Every time I get onto a plane, every possible scenario of both plane and pilot failure runs through my mind. What if there’s just one loose screw and the whole wing falls off? What if the pilot didn’t get enough sleep last night but came to work anyway because there was no one else to fly the plane? Or what if the weather was predicted wrong and we’re about to fly into a thunderstorm that no one saw coming? Despite the scenarios for horrific disaster in air travel, a grand total of 0 people died in commercial aviation accidents in the United States last year.
Compare that statistic with the number of people who die in the United States in motor accidents every year: a staggering 35,000. But, unlike air travel, every time I get into the driver’s seat of a car, safety becomes an afterthought. Instead of safety precautions, the first thing I think of is which song to play. Only after carefully deliberating between listening to Saint Pablo again or shuffling through old folk rock music do I finally remember to check the mirrors.
Like most drivers on the road, I’ve heard the statistics repeatedly about how much safer air travel is when compared to motor vehicles. And although I have been in far more situations where a car has been unsafe than an airplane, I still think of myself as invincible on the road. Without even realizing it, every time I drive I am putting myself at a risk orders of magnitude larger than when I get onto an airplane.
According to the concepts Dr. Johnathan Wiener presented to the Huang Fellows, I suffer from an optimism bias, which occurs when people think they are better than the average and that statistics don’t apply to them because they are in control. I don’t fear the risks of driving because in my simplified framework they don’t apply to me. But I fear the risks of air travel because I am a powerless spectator with only a safety brochure and a drop-down gas mask to help me. Dr. Wiener pointed out the absurdity of this dichotomy and how it applies to our attitude towards risk. Our attention towards car accidents should be exponentially higher than our attention towards air travel, yet because of compassion fade, the care we have towards car accidents is nearly negligible.
As demonstrated by the difference between society’s attitude towards car and plane accidents, when the impact of a tragedy increases it becomes more and more difficult to picture ourselves as the victim. When the casualty toll climbs, we numb ourselves to the possibility. Essentially, we surpass the limits of our compassion. But, as Dr. Wiener pointed out, maybe this comes with an evolutionary advantage. Maybe we’ve evolved to prioritize ourselves and the members of our clan over anyone else. When we hear of a tragic accident involving one person, it’s easy to picture ourselves in the situation. When we hear of a small group of people, it’s easy to picture ourselves and our close family or friends as the victims. But when the accident magnifies in size so that thousands (or maybe just hundreds) die, they somehow become “other.” Not us nor our family nor anyone even remotely connected to us.
Not to be misunderstood, the lack of fear due to compassion fade doesn’t mean a lack of caring. After any large-scale natural disaster there will always be an outpouring of support and love, coupled with a well-publicized donation drive. But the reality of such disasters can’t be felt from so far away. And when “far away” roughly translates to “Durham, North Carolina,” it becomes easy to talk about risk as an abstract concept, something that we need a seminar on before it even crosses our minds.
At such a seminar, one of the other Huang Fellows brought up the other extreme of the possibilities. Instead of ignoring the risks of living, letting them consume you. And not just the risks of natural disasters or airplane crashes or even car accidents, any risk possible. As my fellow Fellow asked, realistically, wouldn’t it be better to just stay in bed all day and minimize your chance of any harm coming to you? And realistically, the argument for safety could be extended to all aspects of one’s life, creating excuses to avoid any risk.
Yet I don’t think that any of the Huang Fellows have ever considered adopting this mentality. After all, joining this program was a risk in itself. None of us could have known what to expect out of our immersive summer with each other, nor could we have known we would be challenged to reevaluate the framework with which we view risk to society and to ourselves.
Thank you to Dr. Wiener for taking the time to discuss risk with us and for challenging us to think about how we apply risk-taking in our own lives and society. By prompting us to think about what we think of when we hear the term “risk,” we have to think about how risk applies not only in our everyday lives, but in our interactions with the entirety of society.
Megan is from Centerville, Ohio. She has participated in neurobiology research at the Nowicki Lab and found a passion for research and scientific inquiry.