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How to Scare Yourself Stupid

I flew from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. this weekend. Sitting next to me was a woman, probably about 30 years old, who shook so much during takeoff that her knee hit mine several times. She did the same thing in the middle of the flight when we hit a little turbulence. She whispered "Thank God" as we landed. 

She was clearly terrified of flying. But when we arrived in Washington, she walked to the curb, got in a car, and drove off.

This reminded me of a section from Gerd Gigerenzer's book Risk Savvy:

How many miles would you have to drive by car until the risk of dying is the same as in a nonstop flight? I have asked this to dozens of expert audiences. The answers are all over the place: one thousand miles, ten thousand miles, driving three times around the world. However, the best estimate is twelve miles. Yes, only twelve. If your car makes it safely to the airport, the most dangerous part of your trip is likely already behind you.

This has been a deadly year for air travel, with more than 700 fatalities in the last four months. But more than 700 people die in auto accidents every five hours.

Ebola has also been in the news this week, scaring people around the world. Ebola has killed 1,590 people since it was identified in the 1970s, according to the World Health Organization. Measles -- which faces a vaccination backlash -- kills about as many people every 96 hours.

The craziest thing about risk is that people fear what's rare and unknown much more than they fear things that are common but deadly.


Gigerenzer writes:

People aren't stupid. The problem is that our educational system has an amazing blind spot concerning risk literacy. We teach our children the mathematics of certainty -- geometry and trigonometry -- but not the mathematics of uncertainty, statistical thinking. And we teach our children biology but not the psychology that shapes their fears and desires. Even experts, shockingly, are not trained how to communicate risks to the public in an understandable way. And there can be positive interest in scaring people: to get an article on the front page, to persuade people to relinquish civil rights, or to sell a product. All these outside causes contribute to the problem.

Several other causes contribute to the problem of what I'd call scaring yourself stupid. 

Storytelling. Every teenager can tell you the story of the Titanic. But many educated adults have never heard of the 1987 sinking of the ferry MV Dona Paz, which killed almost three times as many people, a quarter of them children.

Some tragedies become famous because they made good stories independent of their actual damage. The result is that certain things we're most scared of aren't that big a deal, while things we're oblivious to can be major risks.

Gullibility during times of fear. People are more likely to believe lies, misconceptions, and fairy tales when they're scared or facing an uncertain outcome. In his 1841 book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Charles Mackay wrote:

During the Great Plague of London, in 1665, the people listened with avidity to the predictions of quacks and fanatics. Defoe says that at that time the people were more addicted to prophecies and astronomical conjurations, dreams, and old wives' tales than ever they were before or since.

This helps explain why so many investors became end-of-the-world goldbugs in 2008. Uncertainty makes you believe things you would have ignored under a more rational state of mind.

Culture. Germans and Austrians are generally terrified of nuclear power and radiation. Most of Europe has banned X-ray scanners at airports over cancer fears. Austria built one nuclear power plant in the 1970s, but voters shut it down before it ever operated.

Americans and the French, on the other hand, could not care less. The French embraced nuclear power long ago, and Americans X-ray and CT scan with abandon.

Some things may seem risky or harmless not because you've evaluated the facts, but because you were born into a culture that told you a story one way or the other.

The unfamiliar. Mapmakers once wrote "Here be dragons" over unexplored areas. The unfamiliar is viewed as risky even if you have no evidence that it is. 

If hundreds of thousands of people die from heart disease every year, the risk might actually seem diminished, because you become desensitized to its regularity. But if one person dies from Ebola, it is front-page news, only because it's rare. People would rather do something very risky but common (eat a poor diet) than something trivially dangerous but less common (flying).

Bill Gates recently posted this fascinating graphic. Annoying-but-common mosquitoes kill 70,000 times as many people every year across the globe as terrifying sharks. Freshwater snails kill 1,000 times as many people as wolves:


Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman once explained a version of this flaw: "A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth. Authoritarian institutions and marketers have always known this fact."

Statistical blindness. Gigerenzer writes about a farmer asking a veterinarian about surgery risk to one of his cows:

Ben, the owner of the farm, asked how likely the cow was to have problems after the surgery. Trying to put it in terms that he could relate to I said, "If we did this procedure on 100 cows, I expect about 10 to 15 would not completely recover within a few weeks of surgery." He paused a moment and said, "Well that's good because I only have 35 cows."

