For most of our discerning guests, terrorism is a nuisance that does not affect their decisions. For a minority of travellers however, media coverage causes distortions in risk perception that can influence their decisions.
This article is to help travellers make an informed decision.
At its peak, terrorism in France has been responsable for around 100 deaths per year. Compare that death toll to preventable causes of death in the USA : 40.000 Americans are killed every year in traffic accidents, 24.000 from accidental poisoning, 20.000 in falls, 18.000 in homicides, 5.000 from drowning, 3.000 in fires, 2.500 from complications in surgery, 300 from suffocation in bed. In fact, in every year but 2001, more Americans were killed by either lightning, peanuts, deers or bees than by terrorists (source: Reframing taboo tradeooffs, Fiske & Tetlock, 2003).
The number of deaths from terroist attacks is so small that even minor measures to avoid them can actually increase the risk of dying. The cognitive psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer has estimated that in the year after the 9/11 attacks, 1.500 Americans died in car accidents because they chose to drive rather than fly to their destinations out of fear of dying in a hijacked plane, unaware that the risk of death in a plane flight from Boston to Los Angeles is the same as the risk of death in a car trip of 12 miles. In other words, the number of people who died by avoiding air travel was six times the number of people who died in the airplanes on September 11th 2001. These figures illustrate the kind of over-reaction that terrorists count on. They are communicators who seek publicity and attention that the media is only too willing to afford them: “if it bleeds, it leads”.
The cognitive psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman have shown that people intuitively estimate relative probability using a short-cut called the “availability heuristic” : the easier it is to recall examples of an event, the more probable people think it is. This leads people to overestimate the likelihood of dying from terror attacks (very high media coverage and hence easy to call to mind) and underestimate those deaths that pile up unreported such as traffic accidents and other avoidable causes of death. The probability of there being a terror attack in the next year should not be confused with the vanishingly unlikely probability of being caught in one. Just as the probabilty of there being a lightning strike should not be confused with the probability of being struck by said bolt.
I believe that a good decision uses all available information to best reflect the reality of a given situation.
It is business here in Paris. We hope you will look past the availability heuristic and join us to enjoy Paris’ timeless charms.
Please do share your opinions and views in the comments below.