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The Terrorist Non-Threat is the Real Threat

Why fears of terrorism in Donald Trump's America are misleading and dangerous
March 14, 2017 | Comments

If I were told that an imminent threat to the lives of my family and many others could only be stopped by banning travel and immigration into the United States I would be hard-pressed to protest such a move. That is the justification for President Trump’s recent executive order banning entry to the US of people from seven predominantly Islamic countries. It seems that many, perhaps most, American voters believe his rhetoric that such a threat is real and requires emergency action to protect our “national security.”

The problem is that no such threat exists. Recently, I attended a lecture on child abuse in the United States and while listening in horror to some awful facts and narratives, I began to think about the things we think are threats requiring extreme action. According to the non-profit organization ChildHelp, 1,580 children, mostly not old enough yet to attend kindergarten, died in 2014 because of child abuse and maltreatment. Eighty percent of these fatalities were caused by the children’s parents.

At the same time, the risk of being killed by terrorist in the US is 1 in 3.6 billion. In an article published January 31, 2017 on Quartz, Jenny Anderson reports that between 2005 and 2015 94 people inside the United States were killed by jihadists, while during the same time period 301,797 people in the US were shot dead. “But,” Anderson cautions, “Trump is right about at least one thing: Americans are more afraid of terrorism than they are of guns, despite the fact that guns are 3,210 times more likely to kill them.”

If national policy were rational, then, we should have an emergency executive order banning guns and massively increasing the number of case workers at municipal child protection agencies. Remember that statistic of the chance of being killed by a terrorist—one in 3.6 billion? That should be compared to the risk of dying in a car accident, one in 7,000, or the risk of dying from cancer, one in 600.

Obviously, our perception of risk and our response to threat are wildly out of synchrony with reality. We allow almost anyone who wants one to own a gun, we drive our cars without worrying about the possible tragic outcomes, and we engage in all kinds behaviors that increase the risk for cancer without giving these things a second thought. Yet we focus on something that is extremely rare, the threat of death by terrorist, and support a national policy directed against it. Why are we so easily mislead?

Psychologists, neuroscientists, and behavioral economists have studied these phenomena extensively and, as we discuss in Denying To the Grave, they have shown that our inability to judge risk rationally is a function of how our brains work. Exaggerating small risk and ignoring large risk is an evolutionarily preserved trait that must have protected us in prehistoric times when facts were not easily available and the need to make snap judgments to protect life and limb from potential threats more adaptive. “Fearing Muslim immigrants or Syrian refugees is not logical,” writes Brian Resnick, “Rather, it’s a deeply encoded, emotional reaction that can easily be stoked by politicians.”

There are many reasons that have been cited in opposition to the immigration and travel ban, but our focus here is on a quantifiable aspect. Epidemiologists specialize in putting numbers, including what are called odds or hazard ratios, to various risks and this can be done for terrorism as well. The numbers offer a clear picture: terrorism is the least of our worries. Unfortunately, for a variety of well-worked out reasons, we have difficulty attending to the data. Instead, we are distracted by the constant barrage of news reports about terrorism in distant lands so that we easily conjure images of jihadists, something called the availability bias. Then, we misinterpret new facts to fit our preconceived notion that the terrorist threat is imminent, an example of confirmation bias. Finally, we fall prey to charismatic leaders who exploit our deficient risk prediction faculties and prefer siding with groups of people who hold views that are not evidence-based to striking out on our own to face the facts.

But this should not mean that we give in to automatic thought processes and indulge in misperceptions concerning our health and security. It is within our cognitive repertoire to overcome biases and choose a logical course of action. How can we design messages and interventions that harness our rational brains when we need to make decisions in complex arenas? We’d love to hear your thoughts. Comment below or contact us here

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