We generally just suck at math.

Americans were widely worried about growing government spending in 2009. After the federal government passed a $3.5 trillion annual budget to mass protests, a group of economists asked 1,000 Americans a simple question: "How many millions are in a trillion?" Only 21% answered correctly. The rest either didn't know or answered wrong. Most Americans were worried about spending $3.5 trillion, but most had no idea how much a trillion actually was. 

People deal with statistical illiteracy by reacting with their gut. Sometimes that's good -- I don't need to calculate risks to know that driving blindfolded is stupid. But it can be dangerous, too. It makes us overreact to things that seem dangerous only because they're unknown, and underreact to things that are dangerous but look benign. 

Financial adviser Carl Richards says "risk is what's left over when you think you've thought of everything." Wherever you're not looking, or not thinking, that's where it is. 

Check back every Tuesday and Friday for Morgan Housel's columns on finance and economics. 


Read/Post Comments (14) | Recommend This Article (83)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On August 05, 2014, at 3:27 PM, WildTing wrote:

    Reminds me of when Jimmy Kimmel asked people on the street if they were on a gluten free diet. Then he asked them what gluten was.

  • Report this Comment On August 05, 2014, at 5:10 PM, alexf wrote:

    Good article and to the point. It is true. People are not stupid? The masses are. And many are functionally illiterate. Especially in math. John Allen Paulos coined the term "Innumeracy". Wrote an excellent book about it.

    As for the gluten-free diet comment, so a search about the serious problems there are with dihydrogen monoxide.

  • Report this Comment On August 05, 2014, at 9:06 PM, MrCheeryO wrote:

    Thanks for another good piece.

    Kind of mentioned it but there is a lot of money to be made there. Financial industry to an extent thrives on it, in addition to the "news" media.

  • Report this Comment On August 05, 2014, at 9:46 PM, BUbulldog wrote:

    The most interesting article I have ever read on the Fool, and the first time I have considered recommending the site to friends. Not investing related, but well done nonetheless.

  • Report this Comment On August 05, 2014, at 10:30 PM, randomname7765 wrote:

    Ebola has a mortality rate of over 90% and measles mortality rate is 1/1000 in first world countries. The only people who die of measles are malnourished.

    Measles is not "more deadly".

    I'm not scared of the possibility of a measles outbreak, I am of the possibility of an ebola outbreak. Otherwise you would be stupid.

  • Report this Comment On August 06, 2014, at 12:36 AM, 2motley4words wrote:

    "Not investing related"

    Well, the article is explicitly related to investing once---specifically, in the penultimate sentence of the "Gullibility during times of fear" paragraph---and I daresay that, if we're honest with ourselves, most of us can readily discern the risk that Morgan's other listed risks (i.e., "Storytelling," "Culture," "The unfamiliar," and "Statistical blindness") ever poses to our investing lives.

    "Measles is not 'more deadly' [than ebola virus]."

    That's certainly correct if the comparison is of an INDIVIDUAL who is infected with measles versus an INDIVIDUAL who is infected with ebola; notice, however, that Morgan's article/argument is concerned with probability---in this case, the FREQUENCY, or statistical probability, that an individual in a population will become infected by either disease (which means that randomname7765 is right to fear an "outbreak" of ebola more than an "outbreak" of measles---but only when the mortality rate X frequency of the former disease exceeds the mortality rate X frequency of the latter disease).

  • Report this Comment On August 06, 2014, at 2:05 AM, randomname7765 wrote:

    Honestly, 2motely4words, I'm not sure what the last part of your comment means. It's a bit over my head at the moment.

    What I stand by is that this article appears to say that you or I should be more afraid of contracting measles than ebola, because globally there are more cases, and that isn't true. I believe the author didn't do his research or critical thinking on the subject or he wouldn't have written that.

    Which is especially ironic given that the article is about being afraid of the right thing rather than the wrong thing!

    Sure, more people die of measles globally. But we (most of us) live in the US, where no one has died of measles in years and years, despite the fear mongering of the media.

    If an equal amount of measles cases and ebola cases DID theoretically come to the US, we'd all be much, much smarter to be more afraid of the ebola.

    You could look at it like this: we don't have ebola, and we do have measles. And no one dies of measles even though we have it. So why be more afraid of it?

    That premise of this article is wrong IMHO.

