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:


So, 51% of respondents currently are very or somewhat worried. Let’s run some numbers. The current U.S. population is 324 million ( 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.

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

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