What Does It Take To Feel Secure?

Computer security expert Bruce Schneier says there’s a big difference between feeling secure and actually being secure. He explains why we worry about unlikely dangers while ignoring more probable risks.

Listen to the Audio on NPR.org



It’s the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I’m Guy Raz. And on the show today, we’re exploring ideas about Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, and ranked at number two, security – the second step on the pyramid.

BRUCE SCHNEIER: There’s no other place for it to come. Security is basic. Without security, worrying about anything else doesn’t matter.

RAZ: This is Bruce Schneier.

SCHNEIER: Schneier rhymes with frequent flyer. I’m a security technologist. I write. I speak. I have a company. I do research.

RAZ: And Bruce thinks about security in a much bigger way than just through the prism of technology. He thinks about the psychology of security and fear.

SCHNEIER: If you can’t trust that a hundred unrelated people could get together in a room and not kill each other, I mean, you’re not going to build a society. But we do that all the time.

RAZ: Right.

SCHNEIER: I mean, we watch a movie. We watch a sporting event. We have dinner. That’s because we generally feel secure in our society and can act that way. Security is immediate. Security is personal. Security is survival. And until that need is met, other things are less important.

RAZ: But when it comes to security, Bruce says we humans, we have a problem because in the modern world, we are not good at estimating just how secure we should feel. Here’s how Bruce explained it from the TED stage.


SCHNEIER: So security is two different things, right? It’s a feeling, and it’s a reality. And they’re different. You could feel secure even if you’re not, and you can be secure even if you don’t feel it. And really, we have two separate concepts mapped onto the same word. So if you look at security from economic terms, it’s a trade-off. Every time you get some security, you’re always trading off something. And whether this is a personal decision, whether you’re going to install a burglar alarm in your home, or a national decision, whether you’re going to invade some foreign country, you’re going to trade off something – either money or time, convenience, capabilities, maybe fundamental liberties. So you’d think that us, as a successful species on the planet – right? – you, me, everybody – would be really good at making these trade-offs. Yet it seems again and again that we’re hopelessly bad at it, right? And I think that’s a fundamentally interesting question. I’ll give you the short answer. The answer is, we respond to the feeling of security and not the reality.


SCHNEIER: We estimate the probability of something by how easy it is to bring instances of it to mind. So you get to imagine how that works. If you hear a lot about tiger attacks, there must a lot of tigers around. You don’t hear about lion attacks; there aren’t a lot of lions around. This works until you invent newspapers because what newspapers do is they repeat, again and again, rare risks. I tell people, if it’s in the news, don’t worry about it because by definition, news is something that almost never happens.


SCHNEIER: Right – when something is so common it’s no longer news. Car crashes, domestic violence – those are the risks you worry about.

RAZ: OK, you’re talking about rationality – responding to risks in a reasonable way. I mean, I get that, but like, once I had children, right, there was this feeling that would come over me – it still does pretty much every day – which is, are they OK? I mean, is everything OK? And I get that that’s irrational.

SCHNEIER: It is. And they are always OK. It’s kind of neat.

RAZ: But the thing is is that if something happened, its – I think it’s, like, the fear of the possibility of something possibly happening that could possibly go wrong that could be…

SCHNEIER: It’s worst-case thinking.

RAZ: Yeah.

SCHNEIER: I mean, worst-case thinking I think is incredibly dangerous, incredibly damaging. But, you know, we are creative people, you know? When you ask us the worst case, we can come up with all kinds of great stories.

RAZ: Yes.

SCHNEIER: And all the things we watch – the movies, the TV shows – they tend to be about worst-case stuff. You know, we sort of like watching other people’s disasters. I mean, we want it to become OK in the end, but you know, we don’t tend to watch people’s normal days where nothing happens. We watch the extremes. And then, you know, we think extremes are more normal.

RAZ: But there are people who spend a good part of their lives in these extreme, insecure situations – places like war zones or, you know, places where people are competing for resources – and that becomes normal to them. So I mean, can people survive and thrive in a situation that is fundamentally insecure?

SCHNEIER: People can thrive to the extent they can, but you will generally find smaller communities. You’ll find shorter-range plans. You’ll find less-complex systems of everything because that’s all you can do. You’re not going to worry about whether you’re happy or not if you’re constantly under the threat of attack – that until you’re secure, happiness or not isn’t really relevant to you.


SCHNEIER: So let me complicate things, right? I have feeling and reality. I want to add a third element. I want to add model. Right, so feeling is based on our intuition. Model is based on reason. In a modern and complex world, you need models to understand a lot of the risk we face. You know, there’s no feeling about germs. You need a model to understand them.

Models can come from the media, from our elected officials. Think of models of terrorism, child kidnapping, airline safety, right? So models can change, right? Models are not static. You know, an example – a great example is the risk to smoking. In the history of the past 50 years, the smoking risk shows how a model changes. It also shows how an industry fights against a model it doesn’t like. I mean, really, though, information seems like our best hope.


SCHNEIER: We have the ability, as thinking human beings, to overcome our fears.

RAZ: But this goes back to, as you said in your TED Talk, feeling secure rather than being secure. And isn’t feeling secure – isn’t it just as important?

SCHNEIER: It is just as important. And this is where our brains kick in, that we are smart enough as a species to recognize that we can get over some of our primal urges.


SCHNEIER: But the goal isn’t to become unfeeling Vulcans. The goal is to integrate our feeling in reality.

RAZ: Bruce Schneier has written about this in a book called "Data And Goliath." You can see his whole talk at ted.com.

Categories: Audio, Recorded Interviews, Written Interviews

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.