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Why We Suck at Risk Assessment

Note: This poorly written post is currently slated for heavy revision or deletion. Read at your own risk.


It is no secret that we suck at risk assessment.  We make bad decisions every day, individually and collectively, based on bad risk assessment.

For example, someone might smoke and chomp on a burger while talking on his cell phone while driving to the Santa Cruz beach, only to decide not to enter the water because of this report he saw last night about deadly box jellyfish.

Never mind the fact that he was thousands of times more likely to die from the drive over than getting hit by lightning.  Or the fact that in reality box jellyfish rarely kill.  Or the fact that box jellyfish aren’t even found in Santa Cruz.

Another example is that Americans are spending over a trillion fighting wars far away, at a cost of close to $10,000 per household, to “fight terrorism”.  If the goal is to save lives of Americans, it would be about the worst return on investment in the history of mankind.  It’s only slightly better than burning $100 bills in the fireplace to keep the house warm.

Why is it then, that we suck at risk assessment?

Simply put, our brains are not ready yet.

Most animals have a fight-or-flight response, which is arguably the most important decision for survival, and it is done almost instantly, based on the immediate circumstances.  There is no time for calculation of long term consequences.  You flatten the squirrel and run from the tiger.  It is raw emotion and reflexes.

Over time, our brains have evolved to have a different type of decision process, which is more nuanced and calculated.  It takes into account future rewards and consequences.  This ability to predict events and recognize patterns (separate blog on this) and make decisions based on them is what separates humans from the beasts.  It’s what enables people to slow play or bluff at a poker hand.  This decision process is more about reasoning and logic.

Clearly when it comes to major decisions, the latter type is more advantageous.  However oftentimes the immediate fight-or-flight part of the brain gets in the way of our decision process, leading to poor risk assessments and decisions.  It’s like calling an all-in bet with nothing simply out of anger.

My theory is that the reasoning part of the brain has not existed long enough to overcome the primal impulses of the brain.  Our brains have not caught up to the rapid technological development and incredible amount of information that is being conveyed.  In the past what was local and relevant information, today can spread globally in the blink of an eye, where it is often not relevant.

There is no shortage of risk assessments being biased by the fight-or-flight response:

Spectacular, unusual, gruesome and unfamiliar risks are over-emphasized.  After 9/11 people were paranoid of flying, especially if there were people dressed in Muslim garb on board.  A news report of someone decapitated by a tire strip shot through the windshield from a blown tire from the truck in front will make you stay away from trucks.

Recent exposure will increase emphasis, while long term risks are deemphasized.  If you see someone in Muslim garb on a plane now, are you as afraid as you were the days after 9/11?  In the other example, a month later, you will be fearlessly tailgating that truck.  Yet the risk has not changed at all, only they way it is perceived.

Perceived control over a situation, or a risk voluntarily taken, or possible benefit from the risk will also distort the assessment of the risk.  One feels more secure driving (in control) than flying or being driven (not in control).  A smoker/drinker/drug user will subconsciously underestimate the risk for the reward.  A gambler will go for a long shot even if the odds are extremely bad (think lottery).

A higher risk is perceived for things that are not understood clearly or easily, and by extension, a man-made item carries a higher risk than a naturally occurring one.  To a layperson it is not obvious how a microwave oven works, and thus it might seem riskier than a stove top, which is actually far more dangerous.  A burning plastic bag invokes more fear than say, an all natural and 100% organic death cap mushroom, ricin, or a cute Komodo Dragon.  The sun emits radiation in a spectrum and an intensity that in terms of danger, is several orders of magnitude higher than say, gluing cell phones all over your head and sleeping in a cell phone base station next to a high voltage power line.

Another influence is anecdotes, and somewhat associated, immediately available or vivid memories.  If one reads multiple “personal accounts” of a product on the web that allegedly has caused harm, he will likely think the product carries more risk than it actually does.  If you’re in the Vatican City and all you hear and read is that the condom is a product of the devil, you’d think twice about wearing that raincoat, before you bless the lord and plunge forward.  If you see pictures of a flattened human jigsaw puzzle, you’d be more careful crossing the street.  The mind is a strange thing; it remembers vivid details of a scene and snippets of information, while forgetting where it came from and even if the information is correct or not.  You don’t forget a flattened human jigsaw puzzle easily, but you will likely over time, forget where you first saw it.

Unscrupulous marketers and politicians exploit this quite readily.  After all, it’s an easy way to make a buck, and even easier way to obtain power.

