Risk Assessment

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A couple days ago I drove home from work on 7th East, as I do every day. For those of you not based in Salt Lake City, 7th East is a six lane, 40 mph thoroughfare. I was in the middle lane when the car directly to my right suddenly jerked into my lane then slowly drifted back into their starting lane. My life flashed before my eyes as I swerved lanes to avoid hitting her. When I glared over, the woman who almost ran into me was texting. Still. I’m convinced she did not even notice that she almost killed me. How could be not understand the risk?

Understandably (to me), I was furious. I’m still furious. How could someone be so dumb? Doesn’t she know how dangerous texting and driving is? I didn’t understand how she thought that was an acceptable thing to do. So I did what I usually do when I’m confused– I went straight to Google Scholar. (Here’s a poorly kept secret: a lot of my articles are based on something that I was curious about that week.)

It turns out that this random woman is not unique; people as a whole are not good at risk assessment. Humans tend to overestimate risks if they are:

  • Unknown
  • Spectacular
  • Unlikely
  • Out of our control
  • Immediate
  • Seen as “unnatural.”

We underestimate risks that are:

  • Common
  • Boring
  • In our control
  • Long term
  • Seen as “natural.”


This is why so many people are more afraid of plane crashes than car crashes, even though there have been exactly zero deaths from certified American plane flights* in 2016, as well as the six previous years. In contrast, around 40,000 people* died in car accidents in America in 2016. It’s kind of ironic that the fact that plane crashes are so rare is one of the reasons that people are scared of them. The fact that they are sudden and out of the passengers’ control doesn’t help either.  

If you are afraid of flying*, I’m not trying to make fun of you. Knowing that a fear doesn’t make rational sense don’t always make it go away. This is the amygdala’s fault — an almond-sized portion of the brain.. (Note: everything coming up is simplified because the brain is freaking complicated.) One of the oldest parts of the brain, the amygdala’s job is to regulate the fight or flight* response. It errs on the side of being scared of too many things because it’s better to run away from a shadow that looks like a lion that to get eaten by a lion that looks like a shadow. That was all well and good when our primary evolutionary objective was not to be eaten by lions, but that is not so true anymore. Now, most of our stressors have to do with much more subtle long-term problems, like money or relationships. The amygdala isn’t great at handling these omnipresent long-term stressors.

As another example, heart disease is the leading cause of death in America, causing around 610,000 deaths each year. But no one is scared of cinnamon rolls, even though eating them increases your risk of heart disease. Sugar, in the form of cinnamon rolls or soft drinks, is everywhere and eating it is a personal choice. Eating a bit won’t kill you, it’s only harmful after years of excess sugar intake. As cinnamon rolls aren’t inherently scary (they don’t cast lion-like shadows or leap out at you unexpectedly), they do not activate the amygdala; thus, we never learn to fear them.

Luckily, we have another part of the brain to help out: the neocortex. As the name implies (neo = new), it’s the newest part of our brains — where our frontal lobe lives. The neocortex allows us to do things from structurally complex tasks such as building skyscrapers to linguistically complex tasks such as making dumb jokes. Then awards us for learning new things, such as what little Cindy did at preschool, even if the knowledge comes when driving down the road at 35 mph.  The neocortex is a lot smarter than the amygdala, but it’s also a lot slower and can be easily overridden.  It can tell us that eating nothing but cinnamon rolls for an entire day isn’t a smart thing to do, but as I can personally attest, it doesn’t always work super well. The reasonableness of the neocortex is overridden by other competing desires.

All of this is to say that now I understand that woman in the car.  Her amygdala overrode her neocortex because she wasn’t afraid of the truly dangerous things — cars.  I don’t agree with her actions, but I survived the encounter, and am slightly less furious (the neocortex again, learning), But for the love of everything good in this world: DON’T. TEXT. AND. DRIVE.  My amygdala can’t handle it.

About The Author

Just a girl who has a lot of feelings about planetary science

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