David Ropeik: Airplane Disasters and the Psychology of Risk

July 29, 2014

How do we rationally assess risk? Following a terrible series of horrifying air travel disasters, reasonable people begin to question what we consider to be “safe.” But should we?

To answer this question, our host Josh Zepps is joined by David Ropeik, an international consultant and expert on the subject of risk perception and communication, and author of Risk: A Practical Guide for Deciding Whats Really Safe and Whats Really Dangerous in the World Around You and How Risky Is It, Really?: Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.

Ropeik discusses how human beings perceive danger versus mathematical probabilities, how fear and optimism affect our perception, and how it might be a good idea to be “gentle” with the word “rational” when it comes to the subject risk.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Tuesday, July twenty ninth, 2014. 

I’m Josh Zepps, host of Huff Post Live, and this is the podcast of the Center for Inquiry. How do you rationally assess risk? Last week, a Trans Asia flight slammed into a village in Taiwan in that country’s worst air disaster in over a decade. The following morning, an Air Algerie McDonnell Douglas went down en route to Algiers, killing everyone on board. That was less than a week after a Malaysia Airlines triple seven was shot out of the sky over Ukraine. And just days after American flights to Tel Aviv were halted due to rocket fire from Gaza. This is all, of course, just four months after the disappearance of 239 people on MH 370. Somewhere over the Indian Ocean, that’s more than 700 dead passengers. And a lot of people are freaking out. MSNBC is Abby Huntsman channeled a common sentiment when she tweeted three planes down in a week. What on earth is going on? Not sure I want to ever fly again. So this week on Point of Inquiry, The Psychology of Risk and Why You Can’t Trust Your Brain. With David Ropeik. He’s a Harvard instructor and author and risk consultant who wrote the book Risk A Practical Guide for deciding what’s really safe and What’s Really Dangerous in the World around you. And also, how risky is it really why our fears don’t always match the facts. David, thanks for being on point of inquiry. Thanks for the chance to contribute. So is there any reason to be more afraid of flying now than I was five months ago? 

No reason is such a sticky word here. So let me rephrase the question, because this is how human cognition on risk works. Are there any reasons out there why flying now might feel scarier? Right. 

Okay. So there are definitely reasons why it would feel scary out, because I have been reading newspapers and watching television images of people’s charred bodies in a field in Ukraine. 

Does that make it actually riskier? 

Now, even just a little bit. I mean, if you took into account the total number of people who’ve ever been killed in plane crashes, doesn’t this nudge it up just to. I mean, if I were a purely rational human being, wouldn’t I just say, all right, maybe flying is like point one percent more dangerous than it was? 

No, because each of these crashes had their own unique circumstances. So that matters. 

If, for example, you want to do the math of one Josh over denominator, how many people? That’s the ratio that is relevant to you, Josh, of the risk of flying. Do you do one over everybody who flies? Well, you can. Wouldn’t tell you much. All right. You have family in Australia. Maybe you go back there. I don’t. That’s a different kind of flying. Did you fly a lot on little local flights? Were there a lot of takeoffs and landings? Because it turns out that those are the points in which most planes crashed to take off and the landing, not the middle. So you could do number of flights in the bottom. The denominator of the fraction you could do. Miles traveled. How many flights do you take over combat zones? You know, if you’re flying from Cleveland to Dallas, has the risk of plane crash gone up because of what happened in the Ukraine? No. That’s it. 

So depends how radicalized the Tea Party in Texas is. 

Yes, that’s right. You know, open carry laws and all that. Yes. So what matters for risk is two things. One is the probability and the second is the other half of the equation, which is the probability that something bad might happen. And we’ll talk about that in a minute. But we’re talking for the moment just about the probability and the probability is not a simple thing. It depends on a lot of metrics, what number you use and the denominator, what the circumstances are, what kind of flying you do if you fly on small planes that carry less than 18 people. It’s more pronounced than you’d think. It turns out those crashes, which are more frequent, don’t get as much attention because of the emotional part. The bad part, what feels bad to us? The risk equation for something to get a lot of attention in the press, it has to kill a lot of people all at once. And big plane crashes do and little plane crashes mostly don’t. 

