Is all that happens sensibly

Dealing with Risks : Nothing happens

Do you remember the volcanic eruption in Iceland with its ash cloud? The real estate crisis? What about the mad cow disease? Each new crisis worries us until we forget it and worry about the next one. Many of us were stuck in overcrowded airports, ruined by pension funds that had become worthless, or were scared of indulging in a juicy steak. If something goes wrong, we are told that future crises can be prevented by better technology, more laws or more complex bureaucracy. How can we protect ourselves from the next financial crisis? Tighter regulations, smaller banks and better advisors. How can we protect ourselves from the threat of terrorism? Larger police presence, full-body scanners, further restrictions on individual freedom. What can we do about the skyrocketing healthcare costs? Tax increases, rationalization, better gene markers.

One point is missing from this list: the risk-literate citizen.

Britain has many traditions, one of which is the fear of birth control pills. Since the early 1960s, women have been startled every few years by reports that the pill can cause thrombosis - potentially life-threatening blood clots in the legs or lungs. The terrible news published by the British Committee for Drug Safety is famous: Third-generation contraceptive pills double the risk of thrombosis - that is, they increase it by 100 percent. Can you ask for more security? This frightening information was passed on to 190,000 general practitioners, pharmacists and the heads of health departments in so-called Dear Doctor Letters and sent to the media in a breaking news. Alarm bells rang all over the country. Many worried women stopped taking the pill, which resulted in unwanted pregnancies and abortions.

The only question is, how much is 100 percent? The studies on which the warning was based showed that for every 7,000 women who took the previous second-generation pill, one woman developed thrombosis and that the number fell to two in women who took third-generation pills increased. That is, the absolute risk increase was only 1 in 7000, while the relative risk increase was actually 100 percent.

That one warning resulted in an estimated 13,000 (!) Additional abortions in England and Wales the following year. But the disaster lasted more than a year. Before the report, abortion rates were steadily falling, but thereafter the trend was reversed and abortion rates rose again in the years that followed. Women had lost confidence in oral contraceptives and pill sales fell sharply. Not all unwanted pregnancies were terminated; for every abortion there was an additional birth. The increase in abortions and births was particularly pronounced among girls under 16 - there were 800 additional pregnancies.

Paradoxically, pregnancies and abortions carry a greater risk of thrombosis than third-generation pills. The pill fear harmed women, harmed the National Health Service (the UK health system) and even harmed the stock prices of the pharmaceutical industry. The cost of abortion to the National Health Service is estimated at four to six million pounds. One of the few who profited was the journalists who had a story for the front pages.

The tradition of pill fears continues to this day, and it always uses the same trick. The solution is not better pills and more sophisticated abortion techniques, but risk-literate young women and men. It wouldn't be particularly difficult to explain to teenagers the simple difference between relative risk (“100 percent”) and absolute risk (“1 in 7000”). After all, many people, old and young, are familiar with all sorts of sports statistics - percentage of aces in tennis or possession of the ball in soccer.

But to this day, journalists have managed to arouse fears with large numbers, causing the public to panic in predictable ways year after year.

Most people remember exactly where they were on September 11, 2001. The images of the planes crashing into the twin towers of the World Trade Center are indelibly engraved in our memories. In the meantime, everything seems to have been said about the tragic attack. To prevent future attacks, the 9/11 Commission's Report, published three years later, focused primarily on how Al Qaeda terrorism developed and on diplomatic strategies , Judicial reforms and technical measures. However, the 636-page report neglected one measure - namely risk-literate citizens.

Let's turn the clock back to December 2001. Imagine you live in New York and you want to go to Washington, D.C. Would you fly or drive?

We know that many Americans stopped flying after the attack. Did they stay at home or did they get in the car? To find an answer, I looked at the promotion statistics. In the months after the attack, the number of kilometers traveled in the car increased significantly. The increase was particularly noticeable in the rural interstate highways on which long-distance traffic rolls: up to five percent in the three months after the attack. For comparison: In the months before the attack (January to August) the number of individual car kilometers per month had risen by just under one percent compared to 2000, which corresponds to the usual annual increase. This additional car use lasted twelve months and then returned to normal. At this point, the fire in the twin towers had disappeared from daily media coverage.

The increase in road traffic had sobering consequences. Before the attack, the number of fatal road accidents was broadly in line with the average for the previous five years. But in each of the twelve months after September 11, the number of fatal accidents was above average and mostly even higher than all values ​​from the previous five years. In all, about 1,600 Americans died on the streets as a result of their choice to avoid the risks of flying.