The products that are out there range from small devices like so-called EMF shields to large establishments like doomsday shelters and underground condos.  Of course in the event that nuclear annihilation actually occurs, it’s unknown how one is supposed to drive hours into the wilderness to get to that shelter without dying first.  However, dubious products would be the topic of another blog and I won’t elaborate here.

Politicians use the trick all the time, trumpeting issues from “war on terror”, “war on drugs” to “secure the border”, just to name a few.  Climate change is another issue that gets raised often but there is some legitimate debate on that so that is partly justified.  The PATRIOT act, one of the worst acts ever written in history, was passed in record time by Congress, without even being actually studied, based on irrational fear and poor risk assessment.

People would not be people without emotion, and it is an integral part of humanity.  It is what separates us as a species.  It also enables us to live, love, enjoy, and experience life to its fullest.  But when it comes to assessing risk and making serious decisions with long term implications, the best decision is always from a careful analysis of the best available information.

Special thanks to David Ropeik and George Gray, as some material is blatantly pilfered from their book “Risk”.  Please don’t sue me.

Sob Stories

I recently came across a shared link on facebook.  It was one of those sob stories about redemption and forgiveness:

Chinese Link


English Link


Touching story complete with moral dilemmas, racial prejudices, rape, forgiveness, redemption, and emotional struggles.  There are dates, names, and even a picture.

The problem is, it never happened.  It’s completely dreamed up.

You see, for weathered, hardened, cynical, and skeptical souls like myself, bullshit detection is already deeply ingrained within.

There is no town called Wayeli in Italy.  In fact, there is no newspaper named “Italian Daily Post” that the ad was supposed to appear in.

In reality, it is unlikely that an employer, in Italy in 1993, instead of firing, would force an black employee to eat shards of a broken dish; that said employee would, instead of going to an ER for internal bleeding (and a lawyer), choose to participate in involuntary sexual activities that results in pregnancy; that said employee would intrinsically have Jean Valjean-like character and be willing to give up a good life and be condemned; that a hospital could discharge a bone marrow transplant patient in one week instead of the 4-8 weeks it normally takes.  The list goes on and on and on.

These are glaring errors that stand out like the Pope at a dildo convention.  Not that it matters; since when did reality get in the way of a good story?

Even if the author did do his/her homework and get the details correct, the thought process, behavior, and rationale described are so deviant from normal humans, that one can only conclude this happened in a parallel universe.

Emotional sob stories are like mental porn; a bit now and then is healthy but too much might make you lose touch with reality, because that’s not how real people act in the real world.  It’s like walking  into a school and expecting to start an orgy with a bunch of teen sluts because that was the title of the film last night.

I have nothing against stories, good or bad, real or fiction.  I do however, have a cow when fiction, especially insultingly bad fiction, is being advertised as true.  That’s as offensive as picking up a cow pie with a twig and telling me it’s a lollipop.

Superstition and Pattern Recognition

Note: This poorly written post is currently slated for heavy revision or deletion. Read at your own risk.


According to Wikipedia:

Superstition is a credulous belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge.

That definition is suspiciously similar to another word: Religion.  But that is the subject of another blog.

Humans are in general, superstitious.  This seems to be true in all major cultures, regardless of background or location.  How could humans, in all corners of the world, independently develop a universal concept of no practical use?

Two words: Pattern Recognition.

Think about it.  If your cavemates keep getting munched on every time they wander into the woods at night with two shiny eyes and a growl in the distance, you’d learn to recognize the pattern pretty fast, or get removed from the gene pool.  Selective pressure, basic evolution.  The caveman that recognizes the pattern might also be afraid of any two reflective items, which might lead to fewer munching opportunities but avoid being munched on.  As long as the benefits outweigh the downside it is a fair trade.

Recognizing patterns becomes more and more ingrained into the brain as humans evolve, as they become more intelligent.  Or alas, as it seems nowadays, less and less intelligent.

I predict we will eventually have brains so large we will have to evolve extra arms to hold the head in place while we cruise around in our Segway hovercrafts, that is, if we don’t destroy ourselves before then.

My theory is that we have not been contacted by aliens because all civilizations eventually self-destruct by nuclear annihilation, not over lack of resources but over who has a better imaginary friend.  It is the completion of an evolution cycle – extinction through self destruction.  It is God’s crude sense of humor, since he allegedly works in mysterious ways.  Humans on earth seem well on their way to this endgame – but enough of me being pessimistic; this is about superstition and pattern recognition.

Pattern recognition by itself is not intelligence, but an association skill.  It provides information but not knowledge.  Most people interpret the information based on preconceptions and biases (they see what they want to see).  Knowledge, on the other hand, comes from unbiased critical analysis of the information.