So I was flying from Paris to Bangkok last week, two days before the Malaysia Airlines crash. And then I was connecting to to Malaysia Airlines flights to go to Melbourne, which happened to be the destination of MH 17 after a refueling stop in Kuala Lumpur as well. 

When I got to Melbourne, having just gotten off Malaysia Airlines, then when the news broke a couple of days ago, everyone was like, oh, my God. Does it feel weird to have been on Malaysia Airlines? I didn’t really feel that it was that weird, since I’ve flown them quite a lot and it didn’t seem to be their fault. But I went online to a website that that will show you the recorded track of of any flights. You can punch it in and I’ll show you the flight route as it actually happened on a particular flight, on a particular date. And I looked at the at my Thai Airways flight from Paris to Bangkok, and it went right over Ukraine. That gave me a a chill in my spine. And I thought, well, I was only 48 hours before that. The other flight was was shot down. Is any of that relevant to my being rational or irrational in either caring about having flown on Malaysia Airlines or having flown over Ukraine? 

You said a bunch there and yes, you’re spot on. And then this is really where risk needs to be understood by you and me and the public and policymakers. Let me dove in with a slight digression. Use the words. Am I being rational? Yeah, you are, but you’re not being rational in the sense that the word is commonly used, which is purely objective and fact based. But then again, human beings aren’t we are much prouder of our brains than we have any right to be. Ambrose, a beer set in the Devil’s Dictionary satiric thing about one hundred years ago. The brain is only the organ with which we think we think mostly it’s running on autopilot, subconsciously on instincts and emotions and sensations. And its job when you wake up in the morning is to get you to bed at night, not win Nobel Prizes. 

It’s a survival machine first and a figure stuff out smartly. Machine second by a long shot. So let’s be gentle with the word rational. Rational means anything that will help you survive and using your instincts when you don’t have all the information is one of them. 

So that’s a long intro soliloquy to an answer to a couple of the points that you raised about your feelings and their comment I shared. The definition of risk, because I said a little earlier, is roughly this is the common definition, not the scientific definition. The common definition is something like the chance of something bad happening. OK. So we’ve talked a little bit about the vagaries of chance, probability, how how to measure and understand that. But that’s calculable to some degree. Right? Those odds that you talked about, the bad part, the chance that something bad could happen is entirely emotional, bad. It’s subjective, bad to you, bad to me and bad to the next person is subjective. 

But we can all agree to being shot out of the skies. That is bad. Come on. 

Air you go. Oh, man. You’re just handing me the softballs. That’s a perfect segue way to the point I was going to make. It turns out that smarter people than me, I’m just a journalist who has looked this up, have done research that explain that there are patterns to you and me and all listeners to what feels scary and what feels doesn’t what what does it feel scary. And you mentioned the couple. So, for example, you mentioned that you were familiar with flying Malaysia Airlines. And the word familiar is right out of the risk perception literature. If we’ve lived with a risk for a long time, even engaged in it, but just seen it around us. Car crashes I’ve never been in a car crash, but they happen all the time. The fact that they happen all the time intuitively tells me that the denominator in my risk equation is won me over a lot. And here I am still walking around. So do I have the hard numbers? No. Do I generally set because of the instinctive familiarity that the risk is low? Yeah. But then you said you got off the plane and you looked at the little map, which is skewed or yellow airplane’s on it where they have all been. And you saw oh, it was me and I was in the gun sights. Now you have another factor coming into play. We’re way more worried about risks that could happen to me then that could happen to somebody else. You know, climate change. I don’t care about polar bears. So then all of a sudden at that instant, you realized could have been me. 

