Your Brain on Risk

Homer Simpson You’re probably more afraid of a terrorist bombing than a car accident. Which, statistically speaking, isn’t logical because car accidents happen much more frequently than terrorist bombings.

You can thank your brain for this. In Bruce Schneier’s book Beyond Fear, he writes about how the human mind analyzes risk. Basically, we worry too much over minor risks and not enough over major ones. Schneier distills this into five common observations:

  • People exaggerate spectacular but rare risks and downplay common risks.
  • People have trouble estimating risks for anything not exactly like their normal situation.
  • Personified risks are perceived to be greater than anonymous risks.
  • People underestimate risks they willingly take and overestimate risks in situations they can’t control.
  • Last, people overestimate risks that are being talked about and remain an object of public scrutiny.

Why is that? Daniel Goleman explains how two parts of your brain offer competing interpretations of events around you in his book Emotional Intelligence. The amygdala gleams the raw emotions within any given event while the neocortex analyzes the facts to determine a more logical reaction.

These don’t exactly work in parallel, however. Your body’s sensory information (sights, sounds, smells, sensations, tastes) travels along two connections. The connection to the amygdala is shorter, causing your brain to process the emotional content of an event before it can process the logical content. The amygdala also works faster than the neocortex.

In many cases, the neocortex can override the amygdala – you can override an illogical emotional reaction and behave rationally. But sometimes, the amygdala reacts so strongly that you act before you can think; Goleman calls this “emotional hijacking.”

There’s a good evolutionary purpose for this. If a saber-toothed tiger is chasing you, you don’t want to stop and process the facts. You want to run like heck. This is your fight-or-flight response.

In his essay “The Psychology of Security“, Schneier adds that running away from saber-toothed tigers is no longer a reality (unless you’re Fred Flinstone). The events of today’s society are actually better handled not by reacting emotionally, but by reacting logically. Like negotiating a raise with your manager; you might feel fear and be told by your amygdala to run, but unless you listen to your neocortex, you’re not going to get that raise.

Unfortunately, your brain retains the memory of past emotional experiences and uses them to judge risk in future events. Schneier quotes a good example of this from Steven Johnson’s book Mind Wide Open:

But ever since that June storm, a new fear has entered the mix for me: the sound of wind whistling through a window. I know now that our window blew in because it had been installed improperly… I am entirely convinced that the window we have now is installed correctly, and I trust our superintendent when he says that it is designed to withstand hurricane-force winds. In the five years since that June, we have weathered dozens of storms that produced gusts comparable to the one that blew it in, and the window has performed flawlessly.

I know all these facts–and yet when the wind kicks up, and I hear that whistling sound, I can feel my adrenaline levels rise… Part of my brain–the part that feels most me-like, the part that has opinions about the world and decides how to act on those opinions in a rational way–knows that the windows are safe… But another part of my brain wants to barricade myself in the bathroom all over again.

Essentially, a memory can emotionally hijack your perception if a risk, especially if the memory is a significant one. Again, back when there were saber-toothed tigers, this was an evolutionary advantage. (“Oh no, it’s another saber-tooth! Run before he sees us!”)

In today’s society, it causes us to exaggerate spectacular but rare risks and downplay common ones. That’s why terrorist bombings seem so much scarier than car accidents.

Author: Mike Lee

An idealistic realist, humanistic technologist & constant student.