We humans don’t gamble very well. We have a natural tendency to make irrational decisions when faced with the possibility of what we see as extreme life changes. (I’ll bet the poker players or the economists have a name for this tendency.)
For example, we play the lottery. The cost of playing the lottery almost always exceeds the benefit, but many of us pay a dollar for a one-in-twenty-six-million chance of winning $2,300,000. Two million dollars is a lot of money; winning it could improve most people’s lives. Buying a lottery ticket, though, is not a rational act. That’s an example of the possible benefit overwhelming its unlikeliness.
It works the other way around too. The idea of a possible severe consequence tends to overwhelm the unlikeliness of that consequence in our minds, so that we do things that are entirely irrational to avoid the consequence. Most governance depends on this tendency. Scared people — voters and jurors — cede power to the government. Scared defendants plead guilty, accepting a bad outcome, to avoid the possibility, however small, of a horrid outcome.
An example of rationality going out the window in the face of fear is the hysteria surrounding sex offenders. Here’s a WSJ.com article, Are We Teaching Our Kids To Be Fearful of Men? (why do they capitalize “to” but not “of”?), in which Jeff Zaslow discusses society’s trend toward teaching children not to trust men (and vice versa).
“Child-welfare groups,” according to the article, “say these are necessary precautions, given that most predators are male.” This is a non sequitur. According to the article 89% of child sex-abuse perpetrators in Virginia are male. We know that 93% of child sex-abuse perpetrators are relatives or acquaintances of their victims, but we don’t deliberately teach our children to fear the people they know.
John Walsh is quoted in the article:
“It’s not a witch hunt,” he says. “It’s all about minimizing risks. What dog is more likely to bite and hurt you? A Doberman, not a poodle. Who’s more likely to molest a child? A male.”
This is in fact an excellent example of the tendency to confuse the magnitude of harm with its likelihood. Small dogs bite more people than large breeds; a poodle is much more likely to bite you than a Doberman.
If you taught your child to fear strange Dobermans, he’d get bitten anyway. Even if you taught him to fear all dogs, he would get bitten. To be sure that your child would never be bitten by dogs, you would have to cloister him. Yet most of us don’t cloister our children, and people keep both poodles and Dobermans.
To rationally decide how to deal with a threat, you have to know the magnitude of the harm, the probability of the harm, and the costs of various ways of managing the threat. The chance of the average child under 11 being sexually maltreated in a year is about one in 1,700. All else being equal, if that child were prevented from having any contact with anyone other than family members and partners of parents, the child’s odds would improve by 38.8%, to about one in 2,777. We don’t prevent our children from having any contact with anyone other than family members and partners of parents because the cost of doing so would be too high; it would outweigh the benefit.
One-issue advocacy groups (like MADD, or so-called child-welfare groups) don’t have to worry about the costs of their proposed solutions. They can advocate the elimination of threats at any cost. They can run billboards like this one:
We who live in the real world can’t do that. So we flail around looking for a solution that doesn’t have a direct cost.
It doesn’t take much imagination to foresee spectacular long-term costs arising from teaching children that men are out to hurt them.
People assume that all men “have the potential for violence and sexual aggressiveness,” says Peter Stearns, a George Mason University professor who studies fear and anxiety. Kids end up viewing every male stranger “as a potential evildoer,” he says, and as a byproduct, “there’s an overconfidence in female virtues.”
Imagine: girls growing up thinking that all men are monsters, and boys growing up thinking that they’re going to turn into monsters. Is there a better recipe for a self-fulfilling prophecy?