Loom Larger on One's Worry

“The mind is more comfortable in reckoning probabilities in terms of the relative frequency of remembered or imagined events. That can make recent and memorable events - a plane crash, a shark attack, an anthrax infection - loom larger on one's worry list than more frequent and boring events, such as the car crashes and ladder falls that get printed beneath the fold on page B14. And it can lead risk experts to speak one language and ordinary people to hear another. In hearings for a proposed nuclear waste site, an expert might present a fault tree that lays out the conceivable sequences of events by which radioactivity might escape. For example, erosion, cracks in the bedrock, accidental drilling, or improper sealing might cause the release of radioactivity into groundwater. In turn, groundwater movement, volcanic activity, or an impact of a large meteorite might cause the release of radioactive wastes into the biosphere. Each train of events can be assigned a probability, and the aggregate probability of an accident from all the causes can be estimated. When people hear these analyses, however, the are not reassured but become more fearful than ever. They hadn't realized there are so many ways for something to go wrong! They mentally tabulate the number of disaster scenarios, rather than mentally aggregating the probabilities of the disaster scenarios.” 

― Steven Pinker