Overreaction and Overly Specific Reactions to Rare Risks

Horrific events, such as the massacre in Aurora, can be catalysts for social and political change. Sometimes it seems that they’re the only catalyst; recall how drastically our policies toward terrorism changed after 9/11 despite how moribund they were before.

The problem is that fear can cloud our reasoning, causing us to overreact and to overly focus on the specifics. And the key is to steer our desire for change in that time of fear.

Our brains aren’t very good at probability and risk analysis. We tend to exaggerate spectacular, strange and rare events, and downplay ordinary, familiar and common ones. We think rare risks are more common than they are. We fear them more than probability indicates we should.

There is a lot of psychological research that tries to explain this, but one of the key findings is this: People tend to base risk analysis more on stories than on data. Stories engage us at a much more visceral level, especially stories that are vivid, exciting or personally involving.

If a friend tells you about getting mugged in a foreign country, that story is more likely to affect how safe you feel traveling to that country than reading a page of abstract crime statistics will.

Novelty plus dread plus a good story equals overreaction.

And who are the major storytellers these days? Television and the Internet. So when news programs and sites endlessly repeat the story from Aurora, with interviews with those in the theater, interviews with the families, and commentary by anyone who has a point to make, we start to think this is something to fear, rather than a rare event that almost never happens and isn’t worth worrying about. In other words, reading five stories about the same event feels somewhat like five separate events, and that skews our perceptions.

We see the effects of this all the time.

It’s strangers by whom we fear being murdered, kidnapped, raped and assaulted, when it’s far more likely that any perpetrator of such offenses is a relative or a friend. We worry about airplane crashes and rampaging shooters instead of automobile crashes and domestic violence—both of which are far more common and far, far more deadly.

Our greatest recent overreaction to a rare event was our response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. I remember then-Attorney General John Ashcroft giving a speech in Minnesota—where I live—in 2003 in which he claimed that the fact there were no new terrorist attacks since 9/11 was proof that his policies were working. I remember thinking: “There were no terrorist attacks in the two years preceding 9/11, and you didn’t have any policies. What does that prove?”

What it proves is that terrorist attacks are very rare, and perhaps our national response wasn’t worth the enormous expense, loss of liberty, attacks on our Constitution and damage to our credibility on the world stage. Still, overreacting was the natural thing for us to do. Yes, it was security theater and not real security, but it made many of us feel safer.

The rarity of events such as the Aurora massacre doesn’t mean we should ignore any lessons it might teach us. Because people overreact to rare events, they’re useful catalysts for social introspection and policy change. The key here is to focus not on the details of the particular event but on the broader issues common to all similar events.

Installing metal detectors at movie theaters doesn’t make sense—there’s no reason to think the next crazy gunman will choose a movie theater as his venue, and how effectively would a metal detector deter a lone gunman anyway?—but understanding the reasons why the United States has so many gun deaths compared with other countries does. The particular motivations of alleged killer James Holmes aren’t relevant—the next gunman will have different motivations—but the general state of mental health care in the United States is.

Even with this, the most important lesson of the Aurora massacre is how rare these events actually are. Our brains are primed to believe that movie theaters are more dangerous than they used to be, but they’re not. The riskiest part of the evening is still the car ride to and from the movie theater, and even that’s very safe.

But wear a seat belt all the same.

This essay previously appeared on CNN.com, and is an update of this essay.

EDITED TO ADD: I almost added that Holmes wouldn’t have been stopped by a metal detector. He walked into the theater unarmed and left through a back door, which he propped open so he could return armed. And while there was talk about installing metal detectors in movie theaters, I have not heard of any theater actually doing so. But AMC movie theaters have announced a “no masks or costumes policy” as a security measure.

Posted on August 3, 2012 at 6:03 AM60 Comments


Frank Köhntopp August 3, 2012 6:27 AM

Well, he could of course also put on the clothes while outside…

A root cause analysis might show costumes are not really the problem. But then again it’s popular to look at the real problem.

