January 29th, 2013

Jared Diamond makes a case for an argument I’ve championed for years: we live our lives in fear of distorted perils.

Studies have compared Americans’ perceived ranking of dangers with the rankings of real dangers, measured either by actual accident figures or by estimated numbers of averted accidents. It turns out that we exaggerate the risks of events that are beyond our control, that cause many deaths at once or that kill in spectacular ways — crazy gunmen, terrorists, plane crashes, nuclear radiation, genetically modified crops. At the same time, we underestimate the risks of events that we can control (“That would never happen to me — I’m careful”) and of events that kill just one person in a mundane way.

I lose no sleep over terrorists or crazy gunmen, but I can think of numerous occasions when my hyper-vigilance while driving — possibly the most dangerous activity I engage in daily — kept me alive when someone ran a stop sign, red light or lost control because they were driving too fast for road conditions.

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