And there’s that critical word, me and wow, that ramps up literally Josh, literally the biological fight or flight or stress response biochemically in all of the wiring of your brain. You had a little mini fear response. You just described it. So to sum this up and I’ll get back to having dialog instead of forgive me. Risk is the probability of something bad happening. The bad is subjective. But there are patterns between all of us that have been studied that suggest risks with those psychological characteristics are likely to feel more scary. Or let’s not forget. Less scary than the evidence says we ought to be. They work both ways. 

Got it. So what happens in my brain? What happens in my body when I start feeling these these emotions, when someone who has a fear of flying gets on a plane and sits down, you know, and and you feel your heart race and your palms get sweaty or whatever that is. What is it that’s going on biologically and is there a way to combat it? 

Yeah. Drugs? No, there are lots of ways to combat it. What that is, is literally a fight or flight response. It’s the same response that you’d have if you saw a snake or a guy with gone or something that made you overtly, consciously afraid. If it’s all to a matter of degree. In fact, when you read a story about airplanes crashing and you’re thinking of flying next week and you have that little bit of a feeling about it, it’s the same biology. It’s just a matter of degree. So here’s what happens when an external stimulus, in this case, the thought of flying or being on the plane or seeing a snake, doesn’t matter what or a memory, even just something from inside your brain. First forms up in your brain. It goes to an area called the thalamus, which is below the layer on top called the cortex, where we think and do all this conscious fancy stuff in the thalamus. Does two things. It doesn’t turn it into consciousness. But one of the things it does is it relays it onto other sections of the brain to which it’s connected. One of them is called the amygdala. By the way, this is the work of Joseph Ladoo and his lab. And if anybody wants to see this, it’s awesome. He has l e d o u x, a great Web site, Ladoo Lab. When the amygdala gets the signal from the thalamus, it immediately scrubs it for. Could that be scary? And we don’t know exactly how it does that. But apparently that’s where these instincts are somehow built in. If you will, being very simplistic and crude here, if the amygdala senses somehow in its way that there could be danger. It sends the information along to the respond to danger. Dude, the system and your palms get sweaty and your heart races and depending on the level of threat. Wow. Your immune system could shut down your ability to remember long term memory can get shut off because you don’t really need that when the lions attacking you. All kinds of things biologically happen when we’re afraid. Just a matter of degree as to how afraid we are. 

The number of people who’ve died in the past few months in plane crashes. It is more than the average number that you get in an entire year long period. Even more than a two or three year period. I think we normally have a couple of hundred a year. We’re already at seven hundred. We’re only halfway through the year. If these were sprinkled evenly over the course of several decades, we would pay them not much hate. The fact that they happen to be concentrated, of course, which is precisely what randomness would predict. If you toss a coin 100 times, then you’re not just going to get heads, tails, heads, tails, heads, tails, heads. I was going to get some strings of lots of heads, which it seems like this is the fact that that’s happening makes us think that the thing is more likely than it is because we’re in the middle of an anomalous cluster of events. Is there any way of making ourselves not go through those biological kind of reactions and say on Twitter that we’re never going to fly again by somehow making our reasonable brain override these suppositions? 

How do you do that, that you really got it at the heart? And this, by the way, doesn’t just apply to airplanes. It applies to climate change and vaccines and genetically modified food and nuclear power and car crash and texting while we’re driving and eating too much in obesity and every risk there is, we are largely instinctive creatures that feel first and think second and over time feel more and think less when it comes to perceiving the world, not just risk. The way to overcome that, as I suggest in my most recent book, how risky is it really? 