SadButMadLad August 3, 2012 6:42 AM

“… AMC movie theaters have announced a “no masks or costumes policy” as a security measure.”

So that’s the end of the Rocky Horror Picture show then.

aynonymous August 3, 2012 7:18 AM

“AMC movie theaters have announced a ‘no masks or costumes policy’ as a security measure.”

And how many people are going to be unaware of that policy until after they’ve purchased their ticket and show up at the theater?

Two years ago, I went to a music concert. I purchased my ticket, and then went to the entrance, which was around the corner of the building. The employees were frisking people as they went through the line. I was not allowed in because I had a Leatherman multi-tool, which they considered a “weapon”. And there was a “no weapons allowed” sign posted at the door, which of course was not in sight of the ticket window around the building’s corner.

On the back of the ticket was a lot of fine print about what was not allowed, including recording equipment, alcohol, lasers, etc., but nothing about weapons, and certainly nothing about multi-tools.

I went back to the ticket window to demand a refund, which the manager refused. I was told that upon purchasing the ticket, I had agreed to their terms, which was printed on the back of the ticket; which I had not received until after I purchased it.

I pointed out that the back of the ticket said nothing about weapons, and certainly nothing about multi-tools, being prohibited. I was then told it was their “policy”. When I asked to see a copy of this policy, she refused, telling me it was on file with their office.

I never did get a refund, and I ended up offering to sell my ticket, at a discount, to the next person in line at the ticket window. The manager then threatened to call the cops on my, for scalping.

It was just another example of “The Fine Print Society” :

Corporate managers have collectively determined to overwhelm us with fine print. We can’t possibly read all this crap, much less meditate like some 18th century aristocrat on the implications of the content. Yet we can’t do so much as download an update to Adobe Acrobat without “signing” a contract. We are conclusively presumed to have read, understood, and agreed to every lawyer-drafted word, and yet everybody knows that none of us reads this. Not even Ron Paul–so don’t start with me. And the more of these contracts we get, the less likely it is that we will read any of them. So corporations have an incentive to send more of them and make them longer and more verbose. This is a collective decision on their part, and it is working, and they know it.

Nearly all of this stuff is enforceable, as many an HOA or condo unit owner has discovered, and it makes citizens relatively powerless. The private logic of contract law structures the relationship as individual consumer vs. big corporation with government as the enforcer of the contract, instead of citizens vs. powerful private organizations, with government as policy maker holding jurisdiction over the relationship.

The law calls these boilerplate documents “contracts of adhesion,” but the days are long past when judges were willing to throw them out because they were drafted by one party and imposed on the other, there was gross inequality of bargaining power, and there was no real assent to the terms. Now they are deemed essential to the free flow of modern commerce.

and “repressive libertarianism

where certain people who call themselves libertarians invariably side with property owners who want to limit other people’s liberties through the use of contract law. Property rights (usually held by somebody with a whole lot of economic clout) trump every other liberty….

As private corporations take over more functions of government, this position could lead to gradual elimination of constitutional liberties.

PS – Interesting footnote to my story: although the minimum-wage employees at the front door found my Leatherman in my front pocket, they did not find the handgun I was concealing, which I am licensed to legally carry.

aynonymous August 3, 2012 7:29 AM

So would the usual calls for more gun control that occur after a mass-shooting such as this be classified as an “Overreaction and Overly Specific Reactions to Rare Risks” or an attempt to do something about “why the United States has so many gun deaths compared with other countries”?

In addition to “understanding the reasons why the United States has so many gun deaths compared with other countries does” and evaluating “the general state of mental health care in the United States”, should we also be examining whether or not the media encourages mass-murderers? Or is that off-limits for our policy-makers?

mikeash August 3, 2012 7:32 AM

Ashcroft’s claim of no terrorist attacks for two years is ridiculous. Not only because it doesn’t prove his claim, as you point out, but because there several terrorist attacks between 9/11 and 2003. Wikipedia lists: the anthrax attacks, a mailbox pipe bomber, the El Al ticket counter shooting, and the beltway sniper.

