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How good are human brains at assessing risk? Not very, as it turns out, according to an article in Psychology Today.

For example:

After 9/11, 1.4 million people changed their holiday travel plans to avoid flying. The vast majority chose to drive instead. But driving is far more dangerous than flying, and the decision to switch caused roughly 1,000 additional auto fatalities, according to two separate analyses comparing traffic patterns in late 2001 to those the year before. In other words, 1,000 people who chose to drive wouldn’t have died had they flown instead.

Of course, all of this falls under God’s sovereign rule, but from a human perspective, other problem areas include underestimating threats that creep up on us — for example, we fear cancer but not heart disease — and substituting one risk for another, i.e., we speed up when we put our seatbelts on.

To get an idea of the actual numbers associated with common fears, take this quiz from the article: 

Mortal Threats

How good is your grasp of risk?

  1. What’s more common in the United States, (a) suicide or (b) homicide?
  2. What’s the more frequent cause of death in the United States, (a) pool drowning or (b) falling out of bed?
  3. What are the top five causes of accidental death in America, following motor-vehicle accidents, and which is the biggest one?
  4. Of the top two causes of nonaccidental death in America, (a) cancer and (b) heart disease, which kills more women?
  5. What are the next three causes of nonaccidental death in the United States?
  6. Which has killed more Americans, bird flu or mad cow disease?
  7. How many Americans die from AIDS every year, (a) 12,995, (b) 129,950, or (c) 1,299,500?
  8. How many Americans die from diabetes every year? (a) 72,820, (b) 728,200, or (c) 7,282,000?
  9. Which kills more Americans, (a) appendicitis or (b) salmonella?
  10. Which kills more Americans, (a) pregnancy and childbirth or (b) malnutrition?

ANSWERS (all refer to number of Americans per year, on average):

  1. a
  2. a
  3. In order: drug overdose, fire, choking, falling down stairs, bicycle accidents
  4. b
  5. In order: stroke, respiratory disease, diabetes
  6. No American has died from either one
  7. a
  8. a
  9. a
  10. b


  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Division of Vital Statistics)
  • National Transportation Safety Board


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