Why do deaths from plane crashes, terrorism and natural disasters bother us so much?

I’m honestly curious about this.

Why do we freak out when 100 people die in a plane crash, or 1000 people die in a terrorist attack, or 2000 die in an earthquake, etc?

According to the CDC (www.cdg.gov), millions of people die every year. Here are the statistics for 2001
Age Number of deaths
< 1 27,568
1-4 5,107
5-14 7,095
15-24 32,252
25-44 133,357
45-64 412,204
> 64 1,798,420

One argument would be that most deaths are of older people, not people “in their prime”, and our society grieves more when a young person dies (and in these major catastrophes, many young people die)

However, from the CDC data, a huge number of young people die each year from several other causes. For example 133 thousand people between 25 and 44 years old died in 2001. That comes out to about 2,500 per week or 365 per day! Why are aren’t we & the media grieving for them?

So, if 200 people die in a plane crash, why do we freak out? Why does it bother us so much?

I should note that it does bother me too, but logically it shouldn’t. Because, if 200 people dying in a plane crash bothers us a lot, 600 15-24 year olds dying each week should devastate us.


  1. Most deaths aren’t concentrated in “one event”, such as a plane crash, so they
    aren’t as obvious or spectacular, although I don’t see how this should affect
    how much we freak out about the deaths from the major events.

  2. Most people don’t know exactly how many people die all the time.
    If they knew, they wouldn’t freak out about the plane crashes etc.
    However, even though I know how many people die all the time,
    it still bothers me a lot if thousands die in an earthquake, plane crash, etc.

  3. Most people do know that a lot of people die all the time, but we all
    choose to ignore or suppress this knowledge in order to go ahead with our
    lives, and these events are pesky reminders of death.
    In general, it’s like you know you are constantly losing thousands of dollars a day, and one day you forget you wallet with 100 dollars in it at the grocery store and you start freaking out about it. It wouldn’t make sense.

Am I missing something?

It’s reported in the news :rolleyes:

Some of it has to do with news, some of it is what we expect vs. what we perceive. For example, the number of people who die in traffic accidents daily is huge. The number of people who die of various diseases that might have been avoided by a healthier life style is also huge. Yet we freak out over a handful who die of SARS because it’s new. Or we panic over alar on apples but continue to pass on the right, speed and tailgate.

We are used to the idea that familiar diseases exist and that traffic accidents happen. They are common, they happen all the time, but we perceive them one by one. A plane crash, on the other hand, really happens very rarely but it affects a large number all at once. And it gets reported just because it is rare.

In addition, many of us are very ignorant when it comes to numbers and statistics. If a town of 10,000 had one person die of some disease in 2002, and two died of the same cause in 2003, somebody will inevitably point out that the percentage has doubled in just one year, and make a meaningless extrapolation that the entire town is going to be wiped out in short order. They will then want a large grant of money to study the issue and stop this scourge.

I have been puzzled by this myself. And it doesn’t have to be a plane crash or dozens who die. A few days ago we had a policeman killed during an unusually violent robbery, and ever since everybody is screaming about being tougher on crime, filling the airwaves. Every year the message is that society is becoming more violent, but at the end of every year the number of violent deaths are pretty much exactly the same as the year before. The same goes for the number of accidents.

Personally I tend to explain it with the same reasoning that brought the first Matrix movie to fame, it’s all about existentialism. We don’t know where or when we are going out of history, so when someone is hit at random it reminds us of our own mortality. Media just hypes it. It’s ironic that more people die from suicide than car accidents or by a violent crime (in Europe at least), yet suicide victimes are hardly mentioned by society. But I guess they don’t remind us that life is short.

What bothers me, and interests me, is the huge impact a single incident could have on lawmakers. Whatever happened to pattern first, action later?

Just a wild guess, but I think part of it is denial. If people concentrated on every type of death rather than primarily the group or spectacular deaths, people in general would just freak out. Emotionally, I’m not sure people could handle it, so we tend to not think about it. There would be so much grief and fear if there was an everyday, real, palpable public awareness about every death. IMHO. Oh well, no cites, that’s why I tend to stay out of GD.

THis could be true. For example, it seems that every parents biggest fear is that their child will be stranger abducted. How often does a true stranger abduction happen? Yet these same parents have no second thoughts about strapping their children into an automobile and speeding along at 70 MPH down the freeway, when hundreds of children are killed in automobile accidents every year.

I admit that it is kind of strange how we get so more worked up over some deaths than others. For example, commercial planes are much safer than cars (either in terms of deaths per year or per passenger mile) and yet people seem much more fearful of plane crashes than care crashes.

I believe that in the U.S., car accidents kill about 40,000 per year which means that over 100,000 people have died from them since Sept 11 (which killed just over 3000, as I recall).

