Most of our reality is shaped by what we see and encounter in our daily lives. Who is in your social network and what you’re exposed to is important to your reality.
This may seem obvious but it has important consequences for how we think about threats, and the scary things that happen in life. In this post I want to look at some of those threats, and how whether they are rare or common affects how we perceive them.
Ultra-Rare, You Don’t Care
There are all sorts of extremely rare conditions and situations. Horrible diseases like Progeria, which affect 1 in 18 million children, and shark attack deaths, which are less common than even Progeria.
Mostly people don’t pay attention to these risks and threats. And they shouldn’t, because they are so rare. But the rareness is not why people don’t care. People don’t do statistical calculations in their head. It’s simpler than that:
- You have no direct experience of this
- No one you know has direct experience of it
- No one in your friends’ extended network has any either
If it’s Common, You’ll Take it Seriously
Heart disease. Stroke. Cancer. These are scary things which are common. In the United States, about 1.7 million people a year are diagnosed with cancer, in a population of 328 million. That’s about 1 in 200. That is plenty common enough that everybody knows someone who has had cancer.
Once again though, no real person is running the statistics. You don’t care about these threats because they’re common, you probably care because you have direct experience of this in your family.
The threat is not hypothetical.
How Big Is Your Network?
We can look at these statistics, and just by the number we can usually guess if they’re going to matter to people.
The average person in the US knows about 600 people. This means if something rare or nasty is happening to 1 in 300 people, you probably have it in your network. How many people do those people know? People networks overlap heavily (your family all knows one another) so it isn’t 600^600 as the math would suggest. It’s tens of thousands for sure though.
Our direct experience is the oval at the top, we know what’s happened to us. People we know add to that, and on average there are 600 of them for each of us. We can also hear stories about their friends, which widens what we know about, but gets a lot further away from our direct experience. And finally there’s everything that’s ever happened, all 8 billion of us.
How Seriously Will You Take a Threat?
We can predict this by roughly looking at statistics, and this egg diagram. It comes from the insight that we began the post with: people take things seriously when they have it in their direct or indirect experience, and have some “corroborating experience”.
If the chances of something happening are greater than about 1 in 600, then the chances are great it’s happened to you or someone you directly know.
This is the difference between knowing something is possible, and emotionally knowing that it is a threat to you.
You may hear in online news about horrible things that happen to celebrities, politicians and so forth — but they’re people who are far away and likely don’t touch you.
Comparative Risk: COVID-19
The coronavirus is a great example of this because people’s experience of it is so varied all over the country. There are places with high and low rates. This means that in some places everyone has direct experience of Coronavirus, and in other places, very few people do. And so understandably, they feel differently about it.
New York City: As of May 16, 2020 – in New York City, there had been 195,000 cases and about 20,000 deaths. Because New York City has about 8 million people, this means about 1 in 47 New Yorkers either has Coronavirus or had it. That’s pretty common; and probably means just about everybody knows someone who has had it. The deaths are less common, but still about 1 in 400 people. So the experience of knowing someone directly who died of Coronavirus will also be common in New York City.
Texas: As of May 16, 2020 – there were 43,851 confirmed cases and 1,216 deaths, in a population of 29 million Texans. This works out to about 1 in 666 people who were infected, and 1 in 2,500 who died of Coronavirus. This means it’s quite plausible most people do not know someone who has had coronavirus. They probably have someone in their extended network who has (where the threat is less remote) and deaths are certainly very distant.
Is it any wonder that the reactions in New York City and Texas are different, as to the severity and seriousness of Coronavirus? The New York Department of Health is urging people to stay at home. And as of May 5, Texas is opening up.
I am not saying that one group is right and the other wrong. It’s not my job to tell people what to think about Coronavirus. But it is useful to know how people think about risk relative to their social networks.
- Common vs. Rare vs. Shared vs. Unique: A Century of Debate
- The Average Person Knows How Many People?
- The World is Shrinking: 6 Degrees of Separation is Now 2!
- New York Coronavirus Cases
- Coronavirus Updates in Texas