Why “Worst-Case Thinking” Gets It Wrong

Dear Readers — Oh my god, this yzbrzraaeh
is a BRILLIANT essay
by security expert Bruce Schneier. He’s a guy who thinks a lot about terrorism, but his words will make sense to all of us who are concerned with the difference between real danger (which we’d like to guard against) and “worst-case thinking,” which over-reacts to unlikely scenarios. Listen to this Schneier-ism:

There’s a certain blindness that comes from worst-case thinking. An extension of the precautionary principle, it involves imagining the worst possible outcome and then acting as if it were a certainty. It substitutes imagination for thinking, speculation for risk analysis, and fear for reason. It fosters powerlessness and vulnerability…”

Just like people who assume if their kid goes out to play, she MAY be kidnapped, so she probably WILL be kidnapped, so why take that awful risk? That’s the kind of worst-case thinking that leads folks to believes they can never let their (soon to be preyed upon) kids out of their sight. And listen to this:

Worst-case thinking means generally bad decision making for several reasons. First, it’s only half of the cost-benefit equation. Every decision has costs and benefits, risks and rewards. By speculating about what can possibly go wrong, and then acting as if that is likely to happen, worst-case thinking focuses only on the extreme but improbable risks and does a poor job at assessing outcomes.

So true! The “cost” of a child going outside is never measured against the cost of staying in. In other words: “Why risk my sweet child’s safety?” is never countered by, “What does my child GAIN by walking to school, and playing outside, and  becoming street-smart and self-reliant,” etc. etc. And then there’s this!

Of course, not all fears are equal. Those that we tend to exaggerate are more easily justified by worst-case thinking. So terrorism fears trump privacy fears, and almost everything else; technology is hard to understand and therefore scary; nuclear weapons are worse than conventional weapons; our children need to be protected at all costs; and annihilating the planetis bad. Basically, any fear that would make a good movie plot is amenable to worst-case thinking.

And that’s the only point I disagree on. Because if a fear would make a good television plot, it works, too.

Finally, regarding our inflated sense of doom, regarding our kids (and everything else):

…worst-case thinking validates ignorance. Instead of focusing on what we know, it focuses on what we don’t know — and what we can imagine.

And then he quotes the venerable Frank Furedi, author of Paranoid Parenting (a seminal book in my house):

“Worst-case thinking encourages society to adopt fear as one of the dominant principles around which the public, the government and institutions should organize their life. It institutionalizes insecurity and fosters a mood of confusion and powerlessness. Through popularizing the belief that worst cases are normal, it incites people to feel defenseless and vulnerable to a wide range of future threats.”

Thank you to so many readers who sent this in. The essay really puts everything in focus: When we jump to the worst case scenario AND assume that because we can PICTURE it, that’s proof enough it could happen,  we are living in a nightmare.

And thank you to Bruce Schneier for helping to wake us up. — Lenore

What if you leave your child at home while you get milk and a bomber comes by?


35 Responses to Why “Worst-Case Thinking” Gets It Wrong

  1. Andrea May 14, 2010 at 11:03 pm #

    Brilliant! Thank you — I’ll pass it along.

  2. Stephanie A. Richer, Mediator/Attorney May 14, 2010 at 11:11 pm #

    This essay is indeed brilliant, and applies to a broad range of circumstances. I will be posting on this on my blog, because it is so applicable to so many people.

  3. Beth May 14, 2010 at 11:13 pm #

    I passed this on to my supervisor at work. Our management are masters at legislating to prevent the least likely thing on earth from occurring.

  4. JR May 14, 2010 at 11:31 pm #

    Bruce is both a friend and someone I look up to a lot as a sane voice in matters like these. I was going to post a link to this essay in response to the comment the other day from Uly, but feared it would get lost in the reams of other comments already posted. I’m glad you’ve discussed it here.

