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The Availability Heuristic: Why Your Children Probably Aren’t Going to be Murdered

Journalist Lenore Skenazy is called a number of things: “Americans Worst Mom,” “A Heretic,” and, “Abusive.” Her crime? In 2008 she left her nine-year-old son go home by himself on the New York Subway. Her son’s solo trip was made famous by a New York Sun column written by Skenazy and it’s almost too easy to imagine her critics: up-tight mothers so overly protective of their children that they wouldn’t even think of letting them wait at the bus stop alone. You know, helicopter parents. As one recent article describes, they are the type of parents who “[buy] macrobiotic cupcakes and hypoallergenic socks, [hire] tutors to correct a 5-year-old’s “pencil-holding deficiency,”… [and demand that] nursery schools offer mandarin.”

Can you really criticize overprotective parents?  They are, after all, only trying to ensure the safety of their children. But sometimes the numbers tell a different story. In regard to Skenazy’s “abusive” decision, consider that only about 100 people are abducted by a stranger every year, half of whom are eventually murdered. Factoring in that there are 50 million children in the United States, the annual homicide rate via abduction comes out to be one in a million. In other words, “if you wanted your child to be kidnapped and held overnight by a stranger, you’d have to leave the child outside and unattended for 750,000 years.” Similarly, consider that, “more than twice as many children are hit by cars driven by parents taking their children to school as by other kinds of traffic.” That is, every time a parent drives their children to school the chances that a child gets killed increases.

Unfortunately, the parents don’t usually buy these types of arguments; “those are just the numbers,” they might say, “they miss a larger point: don’t rely on statistics when it comes to your children’s safety.” But my beef isn’t with overprotective parents. The truth is, everybody does a poor job of distinguishing what is actually dangerous from what isn’t. This tendency stems from a cognitive shortcut Kahneman and Tversky call the availability heuristic. Availability describes our tendency to judge the importance or frequency of an event based on how easily the even is brought to mind. For example, in one experiment done by Paul Slovic, participants were asked to estimate the amount of people per 200 million who die annually from drowning, tornadoes, asthma and fireworks. He found that on average people believed that 1684 died from drowning, 564 from tornadoes, 506 from asthma and 160 from fireworks. Reality paints a much different picture: 7380 for drowning, 1886 for asthma, 90 for tornadoes and 6 for fireworks. It is not a coincidence that deaths from fireworks and tornadoes show up on the news more often than deaths from drowning or asthma. And that’s the problem – the media gives a false sense of what is actually dangerous in order to entertain their viewers (us).

There are negative consequences of these attention grabbing tactics. German cognitive psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer estimates that the year after the 9-11 attacks, 1,500 people died in car accidents because they chose to drive fearing that their plane might be hijacked. Add that up over the course of a few years and you’ll find that “the number of people who died by avoiding air travels was six times the number of people who died in the airplanes on September 11.” Similarly, did you know that you are eight times more likely to die from walking home drunk than driving home drunk, the chances of getting murdered from hitchhiking is virtually zero, and owning a pool is astronomically more dangerous that owning a gun.

To be sure, the availability heuristic is a vital cognitive resource. It allows us to quickly assess the frequency and importance of an event with little cognitive effort. Sometimes this is a good thing; famine, wars and natural disasters get a lot of media attention for good reasons. But sometimes availability gives us a false sense of reality, which the examples outlined here illustrate.

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