risk perception gap

Heights, clowns, public speaking—we’re all afraid of something.

But do you ever wonder why you fear what you fear?

It all comes back to a fear factor called the risk perception gap. Often, the things that set off those alarm bells in our brains (“Eeek! A mouse!”) don’t pose as much of a threat as something that feels harmless, but is statistically much riskier – like tapping out a quick text while you’re driving.

So, what gives? If you can’t always trust your own brain, how can you determine what’s actually risky and what’s not? Apparently, our brains use the risk perception gap to trick us all the time.

Joe Hohman knows a little about risk – he’s been an actuary at Erie Insurance for more than 20 years. Actuaries analyze statistics from past events to evaluate the likelihood of something happening down the road. This helps them create rates for auto insurance, life insurance and more.

All data requires interpretation, and Hohman says determining risk is all in the way you run the numbers. Say, for example, you have a car, motorcycle and a bicycle in your garage. How can you determine which is the safest ride to get around town? Well, you could calculate that a few different ways:

  • The number of hours you spend on each set of wheels (A 5-mile trip takes longer on a bike than it would in a car.)
  • The number of miles you drive (You use the motorcycle for your quick daily commute, but use the car for long distances.)
  • The number of journeys or times you take each one out for a spin (You use the car daily, but only dust off the motorcycle on weekends.)

As this exercise shows, you can see how you might end up with a different answer every time.

How to overcome your fear factor

Hohman says people can keep their fears in check by knowing the difference between high-frequency, low-severity events (like stubbing your toe) and low-frequency, high-severity events (like breaking your leg).

“People may fear those low-frequency, high-severity events more even though they don’t happen as often,” says Hohman. “That’s because when they do happen, it’s on the news and registers with people more.”

Think about it: When was the last time you saw a news story about someone slipping in the tub? Probably not anytime recently. But studies show that the bathroom is a dangerous place, with more than a third of injuries that require visits to the ER happening in the bathroom. (And you’d think it would be the kitchen with all of those sharp knives and open flames!)

Read more about the risk perception gap – and unfounded fears – in this article from Parade.com.

Read the full story from Erie Insurance: “What’s Your Fear Factor?