For example, say, someone sees a bearded Jesus on a grilled cheese sandwich.

Someone with a preconceived notion will think that his deity of choice has, after countless sandwiches, voluntarily chosen an unlikely edible medium to manifest himself for an unspecified reason, and that he is blessed and he has pleased his deity.  The believer has made up his mind, and there is very little anyone can do to convince this person to think otherwise, and it would be unwise to try.

A more critical look would realize that for this to be true, there are many unverifiable conditions that would also have to be true, such as:

1. The pattern so out of the ordinary that it is highly unlikely to be randomly occurring.

2. The pattern is not caused by other means (imprint on grill, other events).

3. The pattern is clearly a likeness of a bearded person.

4. Jesus is real and was a bearded person of middle-eastern descent.

5. The person knows *for certain* what Jesus looked like, and the pattern bears unmistakable resemblance to that image, and not a random middle-eastern male.

6. Jesus being a supernatural being, possesses human-like intents (which in itself is contradictory if he were omnipotent).

7. Jesus, with his human-like intent, decides to suddenly manifest himself to a single person through imperfect means.  Keep in mind that a “decision” is a shortcoming of a non-omniscient being, and an imperfect method implies an imperfect decision process.

8. The person believes that, by recognizing this as Jesus, he is somehow blessed or affected, and is “special”.  This implies that Jesus plays favorites, another human shortcoming.

9. The person believes that Jesus would be “pleased” by his acknowledgement, which is projecting human emotion on an alleged superhuman deity.   Keep in mind that emotion is a human shortcoming:  it is a reaction to an external event not previously known.  An omnipotent being would supposedly know everything and have no need for joy or anger.  If you already know what has happened, is happening, and will happen, would you feel one way or the other?  No.  It makes no difference either way since it is already long known.

Of course, to the person that believes that Jesus is talking to him, none of this really matters, no matter how absurd the circumstance.  It makes him feel good and special and less hopeless.  It gives him 15 minutes of fame.  Questioning the premises is offending his religion and belief, which for some unknown reason is considered not politically correct.

It is mostly true that ignorance is bliss.  However it is sad when mass ignorance turns into mass delusion, and pursuit of truth and knowledge is looked down upon and considered impolite or improper.  Sure, one will not make many friends by reasoning away someone’s ignorance, however collectively as a society, rationality should not be discouraged in favor of superstition.

Superstition is part accumulation of unexamined and unverified patterns, and part imagination gone awry.  In general the more authoritative a society, the more superstition thrives.  It comes in many forms: folk lores, unproven remedies, (ahem) religion, chain letters, bioenergy fields, crystal power, rituals, you name it.

Many scams rely on, and exploit superstition.  The most successful scams and convincing lies have a few common ingredients.  There are verifiable snippets of truth mixed in, so by association (pattern recognition) one assumes that the entire deal is real.  There are usually some coincidences (again, pattern recognition) to strengthen the claim.  There are usually lots of personal anecdotes with touching stories that feed on human empathy (more pattern recognition).  Sometimes there are a few buzzwords or theories that the layperson cannot verify thrown in.  Occasionally conspiracy theory is cited to imply oppressed legitimacy.  Let’s face it, if you have a kid with an uncurable disease, and find an official looking site on the internet claiming to use a new, breakthrough stem cell therapy utilizing quantum theory nanotechnology (that cannot be done in the US because big pharma wants to suppress this and sell more drugs), and have 100 stories (real or not) of miraculously-cured kids running around, who wouldn’t sell a kidney or two to pay for a mere *chance* at a cure?

Will gathering 100,000 “like” clicks, forwarding sob stories or folding 10,000 paper cranes really help that allegedly sick orphan?  Not really, but it makes the participants feel good, and maybe that is justification enough.  It’s mental masturbation for the participants, and either a misguided effort or perhaps even a sick joke for the initiator.

Being superstitious is not a crime.  It is kind of like living in the Matrix.  For some it is just fine, but I find reality far more interesting.  Pointing out the absurdities is also quite entertaining I must say.

It is a pity that critical thinking skills are not explicitly taught in science classes, and scientific experts’ opinions often take back seat to politically correct  nonsense.  Unfortunately that is reality.  So my politically incorrect prediction is that, sometime in the not-so-distant future, hopefully well past our lifetimes, mankind will self-destruct, likely over a dispute regarding which collectively imagined god with anthropomorphized characteristics and shortcomings is imagined to have better superpowers; in other words, whose imaginary friend is more powerful.  I am relatively certain that this will happen well before we evolve extra arms to hold up our oversized heads.