People seem to just completely forget about any terrorist attacks in a time period where the occurrence of such attacks doesn’t suit their agenda.

Clive Robinson August 3, 2012 8:04 AM

With regards,

AMC movie theaters have announced a “no masks or costumes policy” as a security measure.

I’m actually in favour of this but not for the reason they are aluding to.

Many many costumes are “home made” and can be (and often are) made from materials that you most certainly would not be allowed legaly to use for clothing.

I am aware of somebody making a ‘SiFi Costume” that was made with amongst other things paper/cardboard and small tubes that were in fact preasurised lighter fuel canisters they had painted over. Other materials included a ribbed woolen jumper and fake silk actualy made from nylon which generated a lot of static. The person was inadvertantly a walking fire bomb…

Whilst perhapss an extream example, the simple fact is a lot of “home craft materials” realy are not suitable for wearing. Even the likes of “ball point pen” plastic can break easily forming sharp and dangerous edges as any one who has inadvertantly chewed down on one and cut their lip/toung can tell you, people even get paper cuts I once had one from some one pulling a bit of paper out of my hand and it cut that lose piece of skin between my thumb and index finger and it took weeks to heal.

@ Bruce,

Stories engage us at a much more visceral level, especially stories that are vivid exciting or personally involving

Visceral or Viscera? I’ve always found adding blood guts and gore to a story makes it much more interesting to listeners 😉

Dave August 3, 2012 8:18 AM

Forget asking “why the United States has so many gun deaths compared with other countries“, how about the underlying issue — why does the United States has so many MURDERERS compared with other countries?

Taking out USA gun murders, the United States has a higher non-gun murder rate than Canada or many European country’s total murder rates. So even with no guns at all, America would still have more murders. This suggests that America doesn’t so much have a gun problem, but rather a murderer problem.

Peter A. August 3, 2012 8:24 AM

From the linked AMC policy: “We will not allow any guests into our theatres in costumes that make other guests feel uncomfortable […]”

That’s ridiculous. One may feel uncomfortable about pretty anything. And what is a costume, actually? (one possible meaning: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_costume)

karrde August 3, 2012 8:36 AM

@Peter A: the “National Costume” link globbed on the trailing-parenthesis that was next to it. Correct link below.


I suppose that AMC won’t consider a 3-piece suit to be a costume, since costume usually means “non-ordinary clothes”.

But how many people wear a business suit to the theater? And if the suit looks like the Government Security guys outfit from the film of the week, is it a costume?

Mark August 3, 2012 9:04 AM


You hit the nail on the head. You don’t need a gun to maim or kill, just a will to do harm. Guns just are just a convenience.

Doktor Jeep August 3, 2012 9:41 AM

Interestingly enough, if you block out all of the high crime zones, in particular the areas inhabited by the permanent underclass that is constantly bombarded with “thug culture” and screwed up by generations on the welfare system, the murder and gun crime rate of the US is on par with Europe. Those “not as violent” countries do not have a intentionally socially engineered criminal class. they were targeted for destruction in the 1960s for winning the civil rights issue and setting a precendent that the Kissinger types didn’t like.
I never go to crowded theaters NOT because of fear of a mass shooting. It’s a bad idea overall. How about if Holmes could not get guns and resorted to firebombing? What’s easier to avoid, getting shot or trying to climb over a pile fo melting flesh that’s still moving and trying to climb over you? Better yet, who has to do that on purpose? Fires happen too.

Thunderbird August 3, 2012 10:06 AM

I never go to crowded theaters NOT because of fear of a mass shooting. It’s a bad idea overall. How about if Holmes could not get guns and resorted to firebombing?

I don’t go to theaters because I value my hearing, and watching a movie with earplugs in seems . . . wrong, somehow.

Not going because of the possibility of firebombing? Hmmm. Is this the first Movie Plot Threat that actually involves movies?

karrde August 3, 2012 10:10 AM

@Dave, @Mark,

most murders in the United States have either one or two victims.

