The Cost of Fearing Strangers

What do Bruce Pardo and Atif Irfan have in common?

In case you’re not familiar with their names, let me rephrase:

What do the white guy who dressed up as Santa and killed his ex-wife and her family (and then committed suicide) and the Muslim guy who got thrown off a recent AirTran flight on suspicion of terrorism have in common?

The answer is that both of them had their intentions badly misread. The one who should have been scary to people who knew him wasn’t; and the one who scared the people who didn’t know him turned out to not be scary at all.

As we’ll see below, this is a common pattern. But before going forward, let me first backtrack a bit.

Pardo was a churchgoer whom no one pegged as a homicidal maniac. “He’s a totally different person from what you hear and see on the news for what he did,” said a family friend named Amanda Dunn. “I’m shocked, literally, I’m shocked. I can’t believe that’s actually the same guy.”

Irfan, born in Detroit, is a tax attorney who lives with his family in Alexandria, Va. He was on his way from Washington to Florida with several members of his family for a religious retreat. He and his brother were reportedly discussing which are the “safest” seats on an airplane. “Other people heard them, misconstrued them,” an AirTran spokesman told the Washington Post. “It just so happened these people were of Muslim faith and appearance. It escalated, it got out of hand, and everyone took precautions.” The “precautions” involved removing all the Irfans from the plane and calling in the F.B.I. to question them. They were promptly cleared by the F.B.I. as definitely-not-terrorists, but AirTran still wouldn’t fly them to Florida.

So which would you be more scared of: an American Muslim family you knew nothing about or the guy from your church who had just gone through a divorce?

As we wrote in Freakonomics, most people are pretty terrible at risk assessment. They tend to overstate the risk of dramatic and unlikely events at the expense of more common and boring (if equally devastating) events. A given person might fear a terrorist attack and mad cow disease more than anything in the world, whereas in fact she’d be better off fearing a heart attack (and therefore taking care of herself) or salmonella (and therefore washing her cutting board thoroughly).

Why do we fear the unknown more than the known? That’s a larger question than I can answer here (not that I’m capable anyway), but it probably has to do with the heuristics — the shortcut guesses — our brains use to solve problems, and the fact that these heuristics rely on the information already stored in our memories.

And what gets stored away? Anomalies — the big, rare, “black swan” events that are so dramatic, so unpredictable, and perhaps world-changing, that they imprint themselves on our memories and con us into thinking of them as typical, or at least likely, whereas in fact they are extraordinarily rare.

Which brings us back to Bruce Pardo and Atif Irfan. The people who didn’t seem to fear Pardo were friends and relatives. The people who did fear Irfan were strangers. And they all got it backward. In general, we fear strangers much more than we should. Consider a few supporting pieces of evidence:

+ In the U.S., the proportion of murder victims who knew their assailants to victims killed by strangers is about 3-to-1. (Source: U.S. Department of Justice.)

+ Sixty-four percent of women who are raped know their attackers; and 61 percent of female victims of aggravated assault know their attackers. (Men, on the other hand, are more likely to be assaulted by a stranger.) (Source: D.O.J.)

+ How about child abduction? Isn’t that the classic stranger crime? This 2007 Slate article explains that of the missing children in one recent year, “203,900 were family abductions, 58,200 were nonfamily abductions, and only 115 were ‘stereotypical kidnappings,’ defined in one study as ‘a nonfamily abduction perpetrated by a slight acquaintance or stranger in which a child is detained overnight, transported at least 50 miles, held for ransom, or abducted with the intent to keep the child permanently, or killed.'”

+ And if you’re really concerned about mass murder — which, given its rarity, you really shouldn’t be — you’d probably do well to look around your neighborhood instead of focusing on strangers, or foreigners, or people who look like they might, maybe, possibly be foreigners. A study of mass murderers between 1976 and 1995 found that 63 percent of them were white, 33 percent were black, and just 3 percent all other ethnicities.

So the next time your brain insists on fearing strangers, try to tell it to cool out a bit. It’s not that you necessarily need to insist that it fear your friends and family instead — unless, of course, you are friends with someone like Bernie Madoff. Don’t forget that the greatest financial fraud in history was committed primarily among friends. And with friends like that, who needs strangers?

[Note: I discussed this subject on The Takeaway.]


Given that knowledge, how would you tell your children about talking to strangers?