Which summarizes all this literature about why things are more or less scary is to recognize in the first instance that you are at risk because of the way your risk perception system works. That is to say, recognize that making risk judgments is in itself potentially risky and seriously risky, like could be killed because like if you’re extra freaked out about plane crash now when you drive, which is a risky your way to travel and die your mistake, something in my book I call the risk perception gap where we’re too worried or not worried enough killed you. So the first step is now this is survival. This is this is appealing to the animal brain. Hey, pal, you’re at risk from the way you do risk perception. All right. So that’s appealing both to rationality, if you will, fact based and the animal instinct that should get your little stress system going then. Understand one thing. We feel first thing second and feel more overtime and think less. And the way around that is simply to give yourself more time. Stop. Don’t make the decision, knee jerk. And then you’re done. Make the first call. Fine, but recognize that it may put you in danger and take a breath and take two, then take a half an hour or go online and find something out, not just from the sources that are already telling you what you choose to believe. That’s confirmation, not information. Use your thinking brain to pause and give the facts more time to have a say in what will inescapably be a subjective judgment. But you’ll have more facts to go into it. 

Take time. I like that. Speaking of the risk of driving versus flying. My father had a friend who would come out to Australia once a once a year from the UK who was terrified of flying so he would fly into Darwin, which is the closest city to Europe in Australia. And he would drive from Darwin, which is thousands of miles. And invariably, on one occasion, he was in a car accident and was quite seriously injured while he was driving from Darwin to Sydney. Instead of just having flown an extra couple of hours on an already 22 hour flight. 

So I can tell you lots of stories about that, since I as a journalist, study the real world implications of what the researchers and risk perception have learned. But let me give you a sobering real one that’s quite close to what’s going on and what we’re talking about. Three separate studies of how many more people were killed in cars than what had been expected after nine one one. So they back up. So after the airplane attacks on America in September 2001, predictably, people got afraid of flying. And more people drove. The number of people driving went way up and the number of people flying went way down. 

Three separate studies found, depending on which one you believe, either three hundred and fifty eleven hundred or eighteen hundred more people were killed in motor vehicle accidents in the United States in the six months after nine one one, then conditions would have predicted whether gas prices and whatnot. Three hundred and fifty, eleven hundred or eighteen hundred. The one in the middle was done by transportation experts and I tend to rely on it, but the most. 

That’s a third. Again, as many people as were killed in the terrorist attacks themselves, killed because of this phenomenon that I call the risk perception gap where their fears didn’t match the evidence because of instincts that are burned into all of us and overrule or have more power than our consciousness. And they’re dead like your friends, serious injury. And we do this not just with flying, but with all sorts of risks all the time at our peril. 

Yeah. Let’s talk about some of those other risks, because we scientifically minded, reasonable, progressively type worldly people can sort of scoff at at the, I suppose, the parochialism of big for yourself, at the parochialism of people who would be terrified of flying or going to a different country just because they happens to be some little hot spot of of danger somewhere on the planet. 

But when it comes to things like you mentioned, nuclear power, you mentioned vaccines, you mentioned genetically modified foods. These are areas where I mean, it strikes me that in the case of nuclear power in particular, we spend a lot of time focusing on isolated incidents where a lot of people die in one hit and not focusing a lot long, drawn out calamities like climate chaos, where a lot of people are going to be disrupted over a very long period of time. But when a nuke when a nuclear reactor melts down, that’s kind of like the metaphor of the of the airline being blown out of the sky in comparison to these kind of background number of people who are dying on the roads, being it, and analogies to the number of people who are going to be killed or harmed by it, by climate change. Is that something that we should heed when we’re working out? I don’t know. Energy policy. 

