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2012 September 8
by Ian Welsh

Ok, my google-fu is failing me, so I’m asking for help.

What I need is a list of perceived risk vs. real risk.  Well, more perceived risk, I can easily find the real risk numbers.  So, how likely do Americans think they are to die of terrorism or being in a plane and so on, vs. real risk. What do Americans perceive as the risk of a child being kidnapped v. real risk. Homicide v. real risk of homicide.  Risk of dying in a car accident v. real risk.  Etc… Or non Americans.

Doesn’t even have to be a list, just specific numbers with sources.

26 Responses
  1. Celsius 233 permalink
    September 8, 2012

    Here Ian; give this a shot. On the upper right of the home page is Data Explorer, cheers;

  2. Celsius 233 permalink
    September 8, 2012

    Okay, one more;

    Has some polls and stats as percentages of perceptions of people in Britain. This may be closer to what you’re looking for. It also includes some international staTS AND PERCEPTIONS.

  3. September 8, 2012


    In my opinion, whatever numbers you find are going to be meaningless anyway. It’s very hard for people to calculate in their heads what they perceive their perceived risk to be. It’s almost certainly to be higher than the actual risk is. But say you ask two people what the risk of being killed by terrorism in the U.S. are …. even though they both know they are very small and regard it so unlikely that it doesn’t affect their behavior one iota, they are also likely to throw out numbers that differ quite a bit from one another … often by orders of magnitude … which fucks up the data. So, again, I don’t think that you’ll extract much meaning from any numerical data on this. Most people really can’t properly numerate just how likely they feel that something is going to happen.

    And the numbers are so small. For example if you got data that tells you that Americans perceive the risk of being killed by terrorists to be 100x more likely than the real risk is … with the real risk being .00001 and the perceived risk being .001. Does it mean anything? Not really. People think of it as extremely unlikely. It is extremely unlikely. The 100x doesn’t tell you anything.

    The best data you’ll get in my opinion … the most meaningful data … will be from multiple choice questionnaires. There will obviously be some granularity in it, but it’ll be a better measure of the ball park of what they perceive the risk to be and the data can hopefully be binned into something meaningful. I still don’t think that you’ll get a hell of a lot out of it though.


  4. dpanda permalink
    September 8, 2012

    Bruce Schneier has been talking about this for a while. Some of these might be a good starting point:

  5. Ian Welsh permalink
    September 8, 2012

    Z, Yes, I agree comparative is better. Still, I need some numbers. For example it’s clear that people think the odds of their darling children being kidnapped or molested by strangers are MUCH higher than the actual (infintesimal) odds. But you’re right that the question “more likely to be molested by a stranger or a relative” is a better question.

    Celsius and Dpanda, thank you.

  6. groo permalink
    September 8, 2012

    upon closer inspection, his is a complicated issue, Ian.

    One study:

    ,unfortunately centered, but not restricted on Swedish perception.

    Some conclusions drawn by me from this:
    a) there is a strong time-component in risk operception
    b) assessments of ‘personal’ risk and ‘general’ risk differ substantially
    c) risk assessment is embedded in a syndrome of beliefs, i.e. it has an underlying semantic network of base beliefs, which are not easily altered, and NEVER reflected in polls.
    d) Public polls notoriously ask the wrong questions from the standpoint of scientific research on the issue. Therefore they are of limited value, in catching the essence.

    (p4)…Polls conducted in the USA…
    In October 2001 83 percent of the respondents said a new attack within the next several weeks was very or somewhat likely. This is a very high figure, still no sign that “panic” was imminent (Durodié & Wessely, 2002). The corresponding figure in July 2002 was 56 percent.
    In October 2001, 59 percent said they were worried that they or someone in their families would become victims of terrorism; in May 2002 the figure had dropped to 40 percent, a fairly normal number when the trend since 1995 is considered.
    The methods used by polling firms to study risk perception are diverse and seldom
    comparable and appear not to have caught up with developments in research on risk
    perception. …
    Furthermore, the following classes of explanatory concepts were studied, on the basis of the current extensive discussions of the events:
    ! Reasons for riskiness of the world, in general.
    ! Characteristics of the perpetrators of the 9/11 events
    ! Reasons and interpretations of the 9/11 events
    ! Personality in terms of a tendency towards suspicious thought habits

    the inclination to conclude from one incident that there is a grand plan behind it
    is common in certain thought patterns involved in beliefs that there is subversion,
    manipulation and secret control of citizens.

