Mass Media, Behavioral Psychology, and the Politics of Irrational Fear

bryceplattBlog, Communication, Media, Musings, PsychologyLeave a Comment

The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) recently conducted a poll of the U.S. public. One question asked was this: “How worried are you that you or someone in your family will be a victim of terrorism?”. The changing results over the past two years are graphed below:
figure2_Artboard-1

SOURCES: http://www.prri.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/PRRI-The-Atlantic-Poll-Topline-FINAL.pdf
http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/fixgov/posts/2016/06/25-immigration-campaign-2016-trump-racial-resentment-mcelvein

So, 51% of respondents currently are very or somewhat worried. Let’s run some numbers. The current U.S. population is 324 million (https://www.census.gov/popclock/). In the 13 years (2002-2014) for which data is available since 9/11, there were 156 U.S. fatalities worldwide, or 12 annually, due to terrorism (Source). Let’s make a generous assumption that “you or someone in your family” comprises on average 20 Americans. If these figures are projected into the future, there is a 1 in 1.35 million chance of such an event occurring in any given year, a 1 in 27,000 chance of it occurring over the next 50 years. If the incidence of fatalities increases 100-fold, and if non-fatal injuries equal the number of terrorist fatalities, there remains less than a 1% chance (1 in 135) of you or someone in your family being injured or killed by a terrorist attack sometime over the next 50 years — and even that remote possibility decreases to the extent the U.S. population continues to increase. One should worry more about an attack from Martians.

QUESTION:
Given the empirical unlikelihood, what explains such fear of imminent terrorist risk?

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