And, of course, for every person killed in a car crash, I am sure there are several (probably about an order of magnitude more) who are pretty badly injured.

I think the oddity of the incidents that we get worked up over has the most to do with it. There is a perverse effect caused by the failure of normally safe things.

I remember reading an article in Psycology Today about Halloween candy tampering. Does any here remember when it was common to worry a great deal about sending kids out to collect candy from strangers? People organized shopping mall trick or treat drives where individuals would collect gift certificates instead of edible candy. Groups organized Halloween parties to discourage randome stranger trick or treating.

It turns out that out of 3 cases nationally that year of kids being poisoned all of them had been poisoned by relatives of adults responsible for them. That is, not a single case of stranger tampered candy had resulted in anyone getting hurt. Nevertheless, the nation reacted as if a hoard of satanic Halloween tamperers were after their kids.

The article proposed that the reason for the over reaction was something it called the Bogey Man Syndrome. Basically this means that people have a great deal of fears about modern life. Bad things can happen very quickly without any chance for a defence. Therefore, when certain things happen that can easily be defended against, people over react as a way of asuaging their fear of all the other possibilities that they have no control over.

The article specifically brought up that these supposed candy tamperers were perfect fits. They only come out to hunt once a year during the early evening hours. They only attack kids through a specific means which is easy to filter.

Specifically we obsess about dangers which are small and controllable because they are small and controllable. We worry about plane disasters because it is very easy to not fly very often. We don’t worry as much about car fatalities because it would be very difficult to stop driving. The danger, of course, is that we spend all of our attention on the small dangers and ignore the larger ones.

I may have another example. Consider the amount of attention heaped on the Presidential elections. But what differences can either candidate really make? Might it not be better to spend more time at city council meeting or State legislative rallies than the National elections? The problem, of course, is that local politics is much harder to “worry about”. Not harder to influence, but more difficult to worry about. You have to be more directly tuned in to things around you than you do with national politics which usually occur more on an abstract level. Just an idle thought of mine. I could very easily be wrong.

Really it all comes down to media habits. Very few people read every single article in the newspaper, every single day, or in other ways investigate the news very deeply. Most of us scan the headlines, and occasionally read those articles that catch our interest. And the media people know perfectly well that stories about gory or violent death are more likely to be read/watched/listened to than any others, so they focus the most on those stories. And since most of us are just scanning the headlines, we assume that incidents of violent death must be quite common, because that’s what the headlines are all about.

Great analysis, pervert. I think people are basically irrational. Personally, I feel the same emotional reaction to a plane crash that I do to all the inter-city dwellers who are murdered each year, or all the people who die in auto accidents, or people who get cancer, or what have you. I also find that I have little interest in crimes committed against famous or unusually attractive people, even though such things get much more than their fair share of media coverage. But I’m sure that’s not true of most people. It’s not that I think I’m more rational than anybody else - I’m sure there are plenty of things that I don’t act rationally about. I guess I just lack whatever it is that makes people react very emotionally to sensationalistic deaths.

For example, there hasn’t been an actual count of all the people who have died in Iraq, but I’m guessing it’s thousands, and that bothers me. Then this story came out recently about the Americans’ bodies being dragged through the streets, and a lot of people really came unglued about that. Well, it certainly bothered me, but it didn’t really bother me more than any of the other senseless deaths. I couldn’t help thinking that it’s sad when anyone dies.

I’ll vote more for ggurl’s theory of denial (somewhat amended) rather than for pervert’s “perception of control”, although perhaps they’re related.

My supporting evidence is the way that people buy Accidental Death and Dismemberment riders on life insurance. Statistically speaking, claims are very rare. Most people die of disease – and that’s true of all ages, except possible teen years. Yet, at the same time, most people think they are personally healthy, and therefore they fear the unexpected death from accident, from unforeseen forces. Hence, a morbid fascination arising from denial of one’s own mortality. The sudden and unexpected deaths (both accident and murder) are a threat.

It’s a way of dealing with the fact that we are all mortal, but don’t want to admit it. Hence, in the common view, death by disease (or old age, or whatever) is “natural.” You have some warning, some advance notice, you know it’s coming. Death out of the blue is a threat, and a reminder of something we’d rather not think about.

The media report it, of course, because people are fascinated by it. It’s not the media causing the morbid fascination, but exploiting it.

I’ll certainly go along with the “lack of control” theory, the same one that makes some people afraid to fly even though their odds are much worse driving their own cars.

But there may be a couple of other factors, too:

  • The loss of all the fullness and richness of life, in all of its manifestations, that was still available to most of the victims. Everything they would have done and meant is gone.

  • The lack of preparation for the victims’ deaths by their families and friends - they never had a chance to say goodbye, to wrap up all the loose ends, to, well, apologize to and be forgiven by each other.

Those may be present in any death, sure, but usually not in such large batches.

