Why People Are Over-Reacting to the Midnight Movie Massacre (Mathematically Speaking)

For the last two years I was employed as a contractor for the Department of Homeland Security with the official title of “Risk Analyst.” Along with a team of complete and total geniuses (no hyperbole), we were tasked with investigating risks to United States citizens from terrorism, transnational crimes and natural hazards. And after putting together a detailed report outlining exactly where our nation’s dollars should be spent to get the most protection possible, it was promptly thrown out because it didn’t match up with what the bureaucrats were expecting. And the reason for that is their perception of risk, which is the same reason that people are about to over react to the recent events in Colorado . . .

Risk is a simple thing to understand mathematically, but massively complex to apply. The formula is very straightforward:

Risk = Threat x Vulnerability x Consequence

Where:

  • Threat = The probability of being attacked in a specific manner
  • Vulnerability = The probability of the attack being successful GIVEN that it is in the process of happening
  • Consequence = The bad stuff that happens if you are attacked successfully

Naturally this is very easy to apply with things like economic losses, but when you start adding people into the equation it gets messy. We start coming across questions such as “what is the value of a human life?” Which if you’re the U.S. Government is somewhere around $6 million, by the way. But mostly I prefer to keep dollars and lives separate in my analyses. Enough about that, back to the point at hand.

If you’re doing a straight analysis of terrorism events (and I would classify the Colorado shooting in that category), you quickly see that even based on open source information, the risk is extremely low. The actual number of initiations per year for terrorism events is classified, but we can safely assume that the majority of foiled terrorism plots are immediately paraded in front of the media.

So, MAYBE one or two legitimate initiations a year (threat). And since the news isn’t constantly filled with reports of terrorist attacks, it’s a safe bet that the vast and overwhelming majority are foiled (vulnerability). The issue is that a successful attack would be devastating (think nuke over Manhattan) (consequence).

Terrorism is what we call a “low probability, high consequence event.” It will almost never happen, but when it does, the consequences are unthinkable. But because of the low probability the actual risk from terrorist attacks is extremely low.

Let’s scale this down to a personal level from a national level.

For the individual, the biggest consequence of concern to you is the lives of you and your family. Even if you’re a sad, lonesome single man like me that goes to the movies alone, your life is your biggest concern. Whereas the government has to be concerned with a great number of lives, all you really care about is the lives of your immediate family.

There are a great number of scenarios which may result in the loss of you life. Like an airplane crash. Or a car accident. Or a house fire. Or a mass shooting. And while there may be differing levels of threat and vulnerability for these events, the upper boundary of the consequence remains the same: you could die. So while governments are also concerned about loss of life, the reality is that there is no real upper bound for death tolls for attacks but there is a definite “hard ceiling” for the death of your family.

Which means that when assessing the risk to you and yours, the only logical approach is that the probability of the event happening dictates how concerned you are about that particular scenario, since the consequence side of the equation is constantly pegged at the top of the scale. You should be looking for high probability scenarios first and worrying about those in order of probability.

But it’s not, and people don’t.

While the eventual outcome is the same, what really drives people’s level of concern over a particular scenario is how novel and terrifying the experience prior to the death (not that you’d remember it). People are used to the idea of dying in a terrible car accident or burning to death in a house fire, but mass shootings are typically a more concerning scenario and therefore perceived as a higher risk despite the facts at hand.

For example, for the United States:

100 people PER DAY die in car accidents (source).

2,640 people PER YEAR die from house fires (source).

167 people died from mass shootings… in the last DECADE (source).

From a straight analytic standpoint, there’s no reason to be concerned about mass shootings. None whatsoever. The probability that you will be involved is so small that my calculator switches to scientific notation when I try to compute it.

But people will still be concerned.

It’s human nature to place a higher value on a scary death than a normal death. So while the final result is the same (your untimely demise) the difference in how you get there is the differentiating factor. What we’re dealing with is an emotional reaction to a situation rather than a logical reaction and that’s something that people don’t understand and don’t want to face.

The primary reason that people are finding this scary is that they don’t have control over that situation. People fear plane accidents more than car accidents because they’re not the ones in control of the aircraft. Its the same for other “random” events like terrorism and mass shootings. We’re perfectly happy driving ourselves of a cliff to a gruesome death, but when our lives are in someone else’s hands we begin to fear that situation.

This exact same reaction has led to our government throwing their money away on ridiculous expenditures to make sure that low probability, low consequence risks don’t happen (because they’re scary to the handful of people that would die) rather than spending money on minor improvements that would drastically reduce high probability high consequence risks. It’s the same reaction that fuels every post-massacre response from the government.

So what does that mean for those of us who understand the relative risks? It means that we have an uphill battle to fight against the emotional response of those who are overly concerned about this scenario, and generally facts and numbers don’t do any good. They will keep seeing themselves in that scenario and become more and more afraid.

I don’t have a solution to this problem. If I did I wouldn’t have quit my job in frustration at seeing my work going unused. But hopefully if we are persistent enough we can make them understand as well, and let them stop living in fear.