Overestimating risk makes us do stupid things

The horrible terror attacks in Belgium has further escalated the fears of terror in Europe and policy makers from all over the continent are calling for new measures to fight extremism and populist politicians have been fast to call for closing Europe’s borders. However, the clear risk is that the economic costs of such measures easily could be larger than what can be justified by the actual risks from terror.

The fact is that compared to during the Cold War a lot less people are killed in terror attacks in Europe today than was the case in 1970s or 1980s and even more importantly the actual risk of being killed in a terror attack is extremely small.

In fact in 2011 a report on terrorism from the US National Counter Terrorism Center notes that Americans are just as likely to be “crushed to death by their televisions or furniture each year” as they are to be killed by terrorists. Then compare the risk of being killed in a terror attack with the risk of dying in a traffic accident.

Lets take the most deadly year in terms of terror since 2000. In 2004 nearly 200 people in total died in terror attacks across Europe. 2004 was the year of the Madrid train bomb. Now compare that to the number of killed in traffic accidents. This is the latest statistics – 746 in Belgium (2013), 3268 in France (2013) and 1730 in Spain (2013). Being killed in a traffic accident is quite small, but it is a lot more likely than being killed in a terror attack. Or said in another way – every year more people die in traffic accidents in France than was killed in the 911 attacks in 2001.

Despite of that we hear very few politicians talk about road safety, but basically all European politicians are now screaming about the need to “do something” about the terror threat.

I believe that there are two primary reasons for these “do something” tendencies in European politics (it is not only in the case of terror, but could equally well be applied to for example environmental discussions).

First of all, psychologists have shown that humans in general are not very good at estimating the risk of very infrequent events (such as being killed in a terror attack) and that people psychologically tend to seriously overestimate such risks.

Second, what the American economist Bryan Caplan has termed Rational Irrational Voters. What Caplan means by this is that in the voting process we as voters don’t really have to make rational assessments as the likelihood that our individual vote will mean anything for the outcome of the election is very limited – we are so to speak of rationally irrational, irresponsible and ignorant.

As a result, we are much more likely to give into fears and fantasies in the political process than when we are making a decision to for example buy a car or make an investment. Politicians very well know this and are happy to play on these fears. After all politicians are rarely elected by presenting statistics to the voters.

But we cannot and should not cave into fears – not in our personal life or in our political decisions. The best thing to do is to do as the British are saying – “calm down and carry on”. That does not mean that we should ignore terrorism as a risk to European citizens, but if we give in to fears and let that guide policies then surely the terrorists have won.


This post was first published as an op-ed in the Icelandic newspaper Frettabladid.


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