  • Report this Comment On August 06, 2014, at 7:19 AM, Mathman6577 wrote:

    For half of my career I worked in the elevator industry. What we found was that although it was much safer to take the elevator than the stairs (except during a fire) people were more afraid to take the elevator because of fear of the unknown (probably due to lack of knowledge of the technology behind elevator travel).

    The other half I worked in the aerospace field and all our work was geared towards making aircraft "extremely unlikely to fail due to a mechanical or electrical fault" that "might" lead to a crash. There are many more layers of redundancy built in modern aircraft (and the human aspects of travel) today as compared to 30 years ago.

  • Report this Comment On August 06, 2014, at 7:19 PM, jordanwi wrote:

    Nice article, Morgan, as usual.

    randomname7765 - you might want to reread the article one more time. For comparison, it would be the same logical comparison to say "You have a better chance of dying by being attacked by one shark than being attacked by one mosquito, so it's logical to be more afraid of the shark". Yes, it might be true, but you're ignoring other very important information (like there are many mosquitos carrying various serious infectious microorganisms, and there are limited interactions with human-eating sharks). Think of the measles as mosquitos and ebola as sharks.

    Do try to understand 2motley4words's last paragraph, it's a very good explanation.

  • Report this Comment On August 07, 2014, at 7:53 PM, hbofbyu wrote:

    90% of all fatal accidents happen within 5 miles of home that's why I relax once I get outside that zone.

    Hippocrates called experience “delusive.” He recognized that uncontrolled observations may lead to faulty conclusions. For centuries the flawed logic of observational data seemed to validate bloodletting because most who were bled eventually improved—no thanks to the bloodletting—an observation that led medical authorities to believe in the practice.

    With this said, making personal decisions based on universal statistics can also be delusive. A statistic about shark attacks is meaningless if you never get in the water. The statistics of hippopotamus attacks don't apply to you if you live in the western hemisphere. This translates to mosquitoes as well. How many people died last year in the US of Malaria?

    We remain delusive. We are more afraid of Terrorists than the Flu.

    More leery of Airplanes than Cars.

    Bears than Dogs.

    Snakes than Ticks (in the US).

    Snakes killed 40,000+ people in India last year; 6 in the United Sates. You can't average those and say it is a global statistic. It is misleading and makes people more ignorant about the risk in their own lives.

    By the way, falling coconuts kill more people than sharks and wolves combined.

  • Report this Comment On August 08, 2014, at 7:10 AM, Mathman6577 wrote:

    Eating fatty foods, drinking, and smoking (inc. pot) causes more deaths than anything else.

  • Report this Comment On August 08, 2014, at 8:42 AM, OptimistPrime wrote:

    @Mathman6577 - I don't believe fatty foods are the problem. I stopped eating so many carbohydrates (and simultaneously increased fat consumption to about 60% of my diet), and my health improved a lot (along with easier weight loss and maintenance). The point: people don't even understand what the real problem is, let alone have the underlying science knowledge to assess risk.

  • Report this Comment On August 08, 2014, at 11:33 AM, RouteReflector wrote:


    1) Absolute deaths via air travel vs absolute deaths via automobile travel is an intellectually dishonest comparison. The number of people driving annually and the time they spend driving is significantly higher than the number of people flying annually and the time they spend flying. It's like comparing 1910 dollars to 2014 dollars without factoring in inflation.

    2) The same goes for absolute deaths via mosquitoes vs absolute deaths via sharks/crocodiles/etc. Most people will encounter thousands upon thousands of mosquitoes during the their lifetime, whereas an extremely small percentage of the population will even see a shark in person.

  • Report this Comment On August 10, 2014, at 5:31 PM, mightymagyar wrote:

    It is an often used argument nowadays at websites like this, that we should not be scared of ebola, because other viruses and bacteria kill much more people.

    However this is a wrong argument as it compares apple to pear. Measles, syphilis etc. are global sicknesses which have been with us since ages, whereas ebola is just about to start its "global career". Of course we do not know, how ebola will "thrive" in more civilised and better organised societies in the West. It is indeed possible that it will not infect so many people taken our higher hygiene standards and it will not be so leathal because of our better medical treatments. However, underestimate the threat of ebola with the argument that more people died in the past in other sicknesses is just as stupid than to get paniced.

    Btw: the same argument could have been used for Spanish flu before it broke out after WWI...

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