    (end of snippets)

    My personal conclusion is, that risk perception is a higher faculty of human reasoning and proper education, involving proper interpretation of statistics and underlying base-beliefs.

    wrt this, humankind seems to be badly equipped to properly discern the ‘real’ from the ‘imagined’.


  7. groo permalink
    September 8, 2012

    one interesting belief/fear -pseudo-risk is ‘Koro’:

    This is so remarkable because REAL risk is zero, whereas PERCEIVED risk is latent and appears in bursts.
    Mainly uneducated people, who react wrt their (unconscious/unreflected) base-beliefs and perceived ‘evidence’, which seems to collapse after some time, under the scrutiny of the more reasonable lot.

    Koro is a culture-specific syndrome in which the person has an overpowering belief that his penis (or other genitalia) will retract and disappear.

    Among the Chinese, koro is confined to South China and the lower Yangtze Valley.[11] A 1992 study of self-report questionnaires suggests that in the epidemic area of China, koro victims are mostly Han, male, young, single, poorly educated and fearful of supernatural forces and koro

    There were a series of epidemic outbursts in 1948, 1955, 1966, and 1974, whenever there was social tension or impending disaster, followed by the last widespread episode in 1984–1985 and a much smaller outbreak in 1987. The 1984–1985 epidemics lasted for over a year and affected over 3,000 persons in 16 cities and counties.

    Cultural beliefs
    Factors of cultural expectation in the genesis of koro can be built upon ideas of sex physiology in the traditional Chinese medicine, with free play of imagination which links fatality with genital retraction.

    (end of snippets)

    In the chinese context this can be tracked down to the Yin/Yang based-belief, where eg the male-female duality is somehow in harmful tension, in the western context to witchcraft, or good-evil duality.

    In cases of threat, individuals, which are unable to see trough that, are inevitably thrown back to their base-beliefs, from which they energize their worldview.

    Sorry for my digging into the underlyings, and eventually messing up your idea.

  8. Celsius 233 permalink
    September 8, 2012

    One extremely important thing to remember is this; our elected representatives are so bloody corrupt, they are invested in the creation of perception. Never forget; how one is perceived is reality for the one who perceives. This was brought home to me by a supervisor at a company I worked for; his perception was his reality; not mine. It changed forever my understanding of what it is to be an employee.

  9. Formerly T-Bear permalink
    September 8, 2012

    May help: Dan Gardner’s “Risk, The Science and Politics of Fear” ISBN 978-0-7535-1553-2

  10. Celsius 233 permalink
    September 8, 2012

    ^ Nuts! An edit feature would be so welcome and save so many wasted electrons .
    My above comment is why I will never believe anything I hear from the MSM and regard with great caution anything I hear from anybody else. Even myself…

  11. Ian Welsh permalink
    September 8, 2012

    Thank you t-bear and groo.

  12. September 8, 2012

    Ian, I’ve written about this stuff a lot. Here’s one link with links to plenty of other links, including hard statistics on risk:

  13. September 8, 2012

    Oh, hell, it’s just easier to point you directly to John Mueller’s paper:

    Also Bruce Schneier, who’s been studying this stuff forever — this is just one of his many essays:

  14. groo permalink
    September 8, 2012

    Now what is a ‘syndrome’?

    It is a set of self-stabilizing beliefs, which is not tautologically closed in the Wittgensteinian sense, but somehow open on its fuzzy ends.
    But this is a very narrow route to pursue.

    Beliefs typically are only NEARLY closed, and depend on the intellectual rigidity and capacity of the believer.
    Now what happens- if your belief is challenged: ‘defense’ is not only restricted to an exchange of arguments, but it gets physical.
    From both sides.
    The aggressor blathers about ‘circling of the wagons’.
    The circling of the wagons involves the whole ‘man’, including the physical.

    In the wild west this meant using weapons to defend one’s beliefs.
    This still seems to be deeply ingrained in the american psyche, without them realizing that the physical (war) is just an extension of the psychical/verbal belief & symbolic action (diplomatical).

