Letters; October/November 2007; Scientific American Mind; by Staff Editor; 2 Page(s)
David G. Myers's article, "The Powers and Perils of Intuition," dealt in part with statistics; for example, women fear breast cancer more than heart disease but are more likely to die of heart disease than of breast cancer, and we fear planes more than cars, although more people die in cars than in planes. I think the author missed something central about how the brain assesses risk.
The brain does not make a fear assessment based on the likelihood of a particular event occurring; rather it does so based on the likelihood of dying if you should find yourself in a particular event. For example, when it comes to planes and cars, the brain isn't concerned with how likely it is that you will be in one or the other. Instead it is saying, "If I am in a plane crash, I will certainly die. If I am in a car crash, however, there is some decent chance that I will live because people survive car crashes all the time. Therefore, planes are scarier than cars." Along the same lines, cancer is famously lethal. Heart disease, on the other hand, feels survivable--plenty of people get heart disease and then change their diets or exercise or get bypass surgery and survive.