"The Cost of Fearing Strangers"

Excellent essay from the Freakonomics blog:

As we wrote in Freakonomics, most people are pretty terrible at risk assessment. They tend to overstate the risk of dramatic and unlikely events at the expense of more common and boring (if equally devastating) events. A given person might fear a terrorist attack and mad cow disease more than anything in the world, whereas in fact she’d be better off fearing a heart attack (and therefore taking care of herself) or salmonella (and therefore washing her cutting board thoroughly).

Why do we fear the unknown more than the known? That’s a larger question than I can answer here (not that I’m capable anyway), but it probably has to do with the heuristics—the shortcut guesses—our brains use to solve problems, and the fact that these heuristics rely on the information already stored in our memories.

And what gets stored away? Anomalies—the big, rare, “black swan” events that are so dramatic, so unpredictable, and perhaps world-changing, that they imprint themselves on our memories and con us into thinking of them as typical, or at least likely, whereas in fact they are extraordinarily rare.

Nothing I haven’t said before. Remember, if it’s in the news don’t worry about it. The very definition of news is “something that almost never happens.” When something is so common that it’s no longer news—car crashes, domestic violence—that’s when you should worry about it.

Posted on January 19, 2009 at 6:19 AM26 Comments


pgunn January 19, 2009 8:30 AM

Not necessarily meaning to contest the main point, but the examples given of things to fear might be partly explained as effects that might target more than one person. From some perspectives it’s more reasonable to be concerned about events that would harm/kill many people in one’s community than events that would just harm/kill oneself.

Michael Seese January 19, 2009 9:11 AM

Also, I think people want to be part of something “big.” If the fates had decided you were to die on 9/11/2001, would you rather have died in one of the planes (especially the one that went down in Pennsylvania, after a valiant struggle) or of a heart attack? It’s the same reason we all were Cleopatra or Martin Luther in a previous life. The psychics wouldn’t make any money if they told us, “Nah, you were a stablehand who died of the plague.”

Clive Robinson January 19, 2009 9:20 AM


Although he is probably correct he does not help himself when he gives a stat like,

“A study of mass murderers between 1976 and 1995 found that 63 percent of them were white, 33 percent were black, and just 3 percent all other ethnicities”

In large parts of the US over that period those percentages would have matched the demographics so making each person just as likley to be a mass murderer irespective of ethnicity…

I suspect what he is saying is the old “familiarity breeds contempt” process. We think we know those “we know” and are naturaly cautious of those we don’t. And because we trust those “we know” we give them more “contact time” thus more oportunity.

Therfore again suggesting likleyhood bassed on “contact time” with a person you are just as likley to be attacked by them…

Kevin January 19, 2009 9:20 AM

It’s “easier” to be afraid of big things entirely out of your control (terrorists, shadow governments, UFOs) than to confront more realistic fears (OD, VD, COPD, DT, etc) which are under your control or caused by your own risky behaviors, if only because you don’t have to confront your fears.

If you’re a heavy smoker and have a realistic fear of the harm you’re doing to your health, you’re all but forced to quit. Much easier to focus your fears on something purely external, that no action of yours and protect you from, and keep on puffing away.

Tom Welsh January 19, 2009 9:34 AM

Publishing is a funny old game. “Freakonomics” was a best seller, and so was Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “The Black Swan”. Yet Taleb’s point is exactly the opposite of what this essay says. He warns that Black Swans are not anticipated, take us by surprise while we concentrate on everyday threats, and wreak havoc. The essay says that we shouldn’t worry about Black Swans, but focus on everyday threats.

It reminds me of the old joke about how, for every proverb, there is one that directly contradicts it. E.g. “Many hands make light work”, but “Too many cooks spoil the broth”. Finding more pairs like that one is an excellent party game; believe me, there are a lot of them to be found.

AMcguinn January 19, 2009 9:50 AM

Yeah, forget plane crashes. Witches’ curses – they’re the real danger. They’re so common they’re not even reported in the news!

Martin January 19, 2009 10:54 AM

So no need to worry about losing your job in the credit crunch, then.

I actually agree with the generalisation “if it’s in the news, don’t worry about it”, but I’m just pointing out that all generalizations have exceptions.

Paeniteo January 19, 2009 11:03 AM

Martin: “So no need to worry about losing your job in the credit crunch, then.”

See it the other way round: If job losses aren’t in the news anymore, you should be really worried.

