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How the Media Influences Our Fear of Terrorism

Good article that crunches the data and shows that the press’s coverage of terrorism is disproportional to its comparative risk.

This isn’t new. I’ve written about it before, and wrote about it more generally when I wrote about the psychology of risk, fear, and security. Basically, the issue is the availability heuristic. We tend to infer the probability of something by how easy it is to bring examples of the thing to mind. So if we can think of a lot of tiger attacks in our community, we infer that the risk is high. If we can’t think of many lion attacks, we infer that the risk is low. But while this is a perfectly reasonable heuristic when living in small family groups in the East African highlands in 100,000 BC, it fails in the face of modern media. The media makes the rare seem more common by spending a lot of time talking about it. It’s not the media’s fault. By definition, news is “something that hardly ever happens.” But when the coverage of terrorist deaths exceeds the coverage of homicides, we have a tendency to mistakenly inflate the risk of the former while discount the risk of the latter.

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.

It’s not just murders. It’s flying vs. driving: the former is much safer, but the latter is more spectacular when it occurs.

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Confusing Security Risks with Moral Judgments

Interesting research that shows we exaggerate the risks of something when we find it morally objectionable.

From an article about and interview with the researchers:

To get at this question experimentally, Thomas and her collaborators created a series of vignettes in which a parent left a child unattended for some period of time, and participants indicated the risk of harm to the child during that period. For example, in one vignette, a 10-month-old was left alone for 15 minutes, asleep in the car in a cool, underground parking garage. In another vignette, an 8-year-old was left for an hour at a Starbucks, one block away from her parent’s location.

To experimentally manipulate participants’ moral attitude toward the parent, the experimenters varied the reason the child was left unattended across a set of six experiments with over 1,300 online participants. In some cases, the child was left alone unintentionally (for example, in one case, a mother is hit by a car and knocked unconscious after buckling her child into her car seat, thereby leaving the child unattended in the car seat). In other cases, the child was left unattended so the parent could go to work, do some volunteering, relax or meet a lover.

Not surprisingly, the parent’s reason for leaving a child unattended affected participants’ judgments of whether the parent had done something immoral: Ratings were over 3 on a 10-point scale even when the child was left unattended unintentionally, but they skyrocketed to nearly 8 when the parent left to meet a lover. Ratings for the other cases fell in between.

The more surprising result was that perceptions of risk followed precisely the same pattern. Although the details of the cases were otherwise the same -­ that is, the age of the child, the duration and location of the unattended period, and so on -­ participants thought children were in significantly greater danger when the parent left to meet a lover than when the child was left alone unintentionally. The ratings for the other cases, once again, fell in between. In other words, participants’ factual judgments of how much danger the child was in while the parent was away varied according to the extent of their moral outrage concerning the parent’s reason for leaving.

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Obama Says Terrorism Is Not an Existential Threat

In an interview this week, President Obama said that terrorism does not pose an existential threat:

What I do insist on is that we maintain a proper perspective and that we do not provide a victory to these terrorist networks by overinflating their importance and suggesting in some fashion that they are an existential threat to the United States or the world order. You know, the truth of the matter is that they can do harm. But we have the capacity to control how we respond in ways that do not undercut what’s the — you know, what’s essence of who we are.

He said something similar in January.

On one hand, what he said is blindingly obvious; and overinflating terrorism’s risks plays into the terrorists’ hands. Climate change is an existential threat. So is a comet hitting the earth, intelligent robots taking over the planet, and genetically engineered viruses. There are lots of existential threats to humanity, and we can argue about their feasibility and probability. But terrorism is not one of them. Even things that actually kill tens of thousands of people each year — car accidents, handguns, heart disease — are not existential threats.

But no matter how obvious this is, until recently it hasn’t been something that serious politicians have been able to say. When Vice President Biden said something similar last year, one commentary carried the headline “Truth or Gaffe?” In 2004, when presidential candidate John Kerry gave a common-sense answer to a question about the threat of terrorism, President Bush used those words in an attack ad. As far as I know, these comments by Obama and Biden are the first time major politicians are admitting that terrorism does not pose an existential threat and are not being pilloried for it.

Overreacting to the threat is still common, and exaggeration and fear still make good politics. But maybe now, a dozen years after 9/11, we can finally start having rational conversations about terrorism and security: what works, what doesn’t, what’s worth it, and what’s not.

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Common Risks in America: Cars and Guns

I have long said that driving a car is the most dangerous thing regularly do in our lives. Turns out deaths due to automobiles are declining, while deaths due to firearms are on the rise:

Guns and cars have long been among the leading causes of non-medical deaths in the U.S. By 2015, firearm fatalities will probably exceed traffic fatalities for the first time, based on data compiled by Bloomberg.

While motor-vehicle deaths dropped 22 percent from 2005 to 2010, gun fatalities are rising again after a low point in 2000, according to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Shooting deaths in 2015 will probably rise to almost 33,000, and those related to autos will decline to about 32,000, based on the 10-year average trend.

There’s also this story.

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Survey on What Americans Fear

Interesting data:

Turning to the crime section of the Chapman Survey on American Fears, the team discovered findings that not only surprised them, but also those who work in fields pertaining to crime.

“What we found when we asked a series of questions pertaining to fears of various crimes is that a majority of Americans not only fear crimes such as, child abduction, gang violence, sexual assaults and others; but they also believe these crimes (and others) have increased over the past 20 years,” said Dr. Edward Day who led this portion of the research and analysis. “When we looked at statistical data from police and FBI records, it showed crime has actually decreased in America in the past 20 years. Criminologists often get angry responses when we try to tell people the crime rate has gone down.”

Despite evidence to the contrary, Americans do not feel like the United States is becoming a safer place. The Chapman Survey on American Fears asked how they think prevalence of several crimes today compare with 20 years ago. In all cases, the clear majority of respondents were pessimistic; and in all cases Americans believe crime has at least remained steady. Crimes specifically asked about were: child abduction, gang violence, human trafficking, mass riots, pedophilia, school shootings, serial killing and sexual assault.

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