Absolutely. And I’m glad you picked that example among the several. It is a wonderful teaching tool for how the risk perception gap can lead to serious harms all by itself. So nuclear power is scary to us. The common characteristics in the RICS perception literature, which, by the way, research was started on our excessive fear of nuclear power and industrial chemicals in the late 70s, has found several characteristics that make nuclear radiation from power plants particularly scary. Scarier, it turns out, than the radiation risk itself, which we do understand with great precision because of the survivors of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Turns out it’s not nearly as risky as most people assumed was very minor risk, carcinogenic but small. So what are they? One of them is we can’t see it, smell it, hear it, taste it. Whatever. And therefore, because of its invisibility, we are powerless to protect ourselves. And a lack of control makes any risks. Scary terrorism, industrial chemicals, whatever it is. A second one is nuclear radiation. Ionizing radiation officially causes cancer. And cancer has for a long time been the disease most dreaded, despite the fact that in the Western world it’s the number two killer to heart disease by a long shot because it kills you in a nasty way. It doesn’t matter how likely, how likely you are to die. What matters is how you get dead. You don’t want to die in a particularly nasty way, and that raises how scary it is. Nuclear power has been stigmatized by originally our fear of atomic bombs. And then the ban, the bomb movement talked about the radioactive fallout from atmospheric testing to try and ban the testing, and that literally gave rise to modern environmentalism. First cause of modern environmentalism was radioactive fallout from atmospheric testing. Then there’s Chernobyl and Three Mile Island in Fukushima, these high profile events. So the stigma means that whenever you hear radiation, that word alone in the background, your brain is going to use a mental shortcut to say, how scary is that? It’s not going to look up all the facts about the levels of radiation or the dose. It’s good to open up the filing cabinet. It says what I got in there that’s in this category is scary. Scary. And there’s another factor. And you mentioned the high profile events and this is perfect and relative relevant to the plain example as well. We are affected by a mental shortcut called availability, which is a fancy way of saying the more available something is to our consciousness, the more aware of it we are at the moment because it’s in the news or the more it comes screaming back into our consciousness because it was really scary when we remembered it. The more the brain overweights that information. Wow, availability. Talk about plane crashes and availability right now, if I can use the metaphor, radar screens. It’s all over the radar screens, right? Not the days that planes don’t crash. They’re not on the radar screen. So high profile events trigger overweighting of fear because of this particular mental trick availability. There’s another factor that nuclear events and plane crashes have in common, which is that catastrophic kill a bunch of people all at once in one place. At one time. Events scare us more than events like, say, plane crashes or regular air pollution, which are killing way more people but spread out over time and space. When we see a bunch of the tribe whacked all at once as social animals, that feels threatening when it’s picked off one or two at a time and mostly everybody else is walking around. Less scary. Let’s step out of the psychology discussion for a moment and talk about availability and the news media. You and I am a journalist and was a daily journalist. And now I write blog and do freelance stuff, write books. 

We want people to pay attention to our work, not to make money. We just want people to pay attention to them. More clicks you get on this and the more listeners, the better you feel. As a professional. You succeed in reaching folks. OK, fine. Nothing bad with that. But you and I have these same instincts in our guts, Josh. And so we’re subconsciously rooting around for topics that people will pay attention to. Look, a little we’re currently talking about. All right. So we magnify anything that has a scariness to it because we sense, wow, they’ll pay attention to that. 

Now, let’s close this second monologue or additional monologue with the consequences of the risk perception gap with nuclear power. In part, the fear of nuclear power has raised the cost to build these plants inordinately more than any other industrial plant, many of which chemical plants, other power plants. It turns out, have higher risk profiles than even nuclear power because it turns out the radiation does relatively little. The fear raise the costs to build them. The fear raises opposition, which causes construction delays and legal challenges. And that has contributed to less nuclear power in America and more fossil fuel power in America. 

Let’s just set climate change aside. Mega, mega, mega risk. 

But fossil fuel burning creates particulate pollution and it kills tens of thousands of Americans a year from cardio and pulmonary problems exacerbated by breathing in little microscopic bits. Our fear of nuclear case this into a form of energy that is killing more people. 

I think it’s interesting that you also used the word tribe in there, that when you if a large bunch of the tribe is wiped out, then of course, you think that something is more is is a grave danger is part of the problem that the mass media and how interconnected we all are in the world. Now we’re hearing about people who aren’t really in our tribe. I mean, what were the odds that I was ever going to be on an Air Algerie flight en route to Algy is flying over Mali? That would go down in a storm. I mean, that’s just that was just never on the cards anyway. But it feels like it could have been because it’s right in my face, because the media is covering everything in the world 24 hours a day. 

