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Why Tragedies Alter Risk Perception


After the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday, many parents dropping their kids off at school this morning are facing a lot of anxiety. Today in Your Health, we asked NPR's science correspondent Shankar Vedantam to come by to talk about how tragedies shape our perceptions of risk.

Shankar, good morning.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So tell us what we know from school shootings of the past. I mean, what sort of impact will this tragedy have on parents and how they think?

VEDANTAM: Well, David, if the history of these mass shootings is any guide, many parents are going to wake up this morning being fearful about sending their kids to school. You know, I was at a children's birthday party over the weekend, and many of the kids were the same age as the victims in Newtown. And I couldn't stop myself from imagining these really fearful scenarios from unfolding.

It's also likely that these fears are likely to persist for some lengths of time. After the Columbine school shootings, for example, a year later, many parents were still reporting that they felt their kids were unsafe at school. And fewer than half felt that their kids were very safe at school. So it's likely that these fears are very widespread this morning.

GREENE: At that party, I mean, could you sense the fear? I mean, or were the kids and parents just trying to move on? Or what was the situation?

VEDANTAM: Well, you know, I don't think anyone really talked about it. I certainly didn't talk to anyone about my fears there, you know, because at one level, I sort of recognized that they were out of place and they were not based on reality. But I couldn't necessarily stop myself from imaging worst-case scenarios.

GREENE: Well, how do kids usually react to a trauma like this one?

VEDANTAM: Well, I think with kids, the picture is slightly different, because kids are going to be all over the place. There's some kids who are going to know a lot about what happened on Friday, and there are other kids who are going to know very, very little. But again, if the history of these shootings is any guide, it seems likely that there are many kids who are going to be very fearful.

Again, after Columbine, about a third of American high school students said they knew someone who they thought was capable of carrying out a violent attack like this. And that's just, you know, that's an extraordinary number when you think about a scale of that. So, again, even among kids, the expectation is that the fears are likely to be widespread and probably long-lasting.

GREENE: So that's saying that there are kids who are imagining people out there in their circles, who they start thinking about I wonder if this person could do something like this.

VEDANTAM: Could do something like this. In many ways, much like the fearful scenarios that I was imagining over the weekend.

GREENE: Well, what does the research tell us? I mean, have psychiatrists, psychologists kind of dug into this to try and understand the effects of events like this?

VEDANTAM: Yes. So social scientists have known for a long time that there are dangers whose risks we underestimate, and there are dangers whose risks we overestimate. So psychologists such as Baruch Fischhoff at Carnegie Mellon University and Paul Slovic at the University of Oregon, for example, they've talk about the difference between things that we fear and things that we dread.

So we fear cancer and heart disease and traffic crashes, but psychopaths and, you know, serial killers and airplane crashes are things that we dread. So when a danger seems like it's inexplicable, when we have absolutely no control over it, when suddenly, out of the blue, it causes mass casualties, you know, this causes not fear, but dread. And when it comes to dread, that's when we tend to overestimate the risks.

So just to put the numbers in some context: In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that about five times as many children died in - as a result of unintentional injuries, rather than homicide. And those were mostly traffic crashes, and so on. And most of the homicide wasn't - you know, had nothing to do with school shootings. It was homicide that was happening outside the school.

GREENE: You overestimate the risk. I mean, this is interesting. If you are dreading, you know, the idea of someone shooting in your school, you elevate the risk in your mind. It's even more fearful, in a way, even though you're calling it dread and not fear.

VEDANTAM: Yeah, it actually - dread actually causes us to fear things even more than they're warranted. And so we end up believing that these risks are actually much more likely than they actually are.

GREENE: How should parents be talking to their kids and talking among themselves, would you say, this week?

VEDANTAM: Well, experts have several suggestions. One is to model behavior for your children, show it's possible to acknowledge your fears without necessarily being consumed by the anxiety - to be honest with children, but also to provide the context, you know. So schools are one of the safest places for kids to be. If you went by the odds alone, it would take thousands of years for any individual school to potentially be the victim of a school shooting.

You know, experts also suggest it's wise to limit the amount of television coverage you're watching of these disasters, because that's been connected with these anxieties. And it's also - the last thing is, leave the door open. Let the kids set the agenda. If there are fears they want to talk about, they should know they have someone to talk to about them.

GREENE: Shankar, thanks for coming in and talking about this.

VEDANTAM: Thank you, David.

GREENE: NPR's Shankar Vedantam regularly joins us to talk about social science research. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Shankar Vedantam is NPR's social science correspondent and the host of Hidden Brain. The focus of his reporting is on human behavior and the social sciences, and how research in those fields can get listeners to think about the news in unusual and interesting ways. Hidden Brain is among the most popular podcasts in the world, with over two million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is featured on some 250 public radio stations across the United States.
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