Here's an easy question; Would you rather be patted down by a too-enthusiastic TSA inspector at the airport, or blown up at 30,000 feet? That should be an easy one, right? So what's the fuss about the new inspection system at many US airports? You know, the one with the detailed see-under-your-clothes detectors, an inspection you can decline only if you are then willing to undergo a manual investigation by TSA agents that some people have found a bit too, uh, shall we say, familiar.

      The fuss is a great example of how the psychology of risk perception influences how afraid we are. Or, in this case, aren't. The risk of terrorists trying to get explosives on planes and blow them up is very real. The latest plot -explosive packages hidden on cargo planes headed to the U.S. - was foiled only a few weeks ago. Shoe bombers. Liquid bombers. Underwear bombers. We've come really close a number of times since 9/11/2001.   

     But the passage of time dulls our fears. It's been 9 years since terrorists actually blew up a commercial plane with passengers aboard (actually they crashed them rather than blowing them up midair.) The terrible events of September 11, 2001 are, fortunately, a fading memory. The facts of all the repeated attempts notwithstanding, with time the risk has come to feel like less of a risk. By contrast, consider how patiently we accepted the "shoes off' screening policy when that was imposed in early 2002. Richard Reid tried to blow up a plane by detonating explosives in his sneakers only 15 months after the 9/11 attacks. The horrors of September 11 were still fresh in our minds. We were more afraid.

A TSA official demonstrates back scatter x ray body scan imagery.

They were still clear in our minds in 2006 when more than 20 Islamic radicals were arrested before they could board several planes with benign liquids and mix them into bombs midflight. With some grousing, we gave up carrying large containers of liquids in our carry-on luggage (a few people with really expensive booze, or perfumes, still put up a stink).

     But several things are different this time. One is simply that the reality of exploding airplanes has faded in our minds. Not even the ‘underwear bomber" of Christmas 2009, who tried to detonate explosives hidden in his tighty whities, has reminded us sufficiently of this real risk. Indeed the very fact that these plots failed, and that we haven't actually experienced an actual aircraft explosion, has contributed to complacency.

     There are a couple other psychological factors at work this time as well. One is radiation, which sets off several affective risk perception alarms. (One of the two ‘see-through-your-clothes' technologies being used is back scatter x-ray.) Radiation is stigmatized. Just the word, ‘radiation', evokes fearful responses, and more concern than the inconvenience of taking off your shoes or belt or jacket, or even the risk of getting athlete's foot at the airport. To people alarmed by anything having to do with radiation, the fact that the levels from the x-ray detection machines are lower than the cosmic radiation you'll be exposed to in just two minutes on that flight you're taking, doesn't matter. Radiation = scary. End of story.

     On top of which, the risk of this radiation feels coercive, and we don't like being forced to accept a risk. (Like taking the flight in the first place.) The involuntary nature of this new inspection raises additional resistance. And the option of a pat down, which to some people feels a lot more like being felt up, ("Don't touch my junk!") doesn't really feel like an option to some.

     And then there's the privacy issue. Revealing your socks or bare feet is one thing. Knowing that somebody is looking at a reasonably accurate likeness of what's inside your pants, or blouses, is quite something else. Never mind that the person who sees the scanner images is in another room and never sees the actual person being scanned. Never mind that the machinery blurs the details of your most intimate anatomical areas. (Dave Barry complained of being told he'd need to patted down because he had a "blurry groin". Memo to TSA - Might want to avoid telling guys they have blurry groins. ) Being technologically strip searched feels like giving up something more valuable, our privacy, than we've been asked to give up before.

     Layered on all of that is the 24/7 Scream-o-Sphere of the information media, the inescapable megaphone that gives the few voices that angrily speak out against this new technology such massive attention (note no links here), while the vast majority of us grumble but accept the tradeoff in the name of security and put up with what the TSA does to keep us safe.

     Most risks involve tradeoffs of some sort. In this case it's a risk-risk tradeoff, between getting blown up on the one hand and feeling coerced into having your privacy invaded while being exposed to minute doses of radiation on the other. If Risk 1 - getting blown up - doesn't feel like a real possibility, you're less willing to live with Risk 2. If the negative qualities of Risk 2 - radiation, coercion, invasion of privacy - feel bigger, Risk 2 will matter more than Risk 1.

     It all adds up to a kind of a silly way to think about how to protect ourselves from the constant and real threat of bad guys and bombs on planes. But then, risk perception isn't just about thinking. It's about feeling too. And in this case, what feels right...resisting a procedure that could keep us safer...may actually make things worse.

(This discussion of risk perception psychology is based on  "How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts." Excerpts and quizzes from the book are availabe here)

You are reading

How Risky Is It, Really?

A 28th Amendment, a New American Declaration of Independence

People of all parties want control of their government back.

The Psychology of Our Post-Factual Presidential Election

A small fuss over a mistaken lapel pin explains a lot about how we vote.

The Real Cause of Brexit, and Why It Threatens Us All

Losing a feeling of control over our lives is deeply threatening.