Why are so many people more worried about dying in a terrorist attack than in a car accident or from the consequences of smoking? Two aspects can help explain this phenomenon: the symbolic significance of terrorism and cognitive biases.
In June 2015, one in two US citizens was worried that they or someone in their family would become a victim of terrorism – the highest level since October 2001.
Whilst worldwide more than 140,000 people have died in one of the over 61,000 terrorist attacks since 2000, only 2.6% of these deaths – fewer than 4,000 – occurred in Western countries.
At the same time, more than US$1 trillion was spent on increased homeland security between 2001 and 2011, as calculated in an academic paper by John Mueller and Mark Stewart. They point out:
[T]o be deemed cost-effective, [the increased spending] would have to deter, prevent, foil, or protect against 1,667 otherwise successful Times-Square type attacks per year, or more than four per day.
This raises the question of why many people are so scared of terrorist attacks and willing to devote substantial resources to their prevention when the probability of dying in one is so low.
As a comparison, smoking causes about 480,000 deaths per year in the US – from a purely utilitarian point of view it might be more cost-effective and more lives could be saved if the money spent on increased homeland security was instead spent on educating people not to smoke. Yet this is not what we observe in practice. Why not?
Are levels of global violence falling?
Wars are far less common and deadly than in the recent past, terrorism is rare, and the European refugee crisis is nothing new, said Steven Pinker, a bestselling science author.
“The news is a systematically misleading way to understand the world,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
In the past five years alone, conflicts have ended in Chad, Peru, Iran, India, Sri Lanka and Angola, and if peace talks currently underway in Colombia are a success, war will have vanished from the Western hemisphere, he said.
In his 2011 book “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” Pinker called the decline in violence “the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species”.
Compared to most of the postwar period, 2015 has been relatively peaceful, and dramatically so compared with earlier centuries. However, there has been a small uptick in violent deaths around the world over the past couple of years.
An end to war?
Citing data from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program in Sweden and the Peace Research Institute Oslo in Norway, which both count wartime deaths, Pinker says the long term trend is down.
Just as cannibalism and chattel slavery are mostly extinct in the modern world, it is possible that other forms of violence currently in decline, such as capital punishment and wars between states, could one day disappear, he said.
“For 500 years, Western European countries started two new wars a year; since World War Two the number has been zero,” he said – in recent years, most battle deaths were in civil wars.
Timothy Snyder, a historian at Yale University in the United States, who has criticised some of Pinker’s methods, is not as optimistic.