How the Psychology of Risk Explains the Flame War Over Syrian Refugees

The governors who reject refugees are ignoring basic math, law, and common sense.

A group of Syrian refugees on a safeboat
Getty Images Europe

The Obama Administration announced back in September that it will accept 10,000 Syrian refugees next year, and this has America in a tizzy. After an ISIS-claimed attack in Paris, the possibility that Syrian refugees will be resettled in the United States has unleashed an internet brouhaha of considerable dimensions, one that meteorologists predict will sweep over Thanksgiving tables this week, thus satisfying the admirable American tradition of arguing with one’s family every November.

But most of the hot air is only blowing because of glitches in our assessment of risks. Through no fault of their own, humans evolved to privilege uncommon, high-profile risks over mundane ones. And here psychology works against rational thinking. When you look at sheer numbers of lives claimed, terrorism is a blip. Last year only 71 people died from terrorist attacks carried out on U.S. soil, most of those in non-jihadist mass shootings. By severalfold, more people died in gun accidents (505) or in childbirth (1,138) in 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Food poisoning makes terrorism look like a rounding error — it carries off almost 3,000 Americans a year — but anti-terrorism programs receive much more attention and many more dollars than does the Food and Drug Administration.

It’s time to defuse the argument by returning to basics. At its root, the refugee controversy is about security. After the attacks in Paris, governors of 29 U.S. states said that they oppose the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States. Texas governor Greg Abbot was perhaps the most forceful: “It is imperative,” he says in a video from the Guardian, “that Texans do everything we can to ensure that we don’t have a Syrian refugee sneak into the state of Texas who could pose a terroristic danger.”

New Yorkers gathered in Washington Square Park the day after the Paris attacks to grieve and express solidarity.

Andrew Renneison/Getty Images

Since this is ostensibly about risk, we should talk about risk. The “guru” in risk assessment and security is Bruce Schneier, the longtime publisher of the security newsletter Crypto-Gram. Schneier is indefatigable about pointing out humanity’s endemic security misconceptions and risk SNAFUs. Indeed, the man has catalogued them. Those that concern us here, Schneier outlines in an essay called “The Psychology of Security,” where he wrote:

“Most of the time, when the perception of security doesn’t match the reality of security, it’s because the perception of the risk doesn’t match the reality of the risk. We worry about the wrong things: paying too much attention to minor risks and not enough attention to major ones. We don’t correctly assess the magnitude of different risks. A lot of this can be chalked up to bad information or bad mathematics, but there are some general pathologies that come up over and over again.”
In Beyond Fear, I listed five:
— People exaggerate spectacular but rare risks and downplay common risks.
— People have trouble estimating risks for anything not exactly like their normal situation.
— Personified risks are perceived to be greater than anonymous risks.
— People underestimate risks they willingly take and overestimate risks in situations they can’t control.
— Last, people overestimate risks that are being talked about and remain an object of public scrutiny.

This is, in short, a recipe for why terrorism is so effective. Humans are wired to overestimate spectacular, rare, public dangers carried out unexpectedly by other humans.

“We exaggerate spectacular and downplay common [risks],” Schneier tells Inverse by phone. “I just got off an airplane. I’m about to embark on the most dangerous part of my journey: the taxi ride to my hotel. And that’s true. That’s demonstrably true. But nobody thinks that way…You can find evolutionary reasons for all of this. Our risk perceptions are perfect for living in small family groups in the east African highlands in 100,000 B.C. You know, 2015 New York we’re not that good at.”

With these “pathologies” in mind, the clamor over refugees begins to make at least a semblance of sense. Terrorist plots definitely fit into the “spectacular but rare” category. The admission of refugees into the United States is something mostly beyond the control of ordinary citizens. (Indeed, it is beyond the control of the governors who made so much noise about it.) Finally, everybody’s talking about it. According to Schneier’s schema, the threats posed by Syrian refugees coming to the United States are exactly the kinds of threats to which we can expect humans to overreact.

Let’s take an example. This image made its way through the Twitterverse as governors fell like dominos last weekend.

This image is grossly misleading, but its fundamentals have been bouncing around social media all week. For starters, the Obama Administration has said it will accept 10,000 Syrian refugees, not 100,000. (The 100,000 number seems to come from the number of worldwide refugees the administration will accept.) But set aside for now the factual error, the polemical tone, and the bizarre implication that the United States is somehow at war with Syrians who have fled their country out of fear.

Considering what we know about the psychology of risk, it’s a pretty good bet that this image exaggerates the danger of admitting refugees. Still, let’s take it a step at a time. According to this argument, there’s a 20 percent chance that a given refugee turns out to be a homicidal terrorist. If you believe that 20 percent of Syrian refugees are likely terrorists, then you probably don’t want any of them to come to your country at all. But 20 percent is almost certainly wrong.

Assuming ISIS fighters are posing as refugees to sneak into the West, they’d be hard-pressed to do so in large numbers. The images of bedraggled families spilling into Europe show asylum-seekers, not refugees. The refugee application process takes two years in the United States. It turns out that level of scrutiny makes the refugee route a decidedly arduous way in for a would-be destroyer of civilization. To quote a recent Economist report: “Refugee resettlement is the least likely route for potential terrorists,” says Kathleen Newland at the Migration Policy Institute, a think-tank. “Of the 745,000 refugees resettled since September 11th, only two Iraqis in Kentucky have been arrested on terrorist charges, for aiding al-Qaeda in Iraq.”

So the two grapes out of 10 is more like two grapes out of 745,000. And the other grapes are not, in fact, grapes. They’re human beings who have been permitted to live without fear of violence or persecution. And they likely pose an insignificant risk. Every one of the identified Paris attackers was a French citizen. But even a low risk could be unpalatable. When would you be willing to trade a slight increase of personal risk for the safety and well-being of many thousands of refugees?

Schneier emphasizes that security is a balancing act. We make trade-offs, balancing security against cost and inconvenience. If we admit 10,000 Syrian refugees, we accept a certain degree of risk — probably very, very low. Akin to not washing your hands after using a public restroom low. Negligible, by any rational metric. In exchange, we secure the safety and well-being of thousands of people.

On the other hand, we could turn away all such refugees and thus face a 0 percent chance of admitting a potential terrorist. But this too would cost us. Refusing to help resettle refugees from one of the worst humanitarian crises of recent years is unlikely to contribute to our long-term security.

And, years from now, when the toll of this war is tallied, we will have to look each other in the eye, knowing that history offered us a chance to act with courage. Which course, when all is done, is the best? There is a risk, after all, in living in a dim shelter of your own making.

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