This death rate is six times the total number of passengers (256) who died in the four fatal flights. All of these road traffic victims could still be alive if they had flown instead of opting for the car. From 2002 to 2005, US airlines carried 2.5 billion passengers. Not a single one died in a plane crash. Although it is always reported that 3,000 Americans were killed in the attacks of September 11th, one should actually add that half again.

Terrorists strike twice: first with physical violence and then with the help of our brains. The first hit draws all the attention. Billions have been spent on developing huge bureaucratic structures such as homeland security and new technologies such as full-body scanners that make the bare skin surface visible under clothing. The second blow, on the other hand, goes almost unnoticed. At the lectures I gave around the world, from Singapore to Wiesbaden, to intelligence services and anti-terror authorities, my hosts were always surprised because they had never considered this aspect. Bin Laden, the founder of Al Qaeda, once happily explained how little money he had to spend to inflict tremendous damage on America: Al Qaeda spent $ 500,000 on the company, while America has spent $ 500,000 on the incident and its aftermath - according to the most cautious estimates - lost more than $ 500 billion. In other words, every dollar of al Qaeda wiped out a million dollars. It may be difficult to thwart terrorist suicide bombings, but it is certainly easier to prevent them from using our brains as weapons.

Which psychological rule of our brain are the terrorists actually making use of? Events with a low probability of occurrence in which many people are suddenly killed, so-called shock risks (dread risks), apply an unconscious rule of thumb: If many people die at the same time, react with fear and avoid the situation.

The fear is not about dying in itself, but about the fact that many people lose their lives together at the same time - or in short time intervals. On such occasions, such as the 9/11 attacks, our evolutionary brain reacts with great fear. But when as many or more people die over a longer period of time, for example in car and motorcycle accidents, we tend to remain calm. In the United States alone, around 35,000 people die in road accidents each year, yet few people are scared while driving.

Where does this tendency to fear the risk of shock come from? There was probably a time in human history when this was a reasonable response. Over long stretches of evolution, people lived in small associations of hunters and gatherers, which comprised twenty to fifty people and rarely had more than a hundred members - similar to corresponding associations that still exist today. In such small groups, the sudden loss of many lives could increase the risk of predation or starvation, and endanger the survival of the whole group. But what was sensible in the past doesn't have to be today. In modern societies, the survival of the individual no longer relies on the support and protection of small groups or tribes. Even so, this psychological response is still easy to evoke. To this day, real or imagined disasters can trigger panic reactions.

How can so many people put up with unwanted pregnancies and abortions because they don't know the difference between relative and absolute risks? Why does the fear of the risk of shock repeat itself with every new threat, from mad cow disease to SARS to bird flu, in a seemingly endless cycle. Why don't people learn?

According to many experts, people are hopelessly overwhelmed. Attempts to rid them of their errors usually fail. Based on this deeply pessimistic assessment of the general public, a publication by Deutsche Bank Research presents a list of the violations that we “Homer Simpsons” commit against common sense. This message has been picked up quickly in popular science books and is now proclaiming that Homo sapiens is “predictably irrational” and needs “impetus” for sensible behavior by the few sane people on earth.

I see it differently. Our education system is terrifyingly blind to risk intelligence. We teach our children the math of security - geometry and trigonometry - but not the math of uncertainty: statistical reasoning. And we teach our children biology, but not psychology, which shapes their fears and desires. Even many experts are not trained to convey risks to the public in an understandable way, which is highly shocking. And there may well be an interest in scaring people: to get an article on the front page, to convince people that the abolition of civil rights is legitimate, or to sell a product. All of these external reasons contribute to the problem.

The good news is that there is a solution. Who would have thought a few hundred years ago that one day so many people on earth would learn to read and write? Anyone who wants to can become risk-savvy.

“Competent” means knowledgeable, well-versed and clever. But risk literacy is more than just being well informed. You need courage to face an uncertain future, to assert yourself against experts and to ask critical questions. We can take the remote control into our own hands again for our emotions. It takes a huge psychological shift to use one's mind without guidance from others. Such an inner revolution ensures more enlightenment and less fear in life.

Gerd Gigerenzer is director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. The text comes from his new book “Risk”. It was published by Bertelsmann (400 pages, 19.90 euros).

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