Saturday, February 10, 2007

Psychology of Security.

Security is both a feeling and a reality. And they're not the same.

The reality of security is mathematical, based on the probability of different risks and the effectiveness of different countermeasures. We can calculate how secure your home is from burglary, based on such factors as the crime rate in the neighborhood you live in and your door-locking habits. We can calculate how likely it is for you to be murdered, either on the streets by a stranger or in your home by a family member. Or how likely you are to be the victim of identity theft. Given a large enough set of statistics on criminal acts, it's not even hard; insurance companies do it all the time.

We can also calculate how much more secure a burglar alarm will make your home, or how well a credit freeze will protect you from identity theft. Again, given enough data, it's easy.

But security is also a feeling, based not on probabilities and mathematical calculations, but on your psychological reactions to both risks and countermeasures. You might feel terribly afraid of terrorism, or you might feel like it's not something worth worrying about. You might feel safer when you see people taking their shoes off at airport metal detectors, or you might not. You might feel that you're at high risk of burglary, medium risk of murder, and low risk of identity theft. And your neighbor, in the exact same situation, might feel that he's at high risk of identity theft, medium risk of burglary, and low risk of murder.

Or, more generally, you can be secure even though you don't feel secure. And you can feel secure even though you're not. The feeling and reality of security are certainly related to each other, but they're just as certainly not the same as each other. We'd probably be better off if we had two different words for them.


This essay is my initial attempt to explore the feeling of security: where it comes from, how it works, and why it diverges from the reality of security.

Four fields of research—two very closely related—can help illuminate this issue. The first is behavioral economics, sometimes called behavioral finance. Behavioral economics looks at human biases—emotional, social, and cognitive—and how they affect economic decisions. The second is the psychology of decision-making, which examines how we make decisions. Neither is directly related to security, but both look at the concept of risk: behavioral economics more in relation to economic risk, and the psychology of decision-making more generally in terms of security risks. But both fields go a long way to explain the divergence between the feeling and the reality of security and, more importantly, where that divergence comes from.

There is also direct research into the psychology of risk. Psychologists have studied risk perception, trying to figure out when we exaggerate risks and when they downplay them.

A forth relevant field of research is neuroscience. The psychology of security is intimately tied to how we think: both intellectually and emotionally. Over the millennia, our brains have developed complex mechanisms to deal with threats. Understanding how our brains work, and how they fail, is critical to understanding the feeling of security.

The Trade-Off of Security

Security is a trade-off. This is something I have written about extensively1, a notion critical to understanding the psychology of security. There's no such thing as absolute security, and any gain in security always involves some sort of trade-off.

Security costs money, but it also costs in time, convenience, capabilities, liberties, and so on. Whether it's trading some additional home security against the inconvenience of having to carry a key around in your pocket and stick it into a door every time you want to get into your house, or trading some security against a particular kind of explosive terrorism on airplanes against the expense and time to search every passenger, all security is a trade-off.

I remember in the weeks after 9/11, a reporter asked me: "How can we prevent this from ever happening again?" "That's easy," I said, "simply ground all the aircraft."

It's such a far-fetched trade-off that we as a society will never make it. But in the hours after those terrorist attacks, it's exactly what we did. When we didn't know the magnitude of the attacks or the extent of the plot, grounding every airplane was a perfectly reasonable trade-off to make. And even now, years later, I don't hear anyone second-guessing that decision.

It makes no sense to just look at security in terms of effectiveness. "Is this effective against the threat?" is the wrong question to ask. You need to ask: "Is it a good trade-off?" Bulletproof vests work well, and are very effective at stopping bullets. But for most of us, living in lawful and relatively safe industrialized countries, wearing one is not a good trade-off. The additional security isn't worth it: isn't worth the cost, discomfort, or unfashionableness. Move to another part of the world, and you might make a different trade-off.

