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Archive for April, 2009

One of the big criticisms after 9-11 was that terrorist attacks, while horrifying, were a lot less likely to kill you than mundane occurrences like car accidents and smoking.  In general people fixate on the newsworthy rather than the everyday risks in life because your more likely to hear about the former and more likely to fixate on it. Bruce Schneier has articulated this quite well:

I tell people that if it’s in the news, don’t worry about it. The very definition of “news” is “something that hardly ever happens.” It’s when something isn’t in the news, when it’s so common that it’s no longer news — car crashes, domestic violence — that you should start worrying.

Additionally, the very horrific nature of specific events makes us incorrectly assess the risk due to anchoring:

Anchoring and adjustment is a psychological heuristic that influences the way people intuitively assess probabilities. According to this heuristic, people start with an implicitly suggested reference point (the “anchor”) and make adjustments to it to reach their estimate.

An audience is first asked to write the last 2 digits of their social security number, and, second, to submit mock bids on items such as wine and chocolate. The half of the audience with higher two-digit numbers would submit bids that were between 60 percent and 120 percent higher than those of the other half, far higher than a chance outcome; the simple act of thinking of the first number strongly influences the second, even though there is no logical connection between them.

Lethal is an iPhone app designed to combat this irrationality – based on your current location it gives information about the relative likelyhood of different types of lethal events:

Want to know everything in your area which poses a threat? LETHAL uses auto-location to deliver information you need to be on your guard. Find out more about the dangers which could surround you — the hostile animals, the likelihood of crimes, the prevalence of disease, and the potential accidents and disasters.

Drawing from a proprietary database compiling information from government and academic statistics and research, LETHAL offers information on 650 locations in the US and Canada.

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