Fear Factor: Guns vs Burgers


In my previous article I analyzed the statistics around terrorism vs gun deaths and found that, at least as of 2015,  Americans have a higher probability of dying at the hands of another American with a gun than a European has of being killed in a terror attack.  I also noted that the risk seemed to be inversely proportional to the fear.

Stepping back further, let’s look more broadly at how terrorism and gun deaths compare to other preventable causes of death:

At over 480,000 deaths per year, smoking dwarfs the deaths caused by either guns or terrorism in the US (even, it must be noted, when considering the ~3,000 deaths caused by the 9/11attacks).  Obesity is rapidly overtaking smoking at 374,000 and rising.  It seems that Americans should fear Big Macs and Marlboros far more than terrorists.  

As with guns vs terror, I can’t help but note that the fear factor seems to be almost directly inverse to the risk – Americans seem to be mortified by terrorists, afraid of guns, and relatively indifferent to the rest.  Why so irrational?  I’m afraid that answering that question is likely out of the realm of data science and more in the realm of psychology or evolutionary biology.  It does call to mind, however, the argument made by Levitt and Dubner in Freakonomics when discussing the statistics around swimming pools vs guns.  If I recall correctly they use the term “dread” to describe the emotion that drives some irrational choices.  Perhaps the same thing is going on here – the idea of a truck slamming into a joyful Christmas market creates more dread than the somewhat abstract idea of dying from obesity or smoking.  

One final observation about guns in America – people are horrified when mass shootings happen but as a society they choose to do nothing to prevent the next massacre.  This is in marked contrast to terrorism in which the same people are willing to spend billions of dollars, close the borders and sacrifice civil liberties to prevent the next terrorist attack.  It seems to me the dread factor is high in both cases, but the response is highly asymmetrical.  Perhaps a topic for another day…