This kind of flies in the face of Malcolm Gladwell and his rapid cognition and thin slicing behavior theory.


"As we wrote in Freakonomics, most people are pretty terrible at risk assessment. They tend to overstate the risk of dramatic and unlikely events at the expense of more common and boring (if equally devastating) events. A given person might fear a terrorist attack and mad cow disease more than anything in the world, whereas in fact she'd be better off fearing a heart attack (and therefore taking care of herself) or salmonella (and therefore washing her cutting board thoroughly)."

According to Nassim Taleb in the Joe Nocera article in the NYT Magazine this weekend, you have this backwards. Maybe you are the one person who can convince him that Value-at-Risk is good...


I agree with the basic points but I have a couple of quibbles.

1. I don't think the family knew it was Pardo. It's my understanding the Santa suit was a disguise because the family considered him dangerous and would very possibly have called the police rather than let him in. That matters because the family appears to have trusted a "stranger" who wasn't.

2. Fear depends on context, which may be misleading but may not be. As you likely know, one sign of terrorist bombers on buses in Israel was heavy clothing worn in warm weather, clothes that didn't fit the context. That led to attempts to disguise the bombers as extremely Orthodox Jews (who normally wear bulky clothing) or as pregnant women.

3. I think part of your point about the Muslim Detroiters is that the context was misread. How many bombers are going to fly with their families? None so far. How many are going to talk about it on the plane? A bomber is much more likely to try to fit in. Or as Wednesday says at the end of the first Addams Family movie, when asked why she's not in costume for Halloween, "But I am in costume. I'm going as a serial killer. They look like everyone else." The context of a family traveling together contradicted any small signs of danger.

4. One reason people may be so bad at this is frequency. We haven't had many airplane bombers. We haven't had many bombers at all, so the public is less likely to recognize a bomber - as compared, for example, to the security or shoppers at an Israeli mall.




Not at all.


According to sound scientific research on decision making, Dubner has it exactly right regarding risk assessment, not backward as a a previous poster mentioned.


My thoughts regarding the last point:

"A study of mass murderers between 1976 and 1995 found that 63 percent of them were white, 33 percent were black, and just 3 percent all other ethnicities."

Don't Whites make up an extremely large proportion of the population, whereas other ethnicities make up relatively little (say around 15%)? This means that when non-Whites are statistically committing around 35% of the total mass murders, the average foreigner is more likely to be dangerous than the average White person?

And before you misinterpret my intentions, just know that I'm not White.

Laura Rouyer

Given the fact that heart disease runs in my family, I have respect for it. However, tests run on my heart shows it's pretty healthy. (I do have diabetes and its complication, neuropathy.) However, my dad died of CJD, the human form of "mad cow disease" and although the type he had was supposedly not hereditary, I am not allowed to donate blood and I do worry about getting CJD because there seems to be no tests to predict it. The course of the disease is terrible and always fatal. My dad died within three months of the onset of symptoms after going blind, losing his sense of balance, the ability to swallow, and other essential functions.
Having witnessed via television thousands of (mainly) Americans die in the 9/11 attacks which were perpetrated by terrorists of middle-eastern nationalities, I too, might be wary of people who seem to be of middle-eastern descent in an airport, especially if they were acting somewhat suspiciously. (However I think they should have been sent on their way in First Class once the FBI determined that they were okay.)
Drunk drivers probably kill just as many people as the 9/11 terrorists, but not all at once and not as spectacularly. If the media broadcast videos of auto crashes over and over again, maybe the general public would be as upset and concerned about people driving drunk as with terrorists. Perhaps this is unfortunate because the families of the victims of drunken drivers are as devastated as those of the 9/11 victims.
Fearing strangers or that which is unknown, unpredictable, and sudden is, I believe, one of those built-in protections that reside in the reptilian, primitive parts of the brain. I think we're just wired that way.



We all know that not all terrorists are Muslims, however a significant quantity of Muslims have been terrorists in recent times...

As for child abductions, call the media on that one. Remember the "man bites dog" story always gets played,published, or printed before the "dog bites man" story...

It is always more sensational (and revenue generating and sales worthy) to report on the unknown man abducting a child from his/her bedroom than a stupid non-custodial parent, behind on child support, grabbing up his or her child from in front of the custodial parent's home...


Percentage of people that were Muslim who have committed mass murderer involving commercial airliners : 100.
Number of Muslims who have murdered using commercial airliners versus non-Muslims:19:0.

