Risk and Worry

December 18, 2015
Posted by Jay Livingston

At age four, my son and his friend at pre-school thought it was great fun after pick-up to run down the sidewalk and hide just around the corner on the stoop at the front of a Japanese restaurant. The other boy’s mother would invariably get upset. “No, Alexander. Stop,” she would shout and then run after them.

“Janet,” I said once, “How many kidnappers are there in New York? And what are the chances that one of them is waiting at 11:47 today at the southeast corner of 69th and Broadway?”

I could tell that this mollified her only slightly. This was before Google. The World Wide Web was in its infancy. I could not easily look up the actual numbers. But I’d read Joel Best on Halloween sadism, and I knew that these numbers had to be small.  Of the tens of millions of kids in the US, maybe 100 abductions by strangers each year.

Alexander’s mother was not so unusual, then or now. A recent Pew survey (here) asked parents about their worries concerning their children.

Even among middle-class parents,* four out of nine worry about kidnapping. I would blame this inflated fear on the media, but the Internet and TV do not bring us daily stories about kidnappings. Besides, if the eleven o’clock news were the source of our perceptions of danger, we’d all be terrified that our homes will be consumed by fire.

But what about the fear that your child will be shot? I was surprised that so many high-income parents – more than one in five – worried about shootings. And among the poor, more parents are worried that their kids will be shot than that they will have problems with drugs or alcohol. The constant stream of stories in both the national and local news media along with the consequent debate over gun control – the frequent mass shootings, the statements from the president; I don’t know the evidence, but I would expect that these elevate parents’ perceptions  and fears.

Pew did not ask about serious or fatal injury from accidents, a much greater risk than either kidnapping or shooting, but I would guess that fewer parents would say that they worry about these. Parents are not actuaries, and in any case worrying is not the same as estimating risk. Parental worry probably involves some combination of probability, seriousness, strangeness, and control. It’s not very likely that your child will be shot, but if it does happen the consequences – physical and perhaps psychological – are far more serious than those of a skateboard accident. In addition, we don’t feel so  threatened by the familiar or by things that we feel we can control even if they are potentially very dangerous, like our cars.

Kidnapping combines the elements of seriousness, lack of control, and the unfamiliar,
at least in our minds. In the real world, abductions by family members far outnumber those by strangers. So if we’re like Alexander’s mom, we worry, even when we know that the probability is so small there’s nothing to worry about.

* The Pew high-income group starts at $75,000, $20,000 above the national median family income.

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