    You might also enjoy today’s post, with entries for his annual “Movie-plot threat” contest, this time about over-protecting children through telling terrorizing fables: http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2010/05/fifth_annual_mo_1.html

  5. SKL May 14, 2010 at 11:32 pm #

    I actually am far more inclined to worry (or, be concerned) about what will happen to my kids if they don’t get out enough, or if they never learn to think for themselves, or if they never have exposure to different ideas. It continues to surprise me that more parents don’t think this way. And there is no encouragement of it in the broader community, either. We have Michelle Obama talking about obesity and her husband talking about staying in school, and talk of changes in the mandated school lunch program and forced parental involvement in homework, and making available controversial safeguards/quick-fixes such as condoms and abortions, etc., not to mention car seat and helmet laws. But if it’s appropriate to have government involvement in such things (not saying it is, but it’s our current reality), should they not also (or instead) be concerned about promoting critical thinking? Or is there an agenda against that?

  6. KateNonymous May 14, 2010 at 11:48 pm #

    I love, love, love the image and caption.

  7. trienahg May 14, 2010 at 11:58 pm #

    This is a wonderful essay and post. As a parent I have tried very hard not to pass my over-inflated fears on to my child with, I think, not much success. But at least I am aware of it. He has acquired plenty of his own just by being a sensitive soul and living in the world as we know it with the bombardment of popular culture and fear scenarios through the constant use of ever increasing technology. Thanks. I sometimes blog on parenthood at http://www.mamainsqueeze.wordpress.com

  8. pentamom May 15, 2010 at 12:11 am #

    That image and caption are so perfect because it captures both the dramatically unlikely, and the concept that with many of these fears, it wouldn’t make a hill of beans if you were holding your child’s hand at the time and even breathing for him. In England during the Blitz, they sent the children AWAY from their parents to protect them!

  9. Dot Khan May 15, 2010 at 12:40 am #

    I read this essay just after posting the 2nd comment at Parade Magazine about Law & Order being canceled.

    Things that people worry about

    Things that never happen 40%
    Things that are over and past and can’t be changed 30%
    Needless worries about our health 12%
    Petty worries 10%
    Real worries 8%
    92% of life isn’t worth worrying about.

    This is based on a study from the 1950’s as quoted by Earl Nightingale in Lead The Field. The percentages probably haven’t changed that much since then. But may actually be higher.

  10. Frau_Mahlzahn May 15, 2010 at 12:51 am #

    The bad thing is, that worst case thinking becomes a vicious circle, some sort of self fullfilling prophecy: because _you_ think, your kid will hurt himself by doing this or that or the other, _you_ project that fear on your kid, your kid becomes insecure and all self-conscious… and falls or hurt himself…

    Just like _you_ said he would.

    With my first kid I used to think, OMG, it’s bound to happen. With my second kid I used to think, yeah, something _might_ happen, but it doesn’t have to. With the third one I better just don’t look, what she’s up to…

    (Have you ever noticed that things are more likely to happen if a parent stands right next to the kids rather than when the parents don’t look? At least that’s the way with my kids, ;-)).

    So long,

  11. HappyNat May 15, 2010 at 12:52 am #

    “Most of the things I worry about, never happen any way.” – Tom Petty

  12. Rich Wilson May 15, 2010 at 1:14 am #

    Here’s another example.


    Consumer Reports says “Don’t use a child’s name in photo tags or captions.” They don’t say why, they just say don’t do it, and if anyone else tags your kids, ask them to remove it. I can only guess that there’s some kind of worst case scenario at the end of that.

    And if you trust that advice, then make sure you never address your child by name in public. You never know who could be listening.

  13. Tracey R May 15, 2010 at 2:06 am #

    Love the graphic at the bottom of this post! Now I DO have to go out and get milk, because what was left of mine is now all over my computer screen.

  14. Susan May 15, 2010 at 2:19 am #

    This article reminds me of the State Fair of Texas a few weeks after 9-11 occurred. The state fair decided to quickly check the bags of all people going into the fair, which seems to be the normal useless, but comforting, form of security.