But notice that social story-telling is dominated by mass-murder by firearm. Even though these events are rare.*

Interestingly, according to the CDC’s WISQARS tool, more people in the United States die due to traffic-related events** than die by firearm***.

Which was one of the points of Bruce’s essay. People are not very good at applying statistics to story-telling.

*Very few mass-shootings in the U.S. have produced more than 20 deaths.
However, homicides by firearm in the U.S. run at ~12500 per year. Timelines published after the Aurora event give approximately 20 mass shootings over the last decade. Thus, less than 1% of all deaths by firearm in the U.S. are due to a mass shooting.
Aside: mass-murder by arson or explosive produce much higher body counts per event. Compare the casualties from the Aurora shooting to those from the Happy Land fire of 1990 or the Bath School bombing of 1927.

** Traffic-related deaths, with no distinction of intentional/unintentional were ~46000 in 2007, ~42000 in 2008, ~38000 in 2009.
Filtering by intent gives almost all of these deaths as unintentional, with fewer than 500/year as either suicide or homicide.
This 3-year span shows a declining trend; I think the trend is flat-or-declining over most of the last decade.

*** Deaths by firearm, with no distinction of inentional/unintentional, were ~31000/year for the years 2007, 2008, and 2009.
During those years, typically ~18000/year were suicides by firearm, with ~12500/year homicides by firearm and ~500/year unintentional deaths by firearm.
There is very little long-term trend in American homicide-by-firearm numbers. I think the rate is fairly flat all the way back to the mid-1990s.

Alister William Macintyre August 3, 2012 10:24 AM

Once upon a time, movie theaters had security associated with exit door, to prevent one person paying for ticket, then letting friends in that way, without paying.

If there was anything the cinema failed to do, but should have done, was alarm of exit door is open at an unusual time (the beginning of the movie, for maybe 15 minutes), and some thought given to security, regarding use of exit doors.

Alister William Macintyre August 3, 2012 10:28 AM

Current mental health theory is that people do not go crazy sudden-like, but over a period of time, and that they leak evidence that they are getting to be mentally ill. We now know that he was involved with mental health professionals trained to notice such signs, at U of Co, and they did in fact notice this leaking, 6-7 weeks before the shooting. They started an investigation with U of Co’s Behavioral Evaluation and Threat Assessment (BETA) team, but when he dropped out of the University, he was now outside their jurisdiction, and after all, their mission was to protect U of Co, not the larger community, so they dropped permission for him to enter U of Co facilities, and problem solved, for U of Co.

NobodySpecial August 3, 2012 10:55 AM

@karrde – hence the old joke about dress codes: “Come on in Mr Hitler, nice shiny boots. Heh, piss off Jesus – no sandals”

NobodySpecial August 3, 2012 10:58 AM

It’s not the level of gun crime that should worry Americans (swimming pools kill 5x as many)

It’s the number of car deaths compared to other countries: Is there a amendment banning the wearing of seatbelts? Does America regard Princess DI as a role model?

benEzra August 3, 2012 11:02 AM

In the context of overly specific reactions to rare risks, here’s a data point about rifle homicide:

FBI Uniform Crime Reports, Table 20, Murder by State and Type of Weapon


All rifles combined together account for about 2.5% of reported homicides in the United States, making them the least misused of all classes of weapon in this country (behind handguns, shotguns, edged weapons, blunt objects, and fists/feet). Many states report zero rifle murders in any given year.

mcb August 3, 2012 11:16 AM

@ Alister William Macintyre

The primary purpose of the emergency exits is evacuation in the event of fire. Until now the about the only perceived value of keeping exit doors locked against entry was to prevent freeloaders from sneaking in. The value of preventing this sort of “theft of service” for most shows is pretty small, especially if the freeloader visits the concession stand. Post-Aurora theater proprietors will be expected to do something about propped exits. I predict door state sensors on emergency exits monitored by theater staff will become the new normal, but alarms or strobes that interfere with paying customers enjoying their movie, or which might be misinterpreted as a fire alarm, will not catch on.

kog999 August 3, 2012 11:30 AM

With the mask policy, I guess they are trying to prevent a masked gunman from shooting up the place. so they have a policy against masks. and yet if someone intends to shoot up the place the policy become unenforcable. i mean what do they expect a guy come in with a mask and start waving a gun around, and the cashier is gonna be like “excuse me sir we have a policy against masks i’m gonna have to ask you to take it off” and then the gunman is gonna be like “oh ok, sorry” that doesn’t make any sense. why not just have a policy against shooting people it would be just as effective.

