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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.]