In a Guardian livechat this week, NSA leaker Edward Snowden advised Americans to consider the trade off they make between privacy and security: "Bathtub falls and police officers kill more Americans than terrorism, yet we've been asked to sacrifice our most sacred rights for fear of falling victim to it." These "X kills more people than Y" comparisons crop up all the time, in discussions of terrorism, gun control, even obesity. Brooke talks to risk analyst Peter Sandman about why they aren't very persuasive.
In an online forum hosted by the Guardian newspaper this week, NSA leaker Edward Snowden advised Americans to think hard about how much privacy they're willing to trade for security. To make his point, he used an increasingly familiar construction. He said, quote, “Bathtub falls and police officers kill more Americans than terrorism, and yet, we've been asked to sacrifice our most sacred rights for fear of falling victim to it.”
You hear this “X kills more than Y construction” everywhere. Here's Georgia State Senator Bill Jackson.
SENATOR BILL JACKSON: There’s more murders with hammers last year than there was shotguns and pistols and AK-47s.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s not true, by the way. Peter Sandman specializes in outrage management. That would be for his industry clients. Also, precaution advocacy, for the activists, and crisis communication for organizations confronting say epidemics or natural disasters. When I called him for an interview, he preferred I came to record him at his home, where I asked him about that “X kills more people than Y” rhetorical device. He says it doesn't really work.
PETER SANDMAN: If you distinguish two characteristics of a risk, how dangerous is it versus how upsetting is it – let’s give ‘em labels. Let’s call how dangerous it is hazard. Let's call how upsetting it is outrage. The correlation between hazard and outrage is extremely low. It's about .2. What this means is if you know a risk is dangerous, that tells you almost nothing about whether it's upsetting. If you know a risk is upsetting, that tells you almost nothing about whether it's dangerous.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What are the elements that make something terrifying, even when it isn't so dangerous?
PETER SANDMAN: Trust is a biggie. If I trust you, I'm going to find the risk that you are exposing me to much more acceptable than if I don't trust you. If you trust the government to tell you that surveillance is no big deal and they’re gonna do it responsibly, you’re gonna have a different response than if you think the government is not to be trusted. So trust is one.
Control is one. If it’s under my control I’m going to be less upset than if it’s under your control. Memorability goes in the other direction. If you can remember awful things happening or you can imagine awful things happening, that makes the risk more memorable, that makes it more a source of outrage. But what's key here is that outrage has a much higher correlation with perceived hazard than hazard has with perceived hazard.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But isn’t it helpful to set our priorities to know that household accidents, which are preventable, cause more deaths than terrorism?
PETER SANDMAN: Yes. It's not like I, you know, go around urging people to ignore hazard and focus on outrage.
On the other hand, it's very pointless to go around urging people to ignore outrage and focus on hazard because they won't do it. If hazard is low and outrage is high, that is, you’ve got a risk that’s not very dangerous but is very upsetting, then the job is outrage management. Then you’re trying to calm people down.
Let's take a situation that most of your listeners are going to think is genuinely low hazard, like vaccination. But if you're the CDC or you’re some public health department and you’re dealing with a parent who's anxious, it's not mostly telling the parent that it's foolish to worry about vaccine. It's much more listening to the parent’s concerns. It's partly acknowledging that there is some truth to those concerns. The strongest argument in the toolkit of opponents of vaccination is the dishonesty of vaccination proponents about the very small risk that's real. If you’re 98 percent right and pretending to be 100 percent right, then the advocates of that two percent nail you!
When people don't understand the data, it's not because they can't. It's because they choose not to. And that's a function of outrage. So if you can reduce the outrage, then they’re more interested in the data. Then you can begin to educate them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how do you increase the outrage?
PETER SANDMAN: That's what I sometimes call precaution advocacy. The paradigm in precaution advocacy is watch out, this could kill you. Do something. Wear a seatbelt, wear a hard hat, wear a condom, not necessarily all at the same time.
All right? [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I’m sure it’s happened.
PETER SANDMAN: [LAUGHING] Yeah, and there there’s a variety of strategies, some of them very simple and very obvious.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Give me an example.
