Day 563: What are the Odds?

Here is an interesting clip with Dan Gilbert during a TED talk in 2005. In the video he discusses common errors in judgement, including the common mistakes we make in calculating odds. One of the examples he uses:

In a study, a group of people were asked to estimate the likelihood of dying from the following causes (per 200 million US citizens per year):
  • Tornado
  • Fireworks
  • Asthma
  • Drowning
And these were the estimations:
  • Tornado...........564
  • Fireworks........160
  • Asthma............506
  • Drowning........1684
Now see the actual number of deaths per year for each of the above:
  • Tornado...........90
  • Fireworks........6
  • Asthma............1886
  • Drowning........7380
As you can clearly see, the dramatic causes are far less likely than the 'everyday' causes. Dan Gilbert gives an amusing explanation that amounts to something like: The news reports the fantastic and unusual events, when last did you read about a boy who died of asthma? This dramatisation and focus on certain occurrences lead people to greatly overestimate unlikely causes of death and greatly underestimate the common causes.

This particular phenomenon can be attributed to the media, but in reality it is our morbid interest in the bizarre and spectacular that has led the media to give so much attention to that sphere. If we were more interested in the mundane everyday stories then that is what would be in our newspapers and movies - but we are not. We want to see special events and special people, we want to imagine ourselves as heroes somewhere else. We also want to be shocked and amazed at the strange things that life dishes out to an unlucky few. I did mention that our interest is rather morbid, did I not?

This tendency to believe that the world is the way it is portrayed in the media leads us to live in a world in our minds, believing that the fantastical can happen. When you're thinking about things like dying in a tornado it doesn't seem like a 'bad thing' - but if you consider other aspects like political debates, relationships, important global events, moral debates and even things like fashion and popularity, this is the kind of stuff that can shape an entire society.