    Remember Clausewitz:
    His understanding of ‘war’ was clear, but still seems poorly understood in its essence:
    he said:
    …” ‘war’ belonging fundamentally to the SOCIAL realm—rather than to the realms of art or science” …

    As George Carlin said of the US: ‘We are a war-like nation’. And we bomb the shit out of the brown people.
    How true.
    Very pleasing for the mindless.

    No argument needed.
    Somebody manufacturing the bombs, some other delivering the arguments for deploying them.
    Division of labor between fragmented minds. Free market-ideology.
    This is the ahem- ‘asset’ of the PTB, which they ride until its certain death.

    Fattened couch potatoes engaging in pseudo-wild-west habits, to have an illusion of grandeur.

    Abusing the physically fitter lower classes to engage in those wars.
    See the similarity with the Kore mindset?

    What does this mean?

    If arguments end, superstitions are of no help, then the weapons speak.
    Instead of honing their arguments, Americans let the weapons speak, as any mentally retarded tribe lacking sensible shamans calling for restraint, does.
    Because they have very little to argue about, like the mythical schoolyard bully, who, after blathering out some sensless bubbles about ‘freedom and democracy’, activates his vast arsenal of the physical, in coordination with an equally senseless blather of memes, which activate the brainless but muscular, to engage in wars for the brainless but wordrich.

    So the brainless musculars are in a unholy coalition with the brainless wordrich.

    Here we are again.
    The perception of ‘threats’ is a matter of perception management, where they/the wordrich, are good at, to convince their followers, who only seem to have a fear/cheer center in their brains.

    ‘Reality’ does not matter.


  15. Notorious P.A.T. permalink
    September 8, 2012

    American risk perception of global warming (pdf):

    Majority of Americans Think Near-Term Terrorism Unlikely:

    New Poll Reveals a Majority of Americans View H1N1 as a Serious Health Hazard,
    Yet Almost 70% Do Not Definitively Plan to Get the Vaccine [oh for God’s sake]:

  16. Compound F permalink
    September 8, 2012

    Econ inequality is probably not the type of risk you had in mind, but it’s probably “in reality” a much greater risk than the typical “hit by a lightning bolt” type of comparison.

    Thanks for your previous econ update, e.g., “kiss yer ass g’bye if China tanks,” published on about the same day Mish & others presented various global GDP tank-fests. I’m practicing my stretching exercises.

  17. Raisin Bran permalink
    September 8, 2012

    There may be a great deal of deliberate complicity going on here, rather than simple ignorance.

    No-one half-way sane could have really believed in the Boston mooninite scare, for instance, and the absurdity of it is simply capped off by the fact that the real perpetrator of the bomb threats and planter of the fake bombs was caught and then released by the authorities without so much as a slap on the wrist, while the two hapless commercial artists were treated like terrorists. That this was well known, yet taken entirely in stride, suggests to me that it was essentially common knowledge that the purpose of such scares is to justify a reign of terror–those artists were punks that needed to be shown who’s boss pour encourager les autres, and they weren’t going to get away with their sneaky tactic of escaping punishment by being innocent of the charges.

    It’s a way to square the circle of having a supposedly liberal legal regime while still getting to violently wage culture war. The astonishing crackdown on the electronic music scene that occurred around the same time was a similar story, though the hobgoblin in that case was drugs rather than terrorism.

  18. September 8, 2012

    Seconding Raisin Bran.

  19. David Kowalski permalink
    September 8, 2012

    To Celsius 233. Right on the money. Macchiavelli nailed that one in The Prince, “Perception is more important than reality because perception becomes reality.” Especially when it is the perception of the boss or the elite.

    Oddly, terrorism is one of those things that is more likely to afflict the elite than the masses. The targets of 9/11 were, after all, Wall Street’s largest building and the Pentagon. The odds of someone on Wall Street or the higher level military getting hit again by terrorism are far more real than the odds of someone in, say Minnesota or Michigan. Their global terrorism is more likely economic and yes, far more likely to hit home.

    In fact, the odds of being killed as a soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan turned out to be higher than the odds of being hit by another terrorist strike in the U.S. But the victims are a0 more foreign and b) even among Americans, not among the elite.