Nofail August 3, 2012 12:13 PM

In a war you cannot spoof victory, the problem has to be really solved. A rare and horrific event is a cassus belli against its root causes. In the case of Aurora it is the arms free market and the access to violent media by influenceable persons wether mentally ill or retardated or too young. In some way psychiatrists should absolutely forbid their patient some tv shows or movies or books that amplify their illness. For 9/11 I think the root cause are deeply engaged but in the case of Aurora and other Columbine shootings it is against us-selves …

Chris B. August 3, 2012 12:51 PM

I am flabbergasted by the folks who think this is a gun control issue, who don’t seem to have processed the idea that he had an apartment full of explosives that would have leveled his building if someone had opened the door, as was the plan.

He could have caused at least as much death, if far less panic, by taking the explosives to the theater, instead of the guns, yes? And that’s not in a movie-plot sense; he had the explosives.

Daniel August 3, 2012 12:56 PM

I don’t always agree with you Bruce but I wanted to say in response to this particular post BRAVO!!

I am not afraid to criticize but I am also not afraid to acquit. This is a well written, cogent, and effective piece and it’s a credit to you and to the causes you find important.


Alister William Macintyre August 3, 2012 1:23 PM


I disagree with a lot of this. Exits from buildings are used by many people for many purposes, including emergency exit. Some buildings, such as hotels, have signs saying that the use of this exit will set off an alarm. At cinemas, it is common practice for some patrons to park in back, leave at end of movie, by going out the Exits, not the front door.

Many communities have laws against preventing the use of exits, which have led to many deaths in some fires, and other disasters. Based on volume of seating, there are often building codes requiring some number of exits, and lighting for them, which continues in a power outage.

When an exit is used normally, person pushes the bar, door opens, they exit, door closes behind them, and locks, so people cannot enter by the exit. What is unusual is for door to be propped open for ½ hour and building security oblivious to that fact.

No One August 3, 2012 1:24 PM

@Chris B.: So you movie-plot threat of bringing explosives to a movie theater is not a movie-plot threat because he had explosives to take to the movie theater where instead, in a movie-plot threat manner but in a decidedly not movie-plot threat manner because he actually did it at a movie theater he would shoot up the movie theater in a movie-plot threat like getup which he actually did and thus it is not a movie-plot threat getup since he did it at a movie theater oh dear I’ve gone cross-eyed.

Anon August 3, 2012 1:41 PM

Once again, Bruce makes the faulty assumption that we overreacted to 9/11 based on using outdated, pre-9/11 terrorism statistics and some strange implicit assumption that the probability of dying from terrorism can’t change over time.

Northern Realist August 3, 2012 2:42 PM

@Bruce – you mention the “overreaction” to events of 2001 and cite the various enacted security measures. I would auggest you have focused on the wrong “overreation” in this case… For many leaders in the government and law enforcement communities this was an opportunity to bring in legislation and security programs they could only have otherwise dreamt of. The real overreaction was the general public’s rush to embrace all these changes without question.

Dirk Praet August 3, 2012 3:40 PM

One of my cousins, who is in local law enforcement, has a very simple saying: “An idiot is an idiot. A gun is a gun. But an idiot with a gun becomes a dangerous idiot”. Aurora and other killing sprees are the unfortunate collateral damage of a society that has a high number of both. Lack of affordable mental health care, a disposition towards violence and a liberal gun legislation are nothing more than a reflection of societal values that are just as deeply embedded in American culture as corruption is in a country like Greece.

