THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
by Barry Edelson
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The Chronic vs. the Acute

Why do we overreact to alarming but rare risks while ignoring mundane but likelier ones?

 

1

In 1979, a six-year-old boy was abducted from a street in Manhattan and never seen alive again. By the time his case was finally solved, nearly four decades later, Etan Patz had long been presumed dead. Rather than the mythical "closure" that justice is reputed to bring to the families of victims and to society at large, the conviction of a man for the boy's kidnapping and murder failed to heal the open wound left by this heart-breaking episode. Perhaps it had festered too long in the public consciousness to simply fade away. The Patz case continues to be a deeply felt tragedy that arouses outrage, sorrow and anxiety in equal measures.

The New York of the late 1970s was a decidedly different place from the city we know today. There was a palpable sense of decline then, a conviction that the city had already been going downhill for many years and that its further descent into insolvency, filth and lawlessness was inevitable. As a resident of the Lower East Side when this crime took place, I, like many other New Yorkers, lived with the daily terror of unsafe neighborhoods and harrowing subways. We hurried down many a poorly lit street in the late hours in fear for our safety. The Patz disappearance was especially horrible because it involved a young child, but it fit into an expectation of criminality that had long infected the minds of New Yorkers of the period. It did not feel like an anomaly but rather like something that was bound to happen sooner or later. Rough times in a rough city — what else can you expect?

In a classic instance of the cure being worse than the disease, this case ignited a decade or more of extreme anxiety about the safety of children. Inexplicably, this anxiety was not confined to big cities, where such concerns seemed justifiable, but spread into the suburbs and beyond. Child safety became a national obsession, inspiring countless news articles and television reports. The overuse of the term "witch hunt" in recent years has dulled its impact, but we lived through a period in which a mere accusation of child abuse was tantamount to a guilty verdict in the court of public opinion. The most egregious overreaction occurred in pre-schools, where a series of exposés ruined the lives of many adults accused of crimes. This excess of concern infected popular culture, as well. One loses count of the novels we read and movies we watched in which an adult character "discovered", through a course of intensive psychotherapy, that he or she had been abused as a child. This outpouring of suppressed memories led otherwise sensible people to wonder whether they, too, had been abused but had merely buried the recollection in their unconscious.

It is likely that many of the accused were actually guilty, and that many of the victims really did suffer a terrible trauma. But because such a wide net was cast, it is impossible to be sure. Instead of passing thoughtful laws to distinguish between serious felonies and regrettable misdemeanors, we passed hysterical ones that built careers for district attorneys and other politicians but did little to address the underlying issues. We will never know whether the number of cases of actual abuse that were successfully adjudicated was greater than the number of lives needlessly ruined by false accusations. Someone needs to explain how putting a teenage couple who had a consensual relationship on a list of sex offenders (for life) helps to prevent a single case of child sex abuse. Overkill eventually breeds indifference, and stories of submerged memories and overzealous prosecutors ultimately became the subject not of sympathy but mockery. Thus many of the guilty have gone unpunished, and many of the suffering have gotten no justice. [The child sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church, which came to light many years after this episode, and for which there is overwhelming evidence, is a different matter entirely.]

children playing in the park
Get these kids inside where we can watch them

Sadly, this response to the Patz case was largely without justification. There is no evidence that child abductions and murders were on the rise even at that time of higher crime rates. In fact, the evidence is all on the other side. There has seldom been a safer era in which to be a child, a trend that has been steady over the last 40 years. And yet, all over America, tens of millions of parents now rarely let their children out of their sight. Certainly acts of violence against children are committed, and must be sheer agony for the families affected, but it is not now nor has ever been the widespread plague that was depicted in the aftermath of the Patz incident. After 30 years in public education, I can't recall a single case of a child being abducted in this suburban region, nor does anyone else I know who works in the field. Nonetheless, it's been decades since most kids around here have been allowed to play outside beyond the boundaries of their own backyards. At the age of 14, in a supposedly much more dangerous era, I regularly clocked 20 or 30 miles on my bicycle on a nice spring Sunday (without a helmet, no less). Now, a boy or girl walking alone from his or her house to a nearby park prompts calls to 911.

