Statistics are a powerful thing. Most people find them useful when trying to gauge how big an issue is. However, they may not be as compelling to most people as you would think. I know it sounds crazy because statistics are the literal numbers of events, but there is a psychological opponent that seems to block us from really grasping the impacts of these numbers. This phenomenon has been nicknamed statistical numbing.

For example, a common fear is being in a plane crash or getting bitten by a shark. Statistically, you have around a 1 in 11 million chance of being in a plane crash. These are pretty good odds that you’ll be perfectly okay. Statistically, your odds of being bitten by a shark are even better at 1 in 11.5 million. The odds of these events happening to you are astronomical, yet you still have an irrational fear of them. Your odds of dying in a car accident are 1 in 102. Odds of choking to death while eating? One in 3,138. These mundane tasks that we do every day do not seem nearly as scary as being bitten by a shark or being in a plane crash, yet they are statistically more likely to kill us.

Why are we scared of these bigger events? Because we are essentially told to be by the sensationalizing media. We hear about these individual stories of Bethany Hamilton losing her arm in a shark attack, while casually surfing in Hawaii, or about the Andes plane crash in 1972 where a rugby team had to eat their dead teammates to stay alive. These stories stick with us psychologically because we hear about all of the facts behind them. Then, we become relatively knowledgeable about them. This then plays into our availability heuristic. This is a shortcut our brain takes by using the most immediate samples it can when making judgments about a certain topic. We then overestimate how often these events occur, causing us to worry about them over the more likely everyday scenarios. This is not to say that if you were in a bad car crash or witnessed one that you would not be more fearful of them.

Statistical numbing definitely plays a huge role in politics and the media is the being contender. School shootings are a hot topic of political conversation because they are common, right? Statistically, an American child being killed in a school shooting is 1 in 614,000. This means that American school children are more likely to be killed going to and from school, eating at lunch, congenital conditions, cancer, drug overdoses, and suicide. However, these types of dangers are not as sensationalized by the media so they do not tend to be in our immediate thoughts when we think about children in schools.

We can actually take this theory and apply it to violent crime. Most people tend to believe that crime is more prevalent than ever. This is a common misconception. We are living in one of the safest times in history. Violent crime specifically showing a downward trend. Many people can see statistics that show the declining violence rates, but will still insist that its more dangerous now. The news and media focus on kidnappings, murders and other violent crimes leaving those instances in our immediate memory. This means that when someone talks about how safe it is now, our brains immediately go to these publicized events. Then, we think that this couldn’t possibly be true.

This can affect the politics of the United States when legislative decisions or partisan issues are chosen based on the availability heuristic and statistical numbing. Is that big march on Washington actually based on a huge issue? Is government truly working if it is basing its legislative choices off of issues or events that are tied to emotions and sensationalized events instead of facts and statistics? We all need to be more aware of how are psychology can skew our perception of how we take in facts and statistics.

Tabitha L