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Risk estimation: Cognitive dissonance

If there is one thing that people are notoriously bad at, it is estimating risk. There is nothing new about this. People are more afraid of being killed in a terrorist attack than in a traffic accident, despite the odds being significantly higher for the latter. One of the many reasons for this is the fact that news coverage impacts the perceived risk – and there can be little doubt that, due to the massive news coverage given to terrorism, the perceived risk of dying in a terrorist attack is higher than that of dying in a traffic accident.

Worldwide, there were 32’727 deaths due to terrorism in 2014. In the same period, there were approximately 1’240’000 deaths on the world’s roads; or just shy of 38 times as many deaths. In other words, in 2014, the risk of dying in traffic was 38 times greater than that of dying in a terrorist attack. This is a classic example of cognitive dissonance, caused by what Daniel Kahneman calls System 1 thinking in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

If this is so common, and presumably a fairly well-known fact of life as a human being, why am I pointing it out? Simply because it needs to be pointed out. By knowing a concept, by internalising it, and by understanding it, we can challenge that concept, and realign how we think – using System 2 thinking.

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