The power of the anecdote, true or not, to influence mass thinking cannot be overstated. Statistical evidence is complicated, difficult to gather, easy to manipulate, and open to interpretation. We are a story-telling species, and so we find stories compelling, the facts be damned.

2

We are profoundly affected by a plane crash involving hundreds of perfect strangers — an exceedingly rare event, in statistical terms — than by tens of thousands of deaths in car accidents each year. Similarly, we are aroused to action by mass shootings but pay little notice to the many thousands of "ordinary" gun deaths annually in domestic incidents and suicides. Fiery plane crashes and massacres are indeed horrific events, and strictly to be avoided, but so are head-on collisions and individual gunshot wounds to the head. Yet somehow a slow drip of bad news cannot compete for our attention against the sudden eruption of appalling violence.

Our bias in favor of the acute over the chronic is well documented by social scientists. Researchers like the psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, among others, long ago identified biases in human thinking that cannot be explained by rational thought processes. They are best known for prospect theory, which proposes that people are more inclined to avoid loss than to seek gain. They found that our assessment of risk in a given situation is influenced more strongly by the fear of being harmed, taken advantage of, or just looking foolish than by the likelihood that we will come out on top. This means that a thoughtful analysis of competing factors is less likely to influence our decisions or attitudes than a powerful story that makes us feel comfortable about ourselves and our choices. If we recognize our own experience in the telling, so much the better; the truth is not particularly relevant. (Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in Economics for this research.)

We do not ignore mundane events simply because we become accustomed to them, but because chronic misfortunes, even if potentially deadly, do not fill us with dread in quite the same way that extraordinary incidents do. Commonplace tragedies typically do not change our thinking very much (unless we know one of the victims, perhaps). Do you know anyone who refuses to ride in a car because of the number of motor vehicle fatalities that happen every day? Probably not, but we all probably know people who won't step onto an airplane because of the crashes they have heard about. Though we think we can explain such fears in psychological terms — for example, a general feeling of anxiety may convince us to avoid a specific, if unrelated, fear-inducing activity — it still does not explain why such anxiety is triggered by an airplane, on which accidents are relatively rare, but not by an automobile, in which they are very common.

Kahneman and Tversky may argue that for the fearful flyer, the consequences of flying outweigh the benefits. Fear of loss (a catastrophic accident) beats the prospect of a tangible reward (getting somewhere quickly). For most people who do not need to fly regularly, avoiding airline flights is a plausible reaction to their fear, and therefore a psychologically plausible way for the fear to manifest itself. Avoiding car rides, however, would make life extremely inconvenient for all but the most committed urban dwellers, who can get almost everywhere they need to go on foot (even at the risk of being killed by a car as a pedestrian, which is not zero). For some people who fear public places altogether, living as a recluse is probably a plausible psychological response to a fear of cars. But this is not an option, practically or psychologically, for most people. Therefore, we drive not because the thought of driving does not paralyze us with fear. Rather, we are not paralyzed with fear because we cannot live without driving. We do not normally assess the risks of one activity versus another in any systematic way, nor do we pursue an exhaustive quest for objective truth in every decision we make. We are simply inclined to react in ways that makes us feel less insecure as we go about our business.

And so a story that justifies an existing anxiety is much more likely to keep us from a potentially hazardous situation — for example, swimming in the ocean because there might be sharks, or letting the children play on their own because there might be predators — than a rational analysis of statistical evidence is likely to overcome our misgivings. We may not be entirely immune to persuasion, but no amount of reasoned discourse will dispel a deeply held fear. Even when we realize that we are overreacting and that our behavior is irrational, we are often unable to do anything about it. We are hard-wired for reaction, and conditioned by a lifetime of experience. Doing nothing in the face of danger is not an option, even when the danger is exaggerated and the best course of action would be no action at all. There may be greater dangers lurking around the corner, but a persistent risk that has become familiar is no match for the drama screaming from today's headlines.

 

December 11, 2019

 

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All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.