Daniel August 3, 2012 4:30 PM

No, I think you missed Bruce’s point Northern Realist. The public’s rush to embrace the legislation was precisely because the people pushing that legislation had a story to tell. And all the “facts” weren’t going to get in the way of that story.

The deeper question is why was the public so willing to embrace the “story” of safety. I’d argue that one of the common mistakes is to link it to the recency effect and ignore the primacy effect. The American public had been primed to buy a safety story for some time and there was plenty of evidence of the table that it would do so. I saw it. I simply got the magnitude wrong; I never thought it would be so strong for so long.

MingoV August 3, 2012 4:44 PM

“People tend to base risk analysis more on stories than on data.”

Which is why I recommend that high schools drop that unneeded second year of algebra and teach a year of probability and statistics for everyday life.

Anonymous10 August 3, 2012 6:07 PM


Based on a quick google search, it appears the US didn’t have any mass shootings, without any apparent motive, between 1966 and 1984. One killing spree of a couple of dozen people every 18 years is far below the noise floor for causes of death. Guns have been widespread in the US forever, so there’s not much to worry about unless you think the percentage of “idiots” is going up.

Larsen August 3, 2012 8:12 PM

What is unusual is for door to be propped open for ½ hour and building security oblivious to that fact.

Not really. I’ve seen doors propped open all day at (ostensibly) higher-security locations than movie theaters. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect a theater to even have a security staff. The worst problem that’s actually likely is that some rowdy people will sneak in and annoy the customers.

If you want to shoot up a theater, drive up to the entrance and walk in with some concealed weapons. An 80-year-old ticket checker might yell at you, but nobody will physically stop you, and nobody watching a movie will hear the commotion.

Clive Robinson August 4, 2012 2:27 AM

@ PeterA,

And what is a costume actually?

I’m sure nobbody realy “knows” it’s just one of those “If you see it you know it” type things.

However when it comes to “National Costume” the rule of,

“We will not allow any guests into our theatres in costumes that make other guests feel uncomfortable”

Might come in for a drubbing. There are many European ones that would freek out an American Movie Theater Audiance.

For instance men wearing tight leather shorts, other men wearing multi layered skirts and peticoats, Oh and my ancesters proper national costume of 9 yards of “broad cloth” the first few yards or so are pleated across the back and sides and wrapped around the natural waist with the remaining length going over and around the torso a black dagger stuck in the hose (sox) top and a very broad leather belt with various points on which to attach weapons to hold the broad cloth in place to make the traditional kilt (worn long before the Victorians tried to Anglisis the Scots).

Being over six foot six and wearing it I look very scary except to little children (why I have no idea other than they like pulling my beard and hair

Dirk Praet August 4, 2012 9:34 AM


Based on a quick google search, it appears the US didn’t have any mass shootings, without any apparent motive, between 1966 and 1984

That is only true if indeed you exclude domestic violence (James Ruppert, 1975) and political, racial or religion based shootings (Mark Essex, 1973). Then again, rampage killings with a death toll of 6 or more – even in the US – really are rare. That’s the point Bruce is making.

Killing sprees with a smaller number of casualties – as in people running amok in the traditional Malay sense – however seem to be way more common in the US than in most other countries. That is not to say that it is a USA-only phenomenon. Even in a peaceful country such as Belgium, we’ve had several high-profile cases of deeply disturbed youngsters committing unspeakable crimes. The best known is that of then 18-year old student Hans Van Themsche who with a Marlin 336W in 2006 shot three people in cold blood right around my corner, among which a 2-year old toddler and her pregnant nanny. In 2009, 20-year old Kim De Gelder (anagram for Ledger), wearing Joker make-up, stabbed to death 2 babies and a caretaker in a nursery, severely injuring 10 others and 2 more adults. A week earlier, he had already killed a senior citizen in her home.