Basically talking about risk perception.

Good link here:


“psychological research has identified 47 known factors that influence the perception of risk”

Goes on to outline some of them after that sentence.

For one thing, you can walk away from a car crash. Sometimes even a bad one. I don’t think many people survive plane crashes, and for me, the fact that once you’re on the plane, everything is totally out of your hands makes it a little more nerve-wracking.
To get back to the main question, plane crashes, terrorist attacks, and natural disasters often involve large numbers of people dying at once, and it seems that much more horrific. As opposed to fatal traffic accidents, which are sad, but usually concern only a few people. Anything on a mass scale is likely to get more attention.
Randomness probably plays into it, too. Like what I said about being a passenger on a plane, these things are totally out of your control and that’s frightening.

I agree with the perception of control idea and the idea that the rarity of these events makes them more shocking.

Additionally, I believe plane crashes and terrorist attacks cause more grief than more singular deaths from routine causes because there’s a nagging sense that all these people could have been saved if someone would have done something differently. If the mechanics just would have taken better care of the plane, it wouldn’t have crashed. If the security people would have been paying better attention, the terrorists would have been foiled. Natural disasters can’t be averted, but their impact can be lessened if, for example, cities enforce building codes and have warning systems for hurricanes.

This brings up a good point. Traffic accidents probably (I haven’t done the math) than all of the other tragedies mentioned in the OP put together. But only if you look at them in total over a period of time and over a large area. Basically in order to worry about trafic accidents more than you worry about plane crashes, for instance, you’d have to have a very good broad view of the world. Most people (of necessity, not out of some character flaw) see the world on a scale that resembles themselves. That is, they see things near them before they recognize larger patterns. If I recall correctly, this is one reason why anecdotal evidence is so persuasive generally.

But this plays into the OP in that people will see a single plane crash which kills a hundred people as much worse than a single car crash which kill 2 people. Even though car crashes are much more likely to happen to them and in fact kill many more people than plane crashes over time and broad areas. That is in order to worry emotionally about the bigger picture you have to be able to see the bigger picture more than simply intellectually. You have to have an intimacy with the mathematics which can draw such a picture in order to get worked up about them emotionally. That is a very unusual thing.

Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos talks about this in detail.

This appears to be a website devoted to the subject (of innumeracy)

Outstanding point as well. I’ve been fascinated by the TV show “Monk” for the last several months. Tony Shaloub plays an obsessive compulsive detective who is so worried about germs, heights, crowds, milk, disorder,… I don’t think he has ever finished the list. Someone always stops him.

It’s very funny to watch how this obsession with irrelevant details leads him to notice the clues to solve crimes which others mis. I know, it is a TV show. Not really fodder for GD. But there you go.

I especially liked the episode where his therapist gave him the option “We can either talk about your relationship with your wife or sing show tunes for the next hour…” He thought about it for secveral seconds and then began singing. :smiley:

If you have a choice between undamaging unpleasantness (thinking about plane crashes) and very uncomfortable revalations which might require changes within you (doing something about traffic safety), many of us will pick the unpleasantness every time.

This as always been the complaint of the railway industry here in the UK. Whenever that very rare event , a train crash, occurs . It is headline news for days on end , usually a public enquiry is set up at the cost of millions of pounds and many man hours. Usually this enquiry then recommends even more safety measures and equipment to be put into place ( costing even more money). Compare this to the carnage that happens on the roads every day. No public enquiry , no even more restrictive safety measures to be put into place etc.

The sensationalism stirred up by media reporting of a newsworthy event - terrorist attack, plane crash, etc - must also play a significant part.
Then, I suppose, you have to ask why the story is newsworthy in the first place.

Some great points, especially from pervert, but I would like to add the following.

  • 3,000 people died in 2001 in the US from terrorism
  • 30 to 40 thousand died in 2001 in the US from the flu

We seem perfectly fine to go ahead with our lives knowing
that 30,000 people die every year from the flu, without requesting
any drastic measures from our government to ensure this
number is drastically reduced. However, we want to make sure that
terrorism never kills 3,000 people again.

In order to “ensure” that, we spend $87 billion (and counting)
on the war on terror, and make laws that many claim trample
on our civil liberties.

I’m sure that if the US government spent $87 billion for flu
research and if it trampled on civil liberties (e.g. a law
saying “if you have the flu you must stay home for 7 days”)
then the number of deaths from flu would diminish drastically.

Why are we willing to do it for the terror attacks but not
for flu, car accidents, etc?

Conversely, if we are perfectly happy going on with our lives
knowing that 30,000 die each year from the flu, shouldn’t we be
perfectly happy having an anti-terror campaign that results in
only 3,000 deaths per year?

You must admit that even saying “only 3,000 deaths per year
from terrorism” sounds weird. Why is that?