How people respond to terrorist attacks

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The rational response to terrorism

From The Economist print edition (subscription required)

Jul 21st 2005

Nobel laureate Gary Becker from the University of Chicago and Yona Rubinstein from Tel Aviv University examine how the general public responds to the threat posed by suicide-bombers in Fear and the Response to Terrorism: An Economic Analysis.

A first analysis suggests an obvious response. The miles flown by passengers on US domestic airlines fell 30% between August and October 2001 and air travel hadn't regained its 2001 peak even two years after the attack of September 11th. According to Becker and Rubinstein, it is not the risk of physical harm that moves people; it is the emotional disquiet. People respond to fear, not risk.

They give an example of the effect of suicide-bombers on bus usage in Tel Aviv. There was one attack a month, for a year, on average, from November 2001 and bus usage fell 30%. But this average masks material differences between different types of passengers. Casual users who bought tickets on the day of travel were much more likely to stay away with usage falling 40% after each attack. But regular passangers who used weekly or monthly tickets were largely undeterred.

The authors claim that the public responds to terrorism in a similar manner to its reaction to rare but deadly diseases, such as BSE or 'mad-cow disease', by avoiding beef en masse even though the probability of infection is very small.

They explain this reaction by saying that people can overcome their fear but they will only do so if it is worth their while. And overcoming their fear is a fixed cost, not a variable one, so people do not fight their fear each time they step on a bus; this only happens on their first journey. Once a person has come to terms with terror, it makes little difference whether he gets the bus twice a day or once a day. This choice may result in slightly higher risk of actual attack but a traveller is not adding anything to his fear of such a catastrophe. And it is fear, not the risk, that influences people.