How Risky Is It, Really?

Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts


“By the animal instinct that is awakened in us we are led and protected. It is not conscious; it is far quicker, much more sure, less fallible, than consciousness.”

Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front

From the Introduction

The auditorium was jammed. The TV cameras were lined up down in front, aimed back at the crowd, ready to roll at the first loud voice. The moderator opened the floor to comments. Susan Napolitano leaped to her feet, her eyes wide and her face red. “That school could give our children cancer! We demand that you close it and clean it up before our children have to go back there! ” she screamed at the officials sitting at the head table. Stabbing her finger at them, she yelled, “You are not our children’s parents! You will not decide whether they live or die!”

Sitting next to her, Susan’s 10-year-old daughter, Stephie, looked up at her mom, a little embarrassed at and a little proud of her mother’s public display of passion on her behalf. Stephie was a student at a public elementary school in a Boston suburb where trace amounts of the chemical trichloroethylene (TCE) had been found in the air of the library and one third-grade classroom. TCE is a confirmed carcinogen, but at the low levels found in the school, just a few molecules of TCE per trillion molecules of air, even the most aggressive public health experts said that there was no threat. The TCE levels were well within safety standards. There was no danger.

But that didn’t matter to Susan. As reporters flocked around her after the meeting, she told them that she was convinced Stephie could get cancer if she attended the school, and she was willing to do anything necessary to get the school closed, even though that might mean taking kids who mostly walked to school and busing them to other classrooms around town, on sometimes icy winter New England streets, disrupting their education and spending tens of thousands of dollars from the school department’s already tight budget to institute those changes. All to eliminate a risk that, according to the scientific evidence, wasn’t a risk at all. Susan stood there in front of the TV cameras and reporters, flushed with passion, with Stephie at her side. And as she talked about her fear of those trace amounts of TCE, she anxiously puffed away on her tenth cigarette of the night. And mother and daughter were also taking another big risk: both were significantly overweight.

You’ve probably seen the same phenomenon in your family or friends, or maybe even within yourself, where the fears don’t seem to match the facts. It happens to all of us. Sometimes we’re more afraid of what the scientific evidence suggests are relatively small risks, but quite often, we aren’t afraid enough of the risks that the evidence suggests we should worry about more. This sort of risk perception is often explained by blaming the media and politicians and marketers and poor risk communication. But that is simplistic, naive, and inadequate.

The first goal of How Risky Is It, Really? is to explain in much greater depth where our perceptions of risk actually come from. It’s far more complicated than scary headlines and fear-mongering politicians. Fascinating discoveries in neuroscience, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and economics help to explain the underlying roots of the way we respond to risk, and why most of us at one time or another are more afraid of relatively smaller threats or less afraid of relatively big ones.

The second goal is to make the case that this phenomenon, which I’ll call the Perception Gap, can be dangerous, a risk in and of itself. We often get risk “right,” making judgments that work out for the best. But when we get risk “wrong,” it can be dangerous. Susan was so afraid of trace amounts of chemicals in her daughter’s school (for reasons to be explained in the chapters ahead) that she was willing—even eager—to subject Stephie to the greater danger of riding school buses on snowy streets, and to have Stephie’s education seriously disrupted, to avoid a risk that the experts said was just not there. At the same time, Susan chain-smoked and was seriously overweight, but she didn’t seem as concerned about these much greater hazards to her health (for reasons that will also be explained), which not only imperiled Susan but increased the chances that by the time Stephie got to high school, she might not have a mom.

This Perception Gap, the potentially dangerous distance between our fears and the facts, is a risk that we need to recognize so that we can reduce it. And that brings us to the third goal of this book: to propose ways to apply an understanding of where our fears come from, so that we can narrow the Perception Gap and make healthier choices for ourselves, our families, and society. As U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt suggested, we do have to fear fear itself. But Roosevelt was only half right. We have to fear both too much fear and too little. Both can be dangerous. But we don’t have to fear this disconnect between our fears and the facts if we understand why some risks feel scarier than others, and use that understanding to think about risks more carefully so that we don’t end up doing what feels right and wind up making things worse in the process.


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Additional Excerpts

Fear Factors. Why Some Threats Feel Scarier Than Others.

CHAPTER 5: Closing The Perception Gap.