PETER SANDMAN: One of the things that demonstrably works well with seatbelts and well generally in precaution advocacy is scaring people. So those scary drivers at movies that, you know, they make teenagers watch actually do a lot of good. Role models work.
One of the most effective things in persuading people to get vaccinated against the swine flu pandemic a couple of years ago was when President Obama got his children vaccinated. One example of a strategy that’s very powerful is if you can get people to do a behavior that doesn't necessarily make sense to them, because they don't have the attitude to support that behavior, once they have done the behavior, they begin to wonder why they did it. This is called cognitive dissonance. And, and cognitive dissonance is a very strong motivator for learning things that you wouldn't otherwise want to learn.
A nice example of this is most people who have ever tried to ask people to sign petitions notice that more people sign your petition and then read your literature than read your literature and then signed your petition. They sign the petition to be courteous, and then the act of signing the petition makes them wonder, what did I do, what did I sign? Then they read the literature, in order to teach themselves that what they did made sense and, and to develop an attitude that supports the behavior.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, let's take today the argument over NSA surveillance. Where would you come down on this?
PETER SANDMAN: Well, it would depend on who my client was -
- I guess. If you are the NSA, you have two possible things you can do. One is to ramp up the outrage about terrorism, and the other is to ramp down the outrage about surveillance. And you can see the government trying to do both.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I was thinking that the government’s best move would be to offer actual stories of plots that were foiled through this kind of surveillance.
PETER SANDMAN: Which it – as, as you know, it’s in the process of doing. But whether they’re actual stories or fictional stories is really –
- [LAUGHS] remains to be determined. But they, they are telling us stories.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So now, let's say you're working for civil libertarians who have long spoken about the lack of transparency when it comes to these kinds of surveillance techniques?
PETER SANDMAN: I'm not gonna want to focus on telling people they’re fools to worry about terrorism, I would make much more progress telling people that the privacy worries that they have suppressed – I mean, it’s not like people don't care about their privacy. People do care about privacy. And I would try to reawaken those worries. So I’m talking about this means you. You know, you don't say anything on the phone that you're worried about the government knowing, but here are the ways this might get in your way.
The government is doing it now about terrorism, maybe they’re gonna be doing it in 10 years about tax evasion. And suddenly, it occurs to you that you weren’t entirely honest about your taxes! And could they find that out from an algorithm grounded in all the data about your phone calls and emails? And you begin to think, oh!
I would be be trying to make real, emotionally real, real in outrage terms for people, that invasion of privacy isn't something they shouldn’t care about.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One more question for you: fracking. The industry seems to be winning this issue. What would you do for the other side?
PETER SANDMAN: I would focus on uncertainty. Who knows, maybe it can be done safely, but they don’t know that for sure. And this is the same industry that got this right, wrong and got this wrong and got this wrong and got this wrong and got this wrong. Some of these companies are losing their shirts on shale gas exploitation. And what do companies do when they're not making as much money as they promised their shareholders they were gonna make? They cut corners!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And if you were the industry?
PETER SANDMAN: Well, for one thing, if I were the industry, I wouldn’t be cutting corners. I would be saying, look, this may be more dangerous than wind, but nobody knows how to produce enough power with wind to power your stereo, much less your car. So maybe renewables are the future, maybe they’re not the future. We don’t know that. What we know is they’re not the present. So our choices in the here and now are gas, oil, coal and nuclear. And you got to decide which one you hate the least. And, you know, there's a very good case that the one you hate the least, especially if you're an environment that’s worried about all the wars we’ve been fighting for – you know, in the, in the Middle East, you start thinking, “Oh well, what I really want is a source of energy that's domestic and isn’t coal.”
That's the argument I’d be making.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [PAUSE] I can see why you have such a nice apartment.
PETER SANDMAN: [LAUGHING]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Peter, thank you very much.
PETER SANDMAN: My pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Peter Sandman is a risk communication consultant.
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That's it for this week show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, PJ Vogt, Alex Goldman, Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary and Laura Mayer. We had more help from Molly Buckley and Olivia Weitz. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Andrew Dunne.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our Senior Producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for News, and our boss. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.