A LEO who happened to be in the vicinity was able to take out Van Themsche, who acted out of racism and is currently serving a life sentence. The public outrage over this shooting prompted an immediate government response tightening gun control even further. It is generally believed that De Gelder, a psychiatric patient, because of this new legislation was unable to legally acquire a fire-arm the way Van Themsche had. Fortunately, he also lacked the connections to get one on the black market.

Although such events are extremely rare and any form of overreaction pretty much serves no purpose whatsoever, the fact of the matter remains that many more – including the LEO – would have been killed by Van Themsche had he been able to get his hands on an AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle like the one James Holmes used. I don’t even want to think of the utter massacre De Gelder would have committed in the nursery.

So I reiterate my position: an idiot is an idiot. A gun is a gun. But an idiot with a gun becomes a dangerous idiot. The extent to which you accept the collateral damage caused by lunatics with guns depends entirely on a countries societal values.

Anonymous10 August 4, 2012 11:53 AM


I deliberately excluded Essex. Even with extremely strict gun control in the UK, I doubt Irish paramilitary groups ever had much trouble obtaining firearms or in the absence of firearms causing mayhem in other equally or more devastating ways. Given the black vs. white racial tensions in the US at that time, it is only amazing that there weren’t more Essex type incidents.

bogdanb August 5, 2012 8:13 AM

I almost added that Holmes wouldn’t have been stopped by a metal detector. He walked into the theater unarmed, left through a back door, which he propped open so he could return armed.

Actually, AFAIK Holmes pretty much just wanted to shoot a lot of people. The inside of the theater probably felt like a nice spot for aesthetic reasons, but I’m pretty sure it’s easier to shoot a lot of people queuing to pass through the metal detector. Probably easier to escape (for a short while) afterwards, too. Hell, for a popular film you don’t even need the metal detector, there’s almost always a dense pack of people at the doors.

Nobody here remembers the lobby scene in the first Matrix? Neo and Trinity, each holding bags with enough weapons for a platoon, just pass through the metal detectors—which, of course, start beeping wildly—and then calmly proceed to shoot everyone. I know it’s a movie scenario, but if you don’t care all that much about surviving you don’t need super-powers to do the same, just a lot of guns and maybe some body armor.

RobS August 5, 2012 5:33 PM

I have a feeling that it is really hard to get people to grasp statistics and probability (lots of abstract symbol manipulation), if they haven’t grasped algebra.
I think that algebra is badly taught rather than unnecessary. It is possible that using statistics and probability from life to teach algebra might be a better approach if planned that way from the beginning/

Steve August 5, 2012 6:40 PM

While the odds of getting offed in a theater may be one in ten million, it doesn’t help much if you’re that one.

And, apropos of nothing but this comment, why does Firefox think “theater” is spelled wrong and “theatre” spelled correctly?

Figureitout August 5, 2012 10:26 PM

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve avoided an accident while driving and while biking/walking; all by being vigilant. You got to watch out for idiots…everywhere…all the time…

We’re all just one diabetic coma from a head-on collision…and which direction is the diabetes rate heading, I think it’s skyward! Bah!

Speller August 5, 2012 11:51 PM

Firefox spelling is a function of which dictionaries you have installed and/or selected. Right-click on text while editing, select Languages, chose your preferred dialect and/or “Add Dictionaries…” to download a different one.

mcb August 6, 2012 12:13 AM

@ Alister William Macintyre

What is unusual is for door to be propped open for ½ hour and building security oblivious to that fact.

Unless the doors were electronically monitored, and the system display was visible to someone who cared, and the audio was not muted, the odds that anyone noticed a propped exit was roughly zero. That’s if there are sensors in place. I left a modern theater last evening and checked the exit door frame – there were no recessed magnetic contacts. I’d put supervised contacts on every perimeter door on a movie theater but that’s the way I think (and did before Aurora). I wish it doesn’t surprise me that such ideas were not considered or were “value engineered” out of the design during construction. Even if door sensors are added to new facilities or retrofitted to existing theaters a door latch can be defeated with a patch of duct tape.

