Why We Suck at Measuring Travel Risks

travel safety

Flicker Creative Commons photo by Remo Cassella

Bomb goes off, the cancellations roll in. A rare murder makes the news, tourism takes a dive.

It happens like clockwork every time a potential travel destination is in the news because something bad happens. People turn on CNN (or worse, Fox News) and get scared by the scenes of mayhem or murder. “Whoa, I’m not going there, that’s for sure!”

Meanwhile, especially for Americans, the danger is usually far more serious where they’re living and commuting each day. Living in Chicago or St. Louis and being worried about traveling abroad is like being the full-time fry cook at McDonald’s and being worried that chocolate might make your skin break out.

These people canceling their trips are not necessarily stupid, however. Or uninformed. They are a bit irrational, but it’s not really their fault. They’re just using the wrong part of their brain, the easy part, the part that specializes in jumping to conclusions and clinging to the easiest story to understand.

The brain responds quickly even to purely symbolic threats. Emotionally loaded words quickly attract attention, and bad words (war, crime) attract attention faster than happy words (peace, love). There is no real threat, but the mere reminder of a bad event is treated in System 1 as threatening.

That’s from the brilliant book I just finished by Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman. Thinking, Fast and Slow is often baffling, frequently infuriating, and in some ways downright sad. Through an impressive array of experiments and studies using real subjects over decades, he has learned beyond a doubt that we often don’t do the smart thing or make a good decision. This is true even when thinking things through a little more would keep us from doing something that goes against our self-interest. Thinking fast and slow

To put it in his terms, there’s a “System 1” brain that is instinctual and fast, quickly determining if something is a threat, is out of the ordinary, or requires action. If the potential problem needs more analysis, it turns to “System 2,” for a solution. System 2 is kind of lazy though, so it only intervenes when it has to and it’ll leave the earlier conclusion intact if it seems to make sense. The first system gets us through life and most of the time it does okay: when we drive, when we decide if the milk has gone bad, when we cross the street to avoid a crazy homeless guy shouting obscenities.

When this does us more harm than good, however, is when the “What you see is all there is” fallacy kicks in and we only understand or remember the most recent information or images. Crime in Belize dropped last year and there were only 119 murders in 2015 in the entire country.  Let one U.S. visitor show up dead in a strange murder case, however, and the caveman brain takes over decision making.

“Threat!”

“Avoid!”

System 2 kicks back and says, “Sure, whatever.”

Most travelers won’t take the time or brainpower to figure out that Belize had fewer murders than similarly populated Bahamas, where the rate is worse than Detroit. They haven’t seen crime in the Bahamas in the news, so that problem just doesn’t exist. Cruise ships here we come!

A remarkable aspect of your mental life is that you are rarely stumped. …you have intuitive feelings and opinions about almost everything that comes your way.

Whether you state them or not, you often have answers to questions that you do not completely understand, relying on evidence that you can neither explain nor defend.

This leads to irrationally confident know-it-alls who are incapable of every changing their opinion. It leads to people who deny clear scientific evidence because they like the story from their Sunday school teacher better. It leads us to buy what the attractive person is trying to sell us when it feels like they’re flirting and what makes us respect a tall politician who “looks presidential” over one who is short and smart.

In our lives, this makes us over-emphasize the potential dangers from traveling and under-emphasize the things more likely to kill us. Statistically the biggest risk factors for a premature death are driving a lot, smoking, eating poorly on a regular basis, and being obese. I wasn’t worried about going to a fancy resort in the Honduras last month. I am worried about the texting moms driving big SUVs that are careening around the streets of South Tampa near my daughter’s high school. Statistically, those drivers or a weekly batch of cheesy fries are more likely to call my number in the end. Neither looks as scary as a terrorist on the TV from eight time zones away, however.

The crime rate where I lived in Mexico for three years with my family is lower than the crime rate where I’m living now in Tampa. I can tell people that until I’m blue in the face, but for many it won’t change their existing assumption. They like the stories the blonde Fox News anchor tells them better. Besides, Donald Trump says they’re murderers and rapists down there and since he’s rich and on TV he must know more than I do.

travel risks

Sultanahmet the other 364 days

I’m heading to Istanbul next week and if I told my relatives, the first thing they would say is, “Be careful!”

There was a bombing you know. Some of the women wear headscarves there. It’s next to Syria. “Be careful!”

But what if I were going to New Orleans, always in the top-10 for the highest homicide rate in the entire gun-happy USA? What would they say then?

“Have fun and don’t drink too much!”

What you see is all there is…

Comments
  1. gary

    Amen, Tim.

    What a thoughtful post …

    My wife and I got the same treatment when we mentioned that we’re headed to the Yucatan next month. Oh, the horror!
    Hmm … how about a nice little piece on Mérida and the coast, where I believe you had a beach house?

  2. gary

    Thanks, Tim. Much Appreciated!
    g.

  3. Anthony Thomas (@djfourmoney)

    Tim you know it’s funny. I’m shocked how many young women still travel given what’s happen to Natalie Holloway, Amanda Knox or other missing, murdered, raped or caught up in something young women.

    I guess Feminism has really empowered women but it has a nasty dark side that isn’t in the main subject matter of this blog.

  4. Jill

    Anthony – you’re playing right into the point of this post. Do you think women only get raped or murdered when they TRAVEL?!?! Or is that the only time it makes the international news because it’s a pretty young woman who met harm in that terrifying world out there beyond our borders? Or that your justice system works so great and no innocent people get tried for murder?

  5. ahmed gusto

    this obviously is one inspiring thoughtful article. enjoy life as it comes, you never know what will happen next minute in your life. get rid of the fear, go out and live the life that you want. one day we all will die that’s for sure. therefore, live till you die

  6. Anne

    I was in Tunisia last summer when the beach attacks happened. Fortunately not in the same resort but the following day we headed to Tunis only to narrowly avoid a riot. I’ve also been knocked down by a motorbike in Singapore, snapped my ACL in Italty, broke my collar bone in Greece, contracted cellulitis in wait for it….the good ole US of A and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I could name a bunch more mishaps and yet I still travel?

    Why? Because bombs go off in London or Manchester. People get run down in the Uk, people suffer injuries in the Uk (me more than most). These things can happen anywhere and if we curtail our behaviour because of this stuff the bad guys win!

  7. Carmen Everywhere

    It is true that instinctual part of our brain sometimes rules too much over the rational part. Like many people have fear of flying but 5 minutes of thinking will confirm that flying is much safer than driving your car. But let us not be too hard on our instincts. It is part of what makes us human. The gut feel is often right for many aspects of life. In modern world there is a danger we over-analyze things too much and rely too much on numbers and analysis. And they can be always wrong, there is no fool proof axiom to solve life situations. The instinct is always a trustworthy guide, even though imperfect. but it never goes too far on the wrong like number and analysis can. Like numbers and analysis will never be able to show that a particular spot or a particular person is not be too trusted. The number and analysis might falsely put you to complacency. Another thing, the instinct is what makes us human. if we ignore it, even if for the right reason, it an make life hellish.

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