People can’t get their heads round very large (or small) numbers. This results in us being unable to reason about rare events or things that happen over long periods of time.
When I was a child, my parents wanted me to walk to school through woodland rather than along the busy road. Makes sense—roads are statistically quite dangerous. However, in today’s society, the advice to children is to remain in busy places lest they be abducted. This is an example of us over-reacting to things that offend us morally—and thus overestimating their frequency. Just one of a number of causes of risk misperception.
Evolution doesn’t make intuitive sense when considered in the context of a human lifetime—or even against many generations. It operates on the scale of many millions of years. That kind of time frame is hard to comprehend for a species that lives for around 80 years. Again, large numbers confound us.
A classic example of risk misperception is the chance of winning the lottery. We all know that it’s unlikely—but don’t have a sense of quite how unlikely.
The Wall Street Journal has an interactive visualization that gives us a visceral feel for our chances. I recommend you give it a go. Don’t cheat—at least not immediately.
But, hey—don’t let statistics spoil your fun. I have a good feeling about next week’s draw…