Donald Trump Jr’s cruel comparison of refugees to Skittles shows how useless we are at understanding risk

We don’t tend to think of lethal risks relative to other everyday risks, but in isolation. And we think about risk in terms of how the adverse scenario makes us feel, rather than how likely it is to happen

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Donald Trump Junior last week demonstrated that ignorant tweeting can be a hereditary trait. “If I had a bowl of Skittles and I told you just three would kill you, would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem,” explained Junior’s tweet, which was illustrated with a small bowl of the multi-coloured sweets.

As an analogy it is not only offensive but catastrophically flawed because, as many swiftly pointed out, the actual risk of an American citizen being killed by an immigrant is miniscule. The best online rebuttals involved depictions of 20-metre high bowls of skittles containing some 10 billion sweets to illustrate the actual risk of grabbing a poisoned piece of candy (ie of being killed by a refugee).

Yet, while deprecating its nasty and irrational message, it is also worth recognising the sly way the tweet played to the way our brains often evaluate risk. The truth is we tend to wildly overestimate the incidence of terrible things such as terror attacks and also our chances of being caught up in them. So why do we do this?

The way the media works is part of the answer. The broadcast news features plenty of terror attacks. People share reports of suicide bombings and rampages by brainwashed psychopaths on social media. But traffic accidents and people dying from falling over in their bathtubs don’t make the evening news – even though these are far bigger hazards to most people. That skews people’s impressions of the chances of perishing or being caught up in such an attack.

But this isn’t the whole story. We also don’t tend to think of lethal risks relative to other everyday risks, but in isolation. And we think about risk in terms of how the adverse scenario makes us feel, rather than how likely it is to happen.

We respond to the intensity of the sense of fear the thought of the adverse outcome inspires. Or perhaps we respond to the sense of regret it would create, or the shame we would feel, if it turned out we didn’t take all the possible precautions against the adverse outcome. 

So we have an attitude of “safety first” on things such as terrorism (keep out all refugees in case just one turns out to be a terrorist) but not necessarily when it comes to avoiding more mundane but larger risks such as, for instance, wearing a helmet when cycling. “The emotional tail wags the rational dog,” as psychologists say.

Linked to all this is that we are terribly susceptible to the “framing” of risks in marketing, or in political rhetoric such as Trump Junior’s. 

What does any of this have to do with economics? Rational choice theory, which is still very influential among academic economic modellers, assumes that people evaluate probabilities accurately when investing or making economic decisions and also that they behave consistently over time in their choices. Yet, as the biases outline above indicate, this is too simplistic and any model that relies heavily on these assumptions is liable to go awry.

The Trump Junior Skittles analogy also emphasises how the human brain thinks about groups of people. There is often an “in-group” and “out-group”.

Few (except the most deranged bigots) would argue that because there are some evil-minded Americans or dangerous Britons lurking out there the entire population should be locked up and aggressively screened. But we are the in-group. Refugees are the out-group; different rules apply. It seems reasonable in the minds of many to treat them grossly unfairly as a group because they are something “other”.

Economists tend to be in favour of migration. As I wrote earlier this month, the empirical evidence overwhelmingly shows that when people cross borders to take up work it ends up benefiting both the host community and the immigrants.

Yet people often do not think in these terms. They prefer to think instead in terms of values and culture, of in-groups and out-groups. Immigrants and refugees are, sadly, often an out-group in many people’s minds.

It would be vain to suggest that this can be entirely eradicated by better education or appeals to reason. Our brains have evolved over millennia to think in these ways about risk and groups of people. And nor is it necessarily a negative thing that values and a sense of solidarity sometimes override economic considerations, or that sometimes we, as a society, choose to react to certain risks more energetically than to others.

Yet we should be alive to the thought that these biases and impulses can also lead us into some dark and dangerous places. When it seems reasonable to some to compare hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees to a bowl of poisoned sweets, there is a problem.