Eric Thomas Black January 19, 2009 11:10 AM

OK…. I’m officially no longer afraid of strangers… now I’m scared of my friends and family….

But as to the Black Swan event…. wouldn’t a guy that you knew who suddenly popped his top and went berzerk and killed a bunch of people be considered a Black Swan event? Particularly since he seemed to go beyond the normal pattern of that kind of event and that there weren’t any warning signs (nothing that would have required a restraining order).

Brandioch Conner January 19, 2009 12:11 PM

@Tom Welsh
“It reminds me of the old joke about how, for every proverb, there is one that directly contradicts it.”

What I get out of it is that you should concentrate on the daily threats and not worry about the “black swans”.

This is because the daily threats are FAR more likely to affect you … unless you successfully mitigate them to such a degree that you live long enough to fall victim to a “black swan”.

SOMETHING will, eventually, “get” you.

For 99.999% of us, that something will be something we’ve personally dealt with all our lives.

For the other 0.001% it will be a complete surprise and make headlines around the world.

Clive Robinson January 19, 2009 12:34 PM

@ Brandioch Conner,

“For 99.999% of us, that something will be something we’ve personally dealt with all our lives.”

Personaly I’m hoping not.

Like the old joke says,

“You’ve no ambition, me I want to be shot when I’m 110 by a 20 something husbund of the young blond who’s bedroom window I’m just going out of…”

ed January 19, 2009 1:22 PM

@ Martin – So no need to worry about losing your job in the credit crunch, then.

In a sense, that’s right.

During the Great Depression, US unemployment was around 25%. Obviously then, 3 out of 4 people wanting a job had one.

Yes, some industries and economic areas (e.g. farming) were hit harder than others, but a 75% chance of having a job still beats casino odds.

Sig January 19, 2009 2:04 PM

The Army is (rightfully) very big on prevention of sexual assault and sexual harassment.

One of the things they emphasize to us is that most rapes are committed by people familiar with the victim–acquaintance rape.

However, the number one prevention tactic recommended in the briefings is to never go anywhere alone–take somebody from the unit when you go to the latrines at night, etc.

My team leader in Afghanistan told us that, by the Army’s own logic, we were better off going places with total strangers.


Cannonball Jones January 19, 2009 2:27 PM

“Hey, we’re all going out one way or another so why worry about random crap that’s basically never going to happen to you?” – I reckon that quote should be printed on the front page of every newspaper. Mind you, then people would never buy newspapers…

JohnT January 19, 2009 3:35 PM

I disagree with the supposed reason of “shortcut guesses.” I see the misdirected concern with the unlikely as opposed to the more ordinary danger as a psychological trick to exercise control, while tacitly admitting that one has little or no control.

One carefully washes tin cans to prevent getting hanta virus. It’s a trick to assert control. One does little to prevent an accident driving to work because our power is limited to prevent the more likely auto accident.

We do not control large areas of our life that have unpleasant or even fatal consequences for us. So we enact control of the more absurd because we can.

Karellen January 19, 2009 3:38 PM

Wild guess – it could be partly evolutionary.

For nearly all of human history, we were never aware of anything that did not happen to the 150-or-so people in our extended family or tribe.

Anytime we were aware of someone falling off a cliff, getting eaten by a bear, drowning, being poisoned by a particular berry, etc… it happened close to us, to someone we knew. And it was probably something that we ought to take care to avoid, lest the same thing happen to us.

Yes, people dying of heart attacks and car crashes are a lot more common than getting stabbed to death by a mugger or feral youth. But which do you hear more of on a daily basis? From people you know, and from The Media.

If Og says “Thag killed by eating white berry” (even if “says” translates to “points to white berry, shakes his head and makes strangling motions”) then you know that’s a danger you have to be wary of right now, in your current environment.

If a newsreader says “Someone you can identify with got killed by terrorists”, then I would not be at all surprised if it pushed all the same fear buttons in the primitive parts of your brain, and made you think that this was something you needed to be wary of right now, in your current environment.

(Disclaimer: I Am Not An Evolutionary Anthropologist, and have zero relevant expertise in this area.)

Andrew January 19, 2009 5:15 PM

Rhetoricians–say, like Kenneth Burke–would explain this by suggesting that human beings are story-telling animals and we’re thus drawn to and remember stories that have drama or strong meaning. For example, Americans didn’t worry about AIDS until Magic Johnson said the words, “Because of the HIV virus that I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers today.” If he had come down with salmonella poisoning, we, for a time at least, would have the cleanest kitchens in the world.