    Our local news was covering the new security procedures and, of course, instead of complaining that they were nuisance and not very effective, they were insinuating that the new measures weren’t nearly enough to keep us safe (from what?) at the fair.

    At one point the reporter gave a serious, concerned look at the camera as he relayed how one of the fair-goers had told him that he had been able to bring his pocket knife into the fair. He presented this as an enormous threat to our safety although I can not think of how a pocket knife would be anymore of a threat at the fair than it would be anywhere else. It certainly couldn’t be a bigger threat than deep-fried oreos, could it?

  15. Tracey R May 15, 2010 at 2:30 am #

    I just read this to my husband and son, and his response was “That’s exactly right. And a lot of it stems from media second-guessing after real events happen. One girl is kidnapped and held for 18 years, so we all have to act as if that’s going to be a daily occurrence and all change our behavior.”

  16. Donna May 15, 2010 at 2:47 am #

    I’ve always thought it kinda funny that so many people in all the various areas of this country are worried about dying in a terrorist attack since 9/11. I understand an uneasy feeling in general that another terrorist attack may succeed in the country. But to be worried that YOU, in rural Nebraska, are going to be a victim of some terrorist attack is a bit much.

  17. pentamom May 15, 2010 at 3:17 am #

    The Parentingfail website has a particular bugaboo about safety leashes. Whatever you think about them, the commenters on that site seem to think the biggest problem with them is that if you fasten them to something other than yourself, someone might come along, cut them loose, and take your kid away.

    Sometime, for about five minutes, I’d like to live inside the head of someone who believes in things like people who roam public places with penknives looking for kids to cut loose and steal, while no bystander happens to notice. It would be an interesting experience, briefly.

    @Susan, that’s because for some mysterious reason, people identified the chief danger of 9/11 as boxcutters, and similar instruments, rather than people who steal airplanes and fly them into buildings. Probably if we had any record of what clothing the terrorists were wearing, people would now be afraid of that color of clothing, at least in the context of large gatherings of people.

  18. Kirk Strong May 15, 2010 at 4:28 am #

    Perhaps a little off topic, but I thought you would like this review of the movie “Babies” by Wendy Shalit at the Wall Street Journal online today:


    You’ll especially like the second-to-last paragraph.

  19. Tango Karnitz May 15, 2010 at 4:32 am #

    Thank-you for being a voice of sanity. People think I am nuts because I want to move from our Midwest town to Manhattan. I let my kids do all kinds of things that none of their friends get to do. And I am the crazy one! Thanks for being a breath of sensible air in this paranoid clogged parent trap!

  20. Kimberly May 15, 2010 at 8:40 am #

    @Rich – We tag all the kids in our extended family on FB. For friends we tag them with their parent’s name – so the parent gets notified on Facebook and can make their own choice. I found it hilarious that people thought the kids could be found this way. People in 2 states, 3 countries and on 2 continents are posting pictures of different combos of the kids and tagging them.

  21. Stephanie - Home with the Kids May 15, 2010 at 8:57 am #

    I love this essay. I’ll have to remember it whenever people start trying to make me worry about how I’m parenting.

    I gave up on “worst case scenarios” long ago. Doesn’t take much critical thinking to realize that “worst case” is also often “rarest case” or near to it.

  22. edie May 16, 2010 at 5:38 am #

    It figures someone would take a valuable concept and use it to squash other good concepts–in other words–turn it into a political kick in the butt. And btw, it’s “President” and not “her husband.” The office deserves some respect.

