It’s probably also worth mentioning that the human brain isn’t evolved to handle comparative risk, because (as the article correctly states) there was no selection pressure during our evolutionary history that would have resulted in the development of cognitive ability to handle large datasets. Hence we make very basic errors in estimating risk, and even larger errors in estimating relative risk. Worse still, our errors are associated with our beliefs about agency. What this means is that when we erroneously think we have some control over the risk, we are much more relaxed than the data would suggest is rational and conversely when we feel we have little or no control over the risk, our response is likewise irrational but in the opposite direction: we over-estimate the danger.

That’s why most people are perfectly happy driving to the airport, when their risk of being involved in an auto accident is actually significant; but many are afraid of flying, when their risk is actually insignificant. We feel “in control” when we’re driving but when we’re passively sitting in seat 31C we feel vulnerable.

This is why, although deaths from poor lifestyle choices are at an all-time high, we are extremely complacent and continue to make these poor choices every day. And conversely it’s why we’re terrified of disease, because it’s something over which we have little control. This mental bias contributes in no small way to our current crisis.

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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