So it’s not that we fear the unknown more than the known. It’s that the unknown can often be more unusual, curious, and dramatic.

Filias Cupio January 19, 2009 6:08 PM

I’d just like to point out that, where I come from, almost all the swans are black.

(I’m not talking metaphorical swans, but “large often aggressive aquatic descendants of dinosaurs” swans.)

Filias Cupio January 19, 2009 6:14 PM

Now that I look at it, the essay doesn’t match the title: the costs of fearing strangers are things like not getting a car ride home when you could have, failing to make friends with a compatible person, crossing the road and back again needlessly, or in an extreme case, having to face the consequences of killing an innocent person who you perceived as a threat.

HEEEELP... January 19, 2009 8:24 PM

ok sorry I got confused half-way through the comments…

What should we concentrate on? Items in the news? Or ignore everything in the news? Watch the news but don’t worry?

Or should I worry about items not in the news? What if they are not in the news because they do not happen?

Maybe I should worry about black swans instead? Or ignore them?

Jess January 19, 2009 8:39 PM

Taleb’s point regarding black swans is somewhat missed above. It isn’t just that things will happen that we had never imagined happening, but that these events will have tremendous consequences. In this context, we prepare for normal events, remain flexible in the face of the unexpected, but above all we don’t make large leveraged bets on the permanence of the status quo. With respect to the question of personal responses to crime, most people have never been mugged, but they still don’t habitually carry their lives’ savings in cash in their pockets.

Mike B January 20, 2009 6:10 AM

I commented in that blog post and I’ll comment the same thing here. While the observations of stranger fear are probably true, nobody seems to examine the case that our innate fear of strangers and the unknown is the actual cause of stranger related crimes being comparatively low.

To be suspicious of the non-stranger or insider would result in societal dysfunction. Without some level of trust one wouldn’t be able to get anything done. However, because insiders have to be trusted we leave ourselves vulnerable to insider crime. Stranger crime might be low simply because they give them a PROPER level of suspicion.

Women who are wary of strangers and who don’t go out alone at night have a much lower risk of being raped by a stranger. If radial minorities are all locked away in jail they simply won’t have an opportunity to commit crimes and the minority crime rate will drop to zero. An outside observer looking at those two scenarios could make the argument that strangers don’t rape and minorities don’t commit crimes because the rates would be so low, but in reality the rates are low because they are never given a chance.

People can’t make these sorts of statements unless they can point to a real study with a control group. Find a situation where strangers are trusted as much as “insiders” (or the opposite) and then compare the crime rates.

So duh insiders are a bigger threat than strangers, we let our guard down around them, but only because the alternative is to live in a hermit cave and starve. Does this mean then that strangers aren’t as much as a threat? Of course not, we have the luxury of keeping our guard up around them.

Martin January 20, 2009 6:14 AM

@ed, @Paeniteo

I was making the point that Bruce’s statement: ‘The very definition of news is “something that almost never happens.” ‘ is not complete. Something that affects a large number of people is also news. So worrying about the personal effects of influenza in 1918, war in 1939 or the credit crunch in current times is legitimate. World wars, world pandemics and world financial crisises are rare, but when they do happen (or are at risk of happening) their effects are so widespread and profound that it is rational for individuals to worry and take action.

Davi Ottenheimer January 20, 2009 12:48 PM

“if it’s in the news don’t worry about it”

oh, you mean like salmonella?



or, heart attacks?


oh, wait, the blog you cite says “she’d be better off fearing a heart attack (and therefore taking care of herself) or salmonella (and therefore washing her cutting board thoroughly)”

you can say the “very definition of news is ‘something that almost never happens'”, but in fact news can be about something that happens regularly like traffic accidents, or shootings, or rapes, or fraud.

a probability versus impact ratio is a more realistic way to think about news, and the cost of fearing strangers. the point is to avoid worrying to much about things that have a low probability, even if they have a catastrophic impact potential.

Peter January 20, 2009 4:42 PM

People underestimate the risks when they feel that they are in control (such as driving).
People overestimate the risks when they feel that they are NOT in control (such as flying, or terrorism).

Bill January 22, 2009 7:47 AM

you can say the “very definition of news is ‘something that almost never happens'”, but in fact news can be about something that happens regularly like traffic accidents, or shootings, or rapes, or fraud.

Most people, in fact, aren’t involved in traffic accidents, shootings, rapes or fraud.

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