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.]


re #3: Taleb's message, as I read it, is more about the calculation of risk than the perception. He claims that financial risk models tend to assume something approximating normal probability distributions, even when this is not the case. He further says that the big dangers are the unknown unknowns. In one of his books, he describes the events that caused the greatest problems to a casino, none of which involved unexpected gambling results.

In contrast, risk perception tends to concentrate on the rare but known instances. Before the 9/11 attacks, hardly anybody worried about Muslim terrorists flying aircraft into buildings, and now far too many people are nearly obsessed with it. Those attacks changed Muslim terrorists flying aircraft into buildings from an unknown unknown to a known unknown, and there it stayed.

It would be interesting to do a survey of assorted means of risk estimation and perception, and see if we can get some interesting results from synthesizing these two observations, but they certainly aren't contradictory.



As for mass murder stats, don't they really reflect mass murders who have been caught?

We don't really know the racial make up of mass murderers (who is the Zodiack for example?). There are mass murderers who have not been caught, and I'll venture that there have been mass murders that are not know to be mass murders but are thought of as being each a single unrelated murder.


I think you should call this "The Cost Of Making Friends"


Also check out "The Culture Of Fear" by Barry Glasner. Lots of good stuff there about how the media, specifically television, has increased coverage of violent crime over the last few decades while the incidence thereof actually decreased. Helps explain, at least partially, people's distorted perceptions.

Kevin H

I wonder if knowledge of the statistics can actually change people's behavior. Maybe publishing a 'guide to risk' every year would make for a more sane population.



Citing 2002 statistics? 2006 statistics reported 74% of the country to be white, with 8% of those whites reporting to be Hispanic, making the percentage closer to 69% or so.

I think the general premise that you can equate "minority" with "foreigner" is flawed and offensive. Many foreigners are white and most "minorities" in this country are not foreign. You may be right that Dubner's point is invalid (as I said, without actually seeing the study, it is hard to draw any meaningful conclusions from his comment), but that does not excuse you using faulty stats to back it up (you clearly didn't do any research in your first post) and does not justify the minority/foreigner comment.

I'm sorry if pointing out the offensiveness of your post was being "douchey". I thought it was rather douchey of you to imply that minorities are foreigners. And, even if you are non-native to this country, you can still be xenophobic. And even if you are not, that does not excuse the implicit racism in your post.



> 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.

This doesn't seem to be the case - Spanish TV has broadcast gruesome road-accident footage on a daily basis for years and years, and they still have a terrible record in this regard.

Aaron A

"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."

It would be more valuable to know what percentage of whites, blacks, and others in the US (or wherever you lived) are mass murderers. Sure the percentages would be extremely low, but then they would be adjusted for population. The statistic given above is very misleading if you don't think about population proportions.

Rich Wilson


What, you think Sept 11, 2001 was the first time commercial airliners were used to kill people? You think people who die in other terrorist attacks don't count?

Tell me, what's the ratio of religious affiliations who have blown up federal buildings in the US?

Rich Wilson

Brennan Hawkins was an 11-year-old boy who was lost in the Utah wilderness for four days. He avoided strangers, including search parties, because he feared being "stolen".

As Bruce Schneier says: "In a world where good guys are common and bad guys are rare, assuming a random person is a good guy is a smart security strategy. We need to help children develop their natural intuition about risk, and not give them overbroad rules."

I think kids should be wary of people who approach them ,but if a child is in trouble, they should use their instincts in picking an adult (or group of adults) to ask for help.


A few responses:

- Some posters are confusing conditional probabilities: the probability that a domestic terrorist will be Muslim is high (although not 1, see Oklahoma City), but the probability that any given Muslim is a terrorist is vanishingly low. There are how many hundreds of millions of non-terrorist Muslims in the world?

- More statistical training can help, but it will never fix our lousy intuitions. What will fix them is listening to modern researchers of decision heuristics like Gerd Gigerenzer and Dan Goldstein who tell us that we learn frequencies (as another poster pointed out). We learn them from repeated exposure, meaning that our poor intuitions about rare events are hard to fix.


The moral panic over paedophilia seems influential here. The fear of it provokes such an emotional response that it may be a significant influence on current overprotective parenting.


A more sensible approach to relative risk in pretty much every section of society would be very, very welcome. By chance, I read a piece in today's Guardian on the UK government's drugs policy which took the Home Office to task for reacting to tabloid hysteria rather than standing firm.

This paragraph in particular caught my eye:
"The mathematician David Spiegelhalter pleaded this week for children to be taught "risk literacy" as an elementary life skill. He is launching a Risk Roadshow to spread an understanding of probability and danger, so young people know how to handle odds, lotteries, interest rates, insurance premiums and health scares. Such literacy, he says, should be 'the basic component of discussion about issues in the media, politics and schools ... to deconstruct the latest story about a cancer risk or a wonder drug'."

Good luck to him - let's hope the idea catches on.



Re the abduction stats, I'm not sure it's irrational for children to fear strangers - it's just as likely that teaching them to do so is the reason the stranger abduction number is so low. This could be one of those cases similar to when reporters ask why we're putting so many people in jail when the crime rate is declining.

Eric M. Jones

How did this question turn into reasons to fear blacks and Muslims? The very few Christians who have actually read the bible can't point to some sort of moral superiority over Muslims. And YES, poor people commit more crime than rich people. I fear most our President and Vice-President, followed by their propagandists shills and operatives. And we'll be lucky to escape with our lives (The Constitution, Bill of Rights, and the economy having all been pretty much trashed).

Fear of strangers always simmers at some level and serves some protective purpose, but is frequently amped up (by leaders, propagandists, demigogs, etc.) when it serves their purpose of manipulating the masses. During WW1 this was used against Germans ("Halt the Huns") to such a great degree that when WW2 came along, most people didn't buy it.



The issue about Muslim terrorists is terror for terror's sake versus a concrete political goal. Sure there are non-Muslim terrorists but most have a concrete agenda with political or economic goals other than killing as many non-Muslims as possible. See also #10 comment.

I also entirely agree with cteej's omment #24 about the media coverage of crime.


scientist at large

I find myself thinking about pre-history at this point in time and, particularly, the sorts of militarist activities (fighting external enemies) that went on before there was what we call civilization.(when raids were a way of life-- going into camps, raping women, killing for food and perhaps even at times for the sheer enjoyment of inflicting pain on others). Have we forgotten human history. Lately, there are modern versions of this. If you read about Islam in Max Weber, you would know, in hindsight, that "extermination" was not what they were aiming towards when it came to peoples of the book and even M changed his mind a bit. We can learn from him too. These days, look at the way in which some supermarket tabloids treat "celebs"-- like "freaks"- I wouldn't wanna be one. So no wonder people fear strangers. The question is, how to make friends of em.

As for the subject of "mass murder." Presumably, it's nothing personal. That is the problem--right- what gets in the way of socialization "the process of learning to become a member of a group or society." Goldstein, 1995 I blame the parents, then the school (public education needs to concern itself with each and every individual and then the individual who in the end is accountable for what he or she becomes..

Perhaps, it is not about joining the crowd. Just finding oneself and making friends--that is real important in life. Power to the double meaning of people.



Some posters have been confusing the terms:

Mass murder is the killing of many in one event such as the 9/11 attacks.

Serial murder is the killing over several events - ex. The Zodiac.

I am sure the statistics around the ethnicity of the perpetrators of these types of crimes is vastly different.


"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)."

It's 'easier' to worry about the things we can't control than to address the things we can.


Yes I think we should all be really scared of everything and avoid contact with everybody.

You can catch me up the mountain, third cave to the right, unless I see you first.