  23. pentamom May 16, 2010 at 9:48 am #

    edie, I’m all for respect for the office, but the Obamas are not royalty. There is nothing disrespectful in the American context in sometimes referring to the President by his relationships rather than by office. That actually IS considered disrespectful of HRM Elizabeth II — the Prince of Wales is said never to publicly refer to her as “my mother,” but only as “the Queen.” But that has never been American usage. In the context of the post, SKL was describing how Mr. and Mrs. Obama were both engaged in similar efforts, and “Michelle Obama….and her husband” is both rhetorically appropriate and respectful in that context.

  24. edie May 16, 2010 at 10:05 am #

    Yes, context is everything, and the disrespect came across loud and clear. And if I were speaking about the couple, I’d say, “The President and Mrs. Obama.” This person is still wailing about the seatbelt law. Paleeze. And respect is not just reserved for royalty. You sound like you’ve written a book on American protocol. I haven’t read it. I’m listening to my own sense of propriety.

  25. sylvia_rachel May 17, 2010 at 6:04 am #

    @Rich Wilson — when my 7-year-old was a baby, another mum actually told me, in perfect seriousness, that she never called her baby son by his name in public places, because you wouldn’t want total strangers to learn his real name, would you?! Similarly, I recently heard the director of DD’s daycare (who otherwise seems like a perfectly sensible person) tell another parent never to write her kid’s name on the outside of her winter boots — not, as I would have thought, because Sharpie wears off the outside of a pair of Sorels faster than it wears off the inside, but because being able to read a child’s name off the back of its boots enables potential predators to pretend to know the child. Srsly.

    Does anyone know why my browser won’t load the Schneier blog post that Lenore has linked to above? I can get to the entry after it (about the movie titles), but not to the original one — which I really want to read, and was planning to link to on Facebook 😀

  26. Sean May 17, 2010 at 6:42 pm #

    Very nice points. Unfortunately, government regulations also work this way.

  27. Beth May 17, 2010 at 11:21 pm #

    Not meaning to derail this thread, but here’s info on another massive toy recall, regarding dart guns. Two kids, seemingly old enough to know better (9 and 10 years old) choked after chewing on the darts.


  28. Bill May 18, 2010 at 2:12 am #

    Beth wrote:

    Not meaning to derail this thread, but here’s info on another massive toy recall, regarding dart guns. Two kids, seemingly old enough to know better (9 and 10 years old) choked after chewing on the darts.


    The CPSC has been the poster child for over-reaction in regulation….no matter how bone-headed the (mis)user of the product was, since no consumer has an IQ above room temperature, government must rush in. CPSC thinks that no matter how extreme the users abuse of the product, it must go if they can imagine any way for anyone to get hurt.

    Time to return control to the parents, not the barons of regulation.

  29. Jenn May 18, 2010 at 10:28 pm #

    Thanks for posting this! I follow Bruce’s blog as part of my work life, and never thought I’d see it linked here. 🙂

    “The “cost” of a child going outside is never measured against the cost of staying in. In other words: “Why risk my sweet child’s safety?” is never countered by, “What does my child GAIN by walking to school, and playing outside, and becoming street-smart and self-reliant,” etc. etc” I try and use the “Child gains x, y, and z” every time I am criticized for the crazy, wild things we let our 11-year-old do in the city — like cross the street, and gasp, leave the house.

  30. Dee May 19, 2010 at 11:40 pm #

    Well.. My friends think I’m crazy too! We live in a VERY safe and friendly neighborhood. And people believe that something will happen for sure if you leave your child alone!! I just want to say that this is trend that’s happening everywhere.. Even here in Canada people are OVER protective!!

  31. davidtan May 26, 2010 at 8:59 pm #

    thanks goodness my parents are not over protective while i was young

  32. edie May 27, 2010 at 6:55 am #

    Like some cats, I once climbed a tree and couldn’t get back down. I could have used my mother at that point. She had better things to do–like housework, hang out the clothes, bake pies, etc. etc. Yep, it was very nice coming home to my stay-at-home mom and her consoling kitchen. She knew I’d show up eventually, when I was hungry and finished with my meandering, You know, like a cat.


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