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We Are Risk Illiterate

The things we most fear—crashing in an airplane, being killed by a burglar, dying on the operating table—are unlikely ever to happen to us. “We are risk-illiterate,” one safety expert says. “We have a completely distorted view of life’s real perils.” The chance of dying in a commercial airplane crash is just one in 800,000. You are more likely to choke to death on a piece of food. You are twice as likely to be killed playing a sport as you are to be stabbed to death by a stranger. And the chance of dying of a medical complication or mistake is tiny (one in 84,000). You take a far greater risk riding in a car. One in 5000 of us die that way.

The next time you buy a lottery ticket, bear in mind that you are at least 13 times as likely to be struck by lightning as you are to hit the jackpot…In helping to set insurance premiums, actuaries know that this year approximately 765,000 people in America will die of heart disease, 68,000 of pneumonia, 2000 of tuberculosis, 200 in storms and resulting floods, 100 by lightning, another 100 in tornadoes, and 50 of snakebites and bee stings.

Other experts can tell you that, on average, being 30 percent overweight knocks 3.5 years off your life expectancy; being poor reduces it two years; and being a single man slashes almost a decade off your life-span (unmarried females are luckier—they lose just four years off their lives.)…It has been calculated that for every cigarette you smoke, you lose ten minutes off your life expectancy…The grim predictability of mortality rates is something that has long puzzled social scientists.

A few years ago, in fact, Canadian psychologist Gerald Wilde noticed that mortality rates for violent and accidental deaths throughout most of the Western world have remained oddly static all through this century, despite advances in our technology and safety standards. Wilde developed a controversial theory—risk homeostasis—postulating that people tend to embrace a certain level of risk. When something is made safer, they will somehow reassert the original level of danger. If, for example, roads are improved with more and wider lanes, drivers will feel safer and go a little faster, thereby canceling out the benefits that the improved roads confer. Other studies have shown that where an intersection is made safer, the accident rate invariably falls there, but rises to a compensating level elsewhere along the same stretch of road…

As the story goes, an American businessman named Wilson, tired of the Great depression, rising taxes and increasing crime, sold his home and business in 1940 and moved to an island in the Pacific. Balmy and ringed with beautiful beaches, the island seemed like paradise. Its name? Iwo Jima.

Bill Bryson, Saturday Evening Post, September, 1988, “Life’s Little Gambles”