Well, so the media and I was one for a long time and may have Culpo for all the scary stuff that I did, overplays fear and hope and hope, cure for cancer in two years. This thing will cure your back pain for the same reason we are instinctive animals, principally focused on subconsciously getting to bed at night and being there in the morning. Whatever, OK, fear and hope both appeal to that same instinct and we’re going to pay attention to that. 

So the media, which is populated by people too. Last I checked, magnifies that because those are the stories we pay attention to air go. Those are the stories the media think are good stories, OK? They therefore, however, also amplify. They don’t just magnify. They amplify the availability. Heuristic gets worse. The more we overcover a few plane crashes and frankly, not to pick on you, but have conversations like this, although this is a more in-depth one, we can think things through and it’s helpful. So that’s the media role. I do want to spend a moment on this tribe idea. It’s really important and it’s it’s a new cutting edge field of the psychology of why we perceive some things the way we do, including some risks. So you identified already in this conversation with like Australia and a little bit with Huffington Post there and with a tribe of being a guy, I don’t know, whatever we identify with certain groups. Subconsciously, based on how our group kind of wants the world to work, are we kind of more we want a more flexible, fair world or we want a traditional, conservative, rigid world? That’s not politics. That’s how the world operates. And we depend really deeply for our survival as social animals on our tribe helping protect us. 

So in the US, you know, we have to circle the wagons, right, when the Indians are attacking. If you agree with your tribe, they’ll let you inside the circle if you disagree with your tribe. You are out on your own, pal. And how does that feel? It feels scary, literally. Research has found this triggers the fight or flight response. If you have a really hard argument, it goes really nasty with somebody about their views and your views. That’s what it’s about. You’re protecting your tribal cohesion and identity because if you lose it, it’s scary. So you can’t be an environmentalist and like genetically modified food. Nuclear power has nothing to do with the facts on those issues. It has everything to do with are you going to be considered a member in good standing in your tribe? 

This research, by the way, is called Cultural Cognition. So wonderful Web site called Cultural Cognition Dot Net. 

It’s the work of Dan Cohon, KHK and at Yale. So Tribe is a powerful influence on what do they call it, motivated thinking, motivated reasoning, reasoning, but for a reason. And the reason is survival, right? 

It almost sounds like you’re saying in addition to tribes being important, because when we feel like our tribe is under attack or a lot of the tribe has been wiped out, then we have to pay heed to whatever caused that damage. We also have cognitive biases towards believing in things that our tribe believes, even if there aren’t rational reasons for doing so. 

Can you wrap this up here by giving us your recommendation for how we can lead the most rational life that is that is consistent with not being an automaton. 

All right. To let go of the idea of rationality being fact based only we go through life as animals, comma, human, not human animals is still driven largely by instincts which are still driven largely by the imperative to survive. And before we have all the information or all the P HD to understand it or all the time to go to go to Google and look it up, we have to make decisions all the time. The tools we have used, the few facts that we have to make quick decisions, including very quick decisions about what’s safe risk is probability. The facts and our feelings about those facts recognize then that rational means whatever you can to survive. Also recognize, however, that the system instinctively uses feelings and instincts as much as or more than the fact. And sometimes that alone can be dangerous. Just like walking across a busy street. Once you recognize that you are and I am vulnerable to this risk perception gap. Because of our instinctive feelings kind of risk perception system, then you can remember to put on your seatbelt metaphorically and say, well, take a little time. Let’s give the facts a little bit more of a say in the conversation here so I can make smarter choices, get more information. Think about it tomorrow, not just today. Let the facts have more of a say and you’ll come closer to the more intelligent, healthy, informed choice. 

David Ropeik, you have inspired me to go and catch a flight at my URL at my earliest possible convenience. Thanks for being on point of inquiry. Great to talk to you. Thanks. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.