  20. Celsius 233 permalink
    September 8, 2012

    David Kowalski PERMALINK
    September 8, 2012
    To Celsius 233. Right on the money. Macchiavelli nailed that one in The Prince, “Perception is more important than reality because perception becomes reality.” Especially when it is the perception of the boss or the elite.
    Oddly, terrorism is one of those things that is more likely to afflict the elite than the masses. The targets of 9/11 were, after all, Wall Street’s largest building and the Pentagon.
    Which is a striking difference from Iraq or Afghanistan, where the violence is directed more at the common folk.
    I think your point is correct regarding the U.S.
    I’ve entertained the idea that the attacks against the elite aren’t strictly/actually terrorism, but revenge; whereas the attacks against civilians on the streets and in the markets is true terrorism. I also suspect the elites are aware of this.

  21. Compound F permalink
    September 8, 2012

    and in case it wasn’t obvious, inequality is associated with elevated risk for very prevalent, everyday social and medical derangements, such as mental health problems, drug abuse, the plethora of ills associated with chronic stress (cardiovascular disease, obesity, stroke, impaired cognition (particularly prefrontal-hippocampal dysfunction)) , poor education, life expectancy…it’s a long list of risks, far more common than, say, terrorist attacks or lightning strikes. In fact, insofar as chronic stress can occur at any economic level (as we all have glucocorticoid receptors that become increasingly occupied under challenge), everyone is already participating in the fuzzy membership set, to one degree or another. Yes, even the assholes on Wall Street, whose out-sized dependence on reward and sensation-seeking strongly resemble escalated drug abuse. If only our war on drugs included the greed for green.

  22. Formerly T-Bear permalink
    September 9, 2012

    Another p.o.v. is: Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “The Black Swan, The Impact of the Highly Improbable”, ISBN 978-0-1410-3459-1 for a highly recommended look at the other side of the coin, of failure to understand risk.

  23. September 9, 2012

    A paper on real vs. perceived risk of falling among the elderly:

    Interesting, because it breaks the subjects down into different groups who tend to differ in their understanding of risks.

    Oh, and using DuckDuckGo, the phrase “disparity between real and perceived risk” yielded some other interesting-sounding links.

    Might try your local skeptics’ society, if there is one. They often are aware of such things.

  24. groo permalink
    September 9, 2012

    Here is another one:
    ‘Investigating risk perception: a short introduction’

    See especially p3:
    “Figure 1: Actual numbers and lay people estimates of deaths per year for a variety of risk topics.
    Numbers are for the USA.”

    It would be interesting to differentiate between risk-perception of eg the teabagger-crowd and the leftist crowd.
    I would expect this to be substantially different.

    Wrt AGW:
    Joe Romm over at covered this some time ago:

    71 percent of Americans say global warming should be a very high (13%), high (27%), or medium (31%) priority for the president and Congress, including 50 percent of Republicans, 66 percent of Independents and 88 percent of Democrats.

    Using ‘republicans’ as a proxy for ‘teabaggers’, I would expect that less than say 30% of hardcore teabaggers perceive AGW as a general risk, whereas >>90% of leftists do.

    This is a huge difference, right?

    Should be evident, me thinks.

  25. Jill permalink
    September 9, 2012

    Orwell wrote this to his friend, George Woodcock concerning ex-Fascists: “The central thing one must come to terms with is the argument, always advanced by those advocating repressive legislation, that “you cannot allow democracy to be used to overthrow democracy…if you carry this to its conclusions, there can be no case for allowing any political or intellectual freedom whatever. Evidently therefore it is a matter of distinguishing between a real an a merely theoretical threat to democracy, and no one should be persecuted for expressing his opinions,…unless it can be shown that there is a substantial threat to the stability of the state. ”

    When I read this I thought about the fears being inculcated into our population by propaganda. At this time, the govt. specializes in fears having to do with the “stability of the state”. They manufacture those fears and have eliminated our rights in accordance with our population’s willingness to believe those fears, to exchange the most basic rights to be rid of these manufactured fears.

    I think it is a very good thing to keep pointing out how unrealistic these fears are and perhaps it would also help to show how they are manufactured. That process is largely opaque. Perhaps if the manufacturing process was clear, it would help to undo the fears and give people intellectual breathing space to see if we really do want to give up our rights?

    Here’s a site to look at for statistics: “

  26. Celsius 233 permalink
    September 9, 2012

    ^ Long before Orwell, there was Frederick Douglass:
    Find out just what any people will quietly submit to
    and you have found out the exact measure of injustice
    and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these
    will continue till they are resisted with either
    words or blows, or with both.

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