especially when it comes to our children.
One of the commenters replied:

The response to your blog is simple . . .The overwhelming majority of people are ignorant of the scientific method — thus, probability and risk.

I can't tell you how strenuously the Quarterback disagrees with this analysis. The fact that rational information tells us something different than that upon which we feel compelled to or choose to act does not mean we don't understand better information, or how good information is obtained. It just means that there are things that are psychologically more compelling than empirically derived data in this instance, and that, as the original post notes, we are actually pretty bad at estimating what the empirically derived data on danger will tell us.

Morris understands this when he looks at how the relative rarity and the news coverage of a transportation accident skews our perception of the danger of that mode of transportation. It may be that if you ask people which is safer, a car or the Metro, they will say a car. They will be wrong. But I doubt that if you told them the relevant statistics most people would say, "No, the Metro is still more dangerous." What they will say, however, is, "Even though I know that, my gut instinct is just to avoid the Metro."

Our guts are powerful, and yes, they are influenced by data and by the scientific method. They are also influenced by media coverage, shock, personalization, and perhaps most powerfully, by what we can control. We can avoid a plane, or strap our child in. We can avoid the Metro. We can drive defensively. But what most of us can't do without completely changing our entire lives is avoid driving, so it is important to us that, on a gut level, we continue to be able to drive. We therefore ignore that data, perhaps not cognitively, but instinctively. We're not stupid, we're just trying to get by, to live in the shadow of what is likely and what is possible.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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