Ronnie Sahlberg August 6, 2012 4:43 AM


Why would movie theatres care about if people sneak in to watch the movie for free?
And why would they pay security to hire people to stop the free-loeaders?

Movie theatres make money on sales of candy, drinks and popcorn.
Any ticket sales go straight to the distributor or whatever, so no incentive whatsoever to stop this entry of free movie viewing.

You can sneak in easily to most any theatre for a free viewing, but you can NOT easily smuggle home made popcorn in.

tensor August 7, 2012 12:54 AM

As a math geek, my guess as to why the general public does not understand statistics is that they are highly counter-intuitive. It just seems impossible to (e.g.) predict how 100M voters will act, based on a sample of several thousand, but for most elections, that’s how it normally works (given random sample, etc.).

For speculation as to why this particular shooting evoked this reaction, we have kind of a “suspension of suspicion”, that Robert B mentioned, above. I once humorously described going to a movie (ironically enough, “Mystery Men”, a spoof of the superhero genre) as “sitting in the dark with a bunch of strangers.” For a movie such as the Batman series, the patron expects to be entertained by violence that is all on the screen. Having real violence erupt in the dark, stranger-filled space thus violates several mental “deals” the patron made when buying the ticket.

Clive Robinson August 7, 2012 1:13 AM

@ RobS

I think that algebra is badly taught rather than unnecessary. It is possible that using statistics and probability from life to teach algebra might be a better approach if planned that way from the beginning

The problem with algebra is it’s usually to abstract and the teacher either does not or is not allowed to go through it sufficiently for the children to get a good grip. This failing usually starts right at the begining even before simple addition and goes down hill from there on in (which might explain a lot about maths education).

Now in some schools early on if the teacher has got the kids to get a good grip on the subject they are often keen to learn and I know of one class where the six year olds not only knew their basic maths but had quite a good grip on basic probability and statistics and even had a grip on information entropy (which very few adults ever do even though it’s quite a simple concept when and only when it’s explained in the right way).

The first part that is difficult though it should be easy is explaining what the letters are actually. I’m very surprised that children understand the difference between “A dog” and a particular dog “scruffy” almost implicitly yet don’t translate it to numbers.

I guess it’s been a problem for a long time as anyone reading the works of Lewis Caroll should be aware from the nomenclature used by the White Night for “Haddocks’ Eyes”


Sushil August 7, 2012 5:58 PM

In India they have had metal detectors at movie theaters for at least a couple years now. They also have metal detectors at shopping malls, 5-star hotels, and some other public places.

It makes no sense to me because any potential shooters could just shoot their way past the metal detectors, they are not barricades.

NZ August 8, 2012 4:34 AM


What about cosplaying G-Man?


Actually, while being more or less pro-gun, I do think the percentage of “idiots” is going up, and not only in the US.

American English vs British English?

@Clive Robinson

I feel that basic probability is more or less obvious, while statistics tends to be quite counter-intuitive.

Offtopic “it’s quite a simple concept when and only when it’s explained in the right way” — absolutely brilliant! May I borrow the phrase (with all the proper references)? 🙂

jason August 12, 2012 8:04 AM

Wouldn’t the sensible policy be to put security alarms on the emergency exits? How many times have friends let their friends sneak into a movie by letting them enter the emergency door. If that door is being used, it not only makes business sense, but security sense to have staff immediately check out the situation. Perhaps there is really an emergency, some shenanigans, or a security threat in progress. Seems to me a lot more pragmatic than banning costumes or setting up metal detectors.

Jon August 15, 2012 5:18 PM

What if more ordinary risks all raised just a point or two. We are so very vulnerable to rural wildfires started with cigarettes and matches and whatever, utility poles both local and long haul, and also just junk on railroad tracks. It is only time until these Aurora type people figure that out and have real damage. Is fear of that so far fetched?

Tristan Ward November 28, 2012 6:18 PM

This article has helped me so much on a paper i was writing comparing the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, to a modern case in which people overreaction

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