Monday, 7 October 2013

Killer Facts: Terrorism, Car Crashes and Behavioural Economics

A telling statistic from an article by John Lanchester in the Guardian about the “justification” for the surveillance society revealed by Edward Snowden’s leaks about GCHQ, the NSA and the Prism programme. “Since 9/11, 53 people have been killed by terrorists in the UK. Every one of those deaths is tragic. So is every one of the 26,805 deaths to have occurred on Britain's roads between 2002 and 2012 inclusive, an average of 6.67 deaths a day. Let's call that the SDRD, standard daily road deaths. The terrorist toll for 12 years comes to 0.0121 SDRD. This means that 12 years of terrorism has killed as many people in the UK as eight days on our roads.”

Behavioural economics can help explain how this happens. First, the availability heuristic says that we assume that the more available some piece of information is to memory, the more we must have experienced it in the past (and the more likely it is to happen again). So newspaper stories featuring spectacular events like murders or fires or terrorism are vivid, salient and available to memory. And salience and vividness aid ease of recall. If something stands out from everything else, we think it’s more likely to happen. Even if it actually isn’t. Something to think about next time you get in a car. Or the next time a politician invokes the "war on terror."

John Lanchester, “The Snowden files: why the British public should be worried about GCHQ.” The Guardian, Thursday 3 October 2013

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