Alan R

#1 - Teach kids to not be Stupid.

Fear of strangers is irrational, but blind trust of strangers is even more silly.

Basically, don't get in some stranger's car, don't take candy from them, if they try and abduct you kick & scream 'fire!'

Fearing strangers is silly though... The statistics show that.

Phil H

A lot of this is due to the availability error:

Specifically, we tend to assume that what we see in the media is representative, when in fact the media deals almost exclusively in things that are rare and unusual.

People are also react more emotionally to catastrophes that result from the deliberate acts than things that are perceived as "accidental". (So a car crash that kills 10 people isn't as horrifying as a terrorist bombing that kills 10 people.)


Way to support your comment charles!


#1: read Gavin de Becker's The Gift of Fear. Have your children talk to strangers in appropriate, safe, supervised settings so they can start building their "weirdo-meters" early on.

Also, instruct them that if they ever get lost to find a woman and ask her for help. The old advice of finding a policeman is not helpful (how often are cops around at malls or grocery stores?) and women are statistically less likely to hurt a kid and are probably more likely to help.



GG @ #7-
The US is roughly 70% white, quite a far cry from the 85/15 split you mentioned, so there is only a slight disproportion. Considering that link only provided an abstract and not the full text, it is hard to take the numbers at face value. More importantly, how did you go from talking about non-whites to foreigners? You do realize they are COMPLETELY different groups of people, right? To equate non-whites with foreigners is ridiculous and reeks of racism, xenophobia, and various other forms of prejudice.

Econbiker @ #9-
It is a ridiculous and unfair exaggeration to say that a "significant" quantity of Muslims are terrorists. Leaving aside how unfairly that word is used, Muslim terrorists still make up a ridiculously small percentage of the Muslim world. If we applied the standard of "terrorism" that we do when talking about Muslims to other groups (including ourselves), we would see far more "significant" quantities emerging.

David @ #10-
Are you serious? You are cherry-picking stats. How many predominantly Muslim nations have dropped bombs on American soil? 0. How many Muslim civilians have been killed by US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? 670,000, according to some sources. Is that any stronger an argument that we should fear our President more than a Muslim family?



Could the statistics also be partly in cause of our fear of strangers?

I imply that as people are highly suspect of strangers, strangers must put forth greater effort to conduct their crime. It is much easier to invade the home of someone you know.

I think that this could be especially important to consider with rape cases, since the aggressor will have more opportunities for private meetings with known victims and also he/she may suspect that known victims will be less likely to report the crime.

If we tried to revert now to leaving our doors unlocked again, would stranger-crime increase? Did stranger-crime decrease as we became more paranoid in the last half century?


"The Gift of Fear" by Gavin de Becker was given to me by a friend when I was being stalked by an apparently normal, average, apparently otherwise sane co-worker. It was so "out of character" that no one believed me and I had no choice but to find a new job and move out of my home. Everyone should read this book. It explains how we let being polite put us in danger, among many other enlightening topics.



Dude chill and stop being a douche.

1) Read the entire paragraph I was referring to when in my comment. The entire thing is about whether you should be more scared of foreigners or Whites in your community, and it uses race as somewhat of an indicator.

2) Demographically, Whites made up 77.2% of the total population in 2002. Stop making up some 70/30 split bs. Furthermore, the black population was only 12.3% of the population but was responsible for 33% of the crime? I think the statistics therefore are disproportionate.

3) Even if the statistics were only slightly disproportionate, the claim I was making that the numbers should be considered in context of the larger picture is still valid. Obviously, Whites aren't 21x as likely to be dangerous than "all other ethnicities."

4) Yup, as a foreigner, I'm xenophobic. Exactly, great deduction man! You deserve some kudos...

My point was merely that the last argument of Dubner might not serve to further the original claim, which was something I agreed with.



We fear strangers because of the "power law", meaning that a given event may be unlikely, but it does occur, the consequences are generally disastrous....earthquake, plane crash, stranger taking off with your toddler....


This stretches into a number of areas in society. Today, few kids are even allowed to walk a block to school. Parents are afraid that there will be a stalker in the bushes waiting to pounce, then do the absolutely logical thing, and drive the kid a block to school. The odds of the kid dying in a car wreck on the way to school are 10,000x greater then being picked off by a stalker. Yet, this is the decision that is made most of the time.