Risk Perception: Why We Worry About Shark Attacks, Not Car Crashes

Posted on November 2, 2017

“I don’t think you appreciate the gut reaction people have to these things, Martin– it’s all psychological. You yell ‘Barracuda,’ everybody says ‘Huh? What?’ You yell ‘Shark,’ we’ve got a panic on our hands.”
—Mayor Larry Vaughn, Jaws

Our perceptions of risk don’t always match reality. Most people know that the risk of being attacked by a shark is infinitesimally small, yet our perceptions of risk don’t just depend on logically crunching the numbers.
According to statistics from the International Shark Attack File, there were only 72 confirmed cases of unprovoked shark attacks worldwide in 2014. In contrast, the World Health Organization estimates that over a million people will die each year in car accidents. To put that in perspective, the risk of an untimely encounter with a shark is 1 in 3,748,067 while the lifetime risk of dying in a car crash is a staggering 1 in 84.

Intense media coverage of (rare) shark attacks, as well as vivid scenes from Shark Week and movies like Jaws, stoke our fear of bloodthirsty great whites rather than more deadly, but mundane, hazards like driving without a seatbelt.

Our flawed perceptions of risk don’t stop at the beach. A team of psychological scientists from the University of Waikato in New Zealand—Samuel Charlton, Nicola Starkey, John Perrone, and Robert Isler—carefully examined drivers’ accuracy at judging risk, concluding that we often misjudge the real danger on the road. This is highly important because “since the earliest days of research into driver behavior, it has been reported that drivers modify their behavior according to the risk they perceive,” the research team writes.

“Unfortunately, drivers do not always accurately perceive hazards and risks, and as a result, their behavior may not be appropriate to the circumstances.” The researchers’ study found that, overall, the drivers’ risk assessments matched up well with the official objective risk scores. However, there were a few key exceptions: People consistently underrated the riskiness of intersections, ditches, and poles near the road.

The research team suspects that people assessed risk based on whether a hazard could directly cause a crash, rather than whether it could affect the severity of a crash. Therefore, oncoming traffic or low visibility were accurately assessed as risky, while poles and ditches on the side of the road were almost completely ignored.

“As noted by earlier researchers, roads with low perceived risk may actually contribute to higher levels of objective risk because drivers are not taking due care at these locations,” the research team concludes.


Category(s):Fear, Other

Source material from Psychological Science


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