This is a sign I could not resist taking a picture of while exiting a restaurant on my recent trip to California. I am not sure whether I would have ate any differently had I seen this picture before entering the restaurant (maybe they should say a little more on what foods are dangerous?). The sign seems to be aimed at creating fear without providing any real information. It reminded me of the topic of risk assessment and how people go about making decisions.

People are generally very poor at making risk assessments. For example, some people are very afraid to swim in the ocean because of a fear of being bitten by a shark. There are thousands of people swimming in the water at any given moment of the day and there are on average 3 or 4 shark attacks a year. A person who is afraid of swimming in the ocean because of a fear of a shark attack is greatly overestimating the probability of a shark attack. There is actually a much greater chance of being killed in an automobile crash on the way to the beach than there is of being bitten by a shark.

The more grisly the image of the feared event, the more likely one will make a mistake in overestimating the probability of the event happening. For example, being in an airplane crash is a very frightening image. Being swallowed by an alligator is also very vivid.

Gary Becker, a well-known economist, put it very succintly in discussing the fear of flying:

“The terrorist plot to blow up from 7-10 planes with liquid explosives will once again increase the fear of flying. After the 9/11 horrendous attacks, U.S. domestic air travel was down by over 10 per cent for two years, and international travel on American airlines declined much further. The magnitude of this response went far beyond what could be explained by either the increased objective risk of flying or the greater time spent going through security. For even assuming that 3 planes a year on American airlines continued to be exploded by suicide bombers, air travel would still be a lot safer than traveling by car and bus, two major alternatives to air travel.”

Another factor in our risk assessment is our exposure to the feared stimulus. That is, the less exposure we have to the feared stimulus, the more we will be afraid of it. I believe one of the reasons we don’t overestimate the risk of being in a grisly car accident is because we are frequently in cars. By constant exposure to a feared stimulus, we make more accurate risk assessments (probably most people who surf daily have little fear of sharks).

People with anxiety have specific difficulties with risk assessment. For example, someone with social anxiety estimates the odds of making a social blunder much higher than is actually so. Asking someone with social anxiety the likelihood they will make a social blunder will be much higher than someone without social anxiety (Paradoxically, by avoiding social interactions they reduce their chance of practicing social skills and maybe actually increase the risk of social blunder.) A proven treatment for social anxiety (or other anxieties) consists of learning more about actually risks, so that a person can make better estimates of the actual risks involved. It also includes exposing him or her to the feared stimulus. With repeated exposure to what a person fears, he or she will become less anxious in those situations.