SHARK ATTACK! The Risk is Tiny. The Coverage, and Fear, Are High. Why?

It’s the Summer of the Shark! Again. And just in time for Shark Week. An unusual spate of attacks off North Carolina, bumping up against the July 4th “Hey, Let’s Go To the Beach” holiday, has put galeophobia back in the news. And as always, the news coverage leads with the dramatic story of an individual victim and frightening detail about the terror of the attack, and only later notes that the fear is hardly commensurate with the risk. Which of course raises the question; why the alarmist coverage in the first place?
The reason for the coverage is that the idea of being attacked by a shark, unlikely as it is, is scary. But why, if the odds are so low? Because our perception of risk is not just about the numbers. It’s about emotions too. There is no better example of how risk perception is a more a matter of emotion than quantitative reasoning than this classic illustration of how our fears sometimes don’t match the facts.
Fact: shark attacks are rare. Fatal shark attacks are REALLY rare. The International Shark Attack File recorded 72 confirmed unprovoked shark attacks on people in 2014, and only 3 deaths, worldwide. You are at greater risk of dying from…almost anything else…than from being attacked by a shark.
But then, you probably know that. The infinitesimally low statistical likelihood of being attacked by a shark is noted in all the Summer of the Shark stories. So when the New York Times asks Should Swimmers Worry About Sharks, they know, and you know, that the answer is, basically NO. At least, not based on the numbers.
But that’s what makes shark attack such a brilliant example of the emotional nature of the psychology of risk perception. The numbers —> Read More