We make security trade-offs, large and small, every day. We make them when we decide to lock our doors in the morning, when we choose our driving route, and when we decide whether we're going to pay for something via check, credit card, or cash. They're often not the only factor in a decision, but they're a contributing factor. And most of the time, we don't even realize, it. We make security trade-offs intuitively. Most decisions are default decisions, and there have been many popular books that explore reaction, intuition, choice, and decision.2 3 4 5

These intuitive choices are central to life on this planet. Every living thing makes security trade-offs, mostly as a species—evolving this way instead of that way—but also as individuals. Imagine a rabbit sitting in a field, eating clover. Suddenly, he spies a fox. He's going to make a security trade-off: should I stay or should I flee? The rabbits that are good at making these trade-offs are going to live to reproduce, while the rabbits that are bad at it are going to get eaten or starve. This means that, as a successful species on the planet, humans should be really good at making security trade-offs.

And yet at the same time we seem hopelessly bad at it. We get it wrong all the time. We exaggerate some risks while minimizing others. We exaggerate some costs while minimizing others. Even simple trade-offs we get wrong, wrong, wrong—again and again. A Vulcan studying human security behavior would shake his head in amazement.

The truth is that we're not hopelessly bad at making security trade-offs. We are very well adapted to dealing with the security environment endemic to hominids living in small family groups on the highland plains of East Africa. It's just that the environment in New York in 2006 is different from Kenya circa 100,000 BC. And so our feeling of security diverges from the reality of security, and we get things wrong.

There are several specific aspects of the security trade-off that can go wrong. For example:

1. The severity of the risk.
2. The probability of the risk.
3. The magnitude of the costs.
4. How effective the countermeasure is at mitigating the risk.
5. How well disparate risks and costs can be compared.

The more your perception diverges with reality in any of these five aspects, the more your perceived trade-off won't match the actual trade-off. If you think that the risk is greater than it really is, you're going to overspend on mitigating that risk. If you think the risk is real but only affects other people—for whatever reason—you're going to underspend. If you overestimate the costs of a countermeasure, you're less likely to apply it when you should, and if you overestimate how effective the countermeasure is, you're more likely to apply it when you shouldn't. If you misevaluate the trade-off, you won't accurately balance the costs and benefits.

A lot of this can be chalked up to simple ignorance. If you think the murder rate in your town is 1/10th of what it really is, for example, then you're going to make bad security trade-offs. But I'm more interested in divergences between perception and reality that can't be explained that easily. Why is it that, even if someone knows that automobiles kill 40,000 people each year in the U.S. alone and airplanes kill only hundreds world-wide, they are more afraid of airplanes than automobiles? Why is it that, when food poisoning kills 5,000 people per year and 9/11 terrorists killed 2,973 people in only one year, are we spending tens of billions per year on terrorism defense and almost never think about food poisoning?

It's my contention that these irrational trade-offs can be explained by psychology. That something inherent in how our brains work makes us more likely to be afraid of flying than of driving, and more likely to want to spend money, time, and other resources mitigating the risks of terrorism than food poisoning. And moreover, that these seeming irrationalities have a good evolutionary reason for existing: they've served our species well in the past. Understanding what they are, why they exist, and why they're failing us now is critical to understanding how we make security decisions. It's critical to understanding why, as a successful species on the planet, we make so many bad security trade-offs.

Conventional Wisdom About Risk

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.

I had a list of six in Beyond Fear.6 In Risk: A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You, authors David Ropeick and George Clay have a longer list:

  • Most people are more afraid of risks that are new than those they've lived with for a while. In the summer of 1999, New Yorkers were extremely afraid of West Nile virus, a mosquito-borne infection that had never been seen in the United States. By the summer of 2001, though the virus continued to show up and make a few people sick, the fear had abated. The risk was still there, but New Yorkers had lived with it for a while. Their familiarity with it helped them see it differently.
  • Most people are less afraid of risks that are natural than those that are human-made. Many people are more afraid of radiation from nuclear waste, or cell phones, than they are of radiation from the sun, a far greater risk.
  • Most people are less afraid of a risk they choose to take than of a risk imposed on them. Smokers are less afraid of smoking than they are of asbestos and other indoor air pollution in their workplace, which is something over which they have little choice.
  • Most people are less afraid of risks if the risk also confers some benefits they want. People risk injury or death in an earthquake by living in San Francisco or Los Angeles because they like those areas, or they can find work there.
  • Most people are more afraid of risks that can kill them in particularly awful ways, like being eaten by a shark, than they are of the risk of dying in less awful ways, like heart disease—the leading killer in America.
  • Most people are less afraid of a risk they feel they have some control over, like driving, and more afraid of a risk they don't control, like flying, or sitting in the passenger seat while somebody else drives.
  • Most people are less afraid of risks that come from places, people, corporations, or governments they trust, and more afraid if the risk comes from a source they don't trust. Imagine being offered two glasses of clear liquid. You have to drink one. One comes from Oprah Winfrey. The other comes from a chemical company. Most people would choose Oprah's, even though they have no facts at all about what's in either glass.
  • We are more afraid of risks that we are more aware of and less afraid of risks that we are less aware of. In the fall of 2001, awareness of terrorism was so high that fear was rampant, while fear of street crime and global climate change and other risks was low, not because those risks were gone, but because awareness was down.
  • We are much more afraid of risks when uncertainty is high, and less afraid when we know more, which explains why we meet many new technologies with high initial concern.
  • Adults are much more afraid of risks to their children than risks to themselves. Most people are more afraid of asbestos in their kids' school than asbestos in their own workplace.
  • You will generally be more afraid of a risk that could directly affect you than a risk that threatens others. U.S. citizens were less afraid of terrorism before September 11, 2001, because up till then the Americans who had been the targets of terrorist attacks were almost always overseas. But suddenly on September 11, the risk became personal. When that happens, fear goes up, even though the statistical reality of the risk may still be very low.
Risk and the Brain
The human brain is a fascinating organ, but an absolute mess. Because it has evolved over millions of years, there are all sorts of processes that sit on top of each other. And there's some duplication of effort.

Dealing with risk is one of the most important things a living creature has to deal with, and there's a very primitive part of the brain that has that job. It's the amygdala, and it sits right above the brainstem, in what's called the medial temporal lobe. The amygdala is responsible for processing the base emotions of sensory inputs, like anger, avoidance, defensiveness, and fear. It's an old part of the brain, and seems to have originated in early fishes. When an animal—lizard, bird, mammal, even you—sees, hears, or feels something that's a potential danger, the amygdala is what reacts immediately. It's what pumps adrenaline and other hormones into your bloodstream, triggering the fight-or-flight response, causing increased heart rate and beat force, increased muscle tension, and sweaty palms.
This kind of thing works great if you're a lizard or a lion. Fast reaction is what you're looking for; the faster you can notice threats and either run away from them or fight back, the more likely you are to live to reproduce.

But if you're a human, there's a counterbalancing evolutionary reason to override that animalistic reaction. Maybe you want to stand your ground against the wooly mammoth, or hold your tongue and accept abuse from another human in your tribe. For these and other reasons, the human brain has developed what's basically an amygdala override. We have a completely different pathway to deal with risk. It's the neocortex, a more advanced part of the brain that developed very recently evolutionarily speaking and only appears in mammals. It's intelligent and analytic. It can reason. It can make more nuanced trade-offs. It's also much slower.

So here's the first fundamental problem: we have two systems of assessing risk—a primitive intuitive system and a more advanced analytic system—and they're operating in parallel. And it's hard for the neocortex to contradict the amygdala.

In his book Mind Wide Open, Steven Johnson relates an incident when he and his wife lived in an apartment and a large window blew in during a storm. He was standing right beside at the time and heard the whistling of the wind just before the window blew. He was lucky—a foot to the side and he would have been dead—but the sound has never left him:
But ever since that June storm, a new fear as entered the mix for me: the sound of wind whistling through a window. I know now that our window blew in because it had been installed improperly…. I am entirely convinced that the window we have now is installed correctly, and I trust our superintendent when he says that it is designed to withstand hurricane-force winds. In the five years since that June, we have weathered dozens of storms that produced gusts comparable to the one that blew it in, and the window has performed flawlessly.
I know all these facts—and yet when the wind kicks up, and I hear that whistling sound, I can feel my adrenaline levels rise…. Part of my brain—the part that feels most me-like, the part that has opinions about the world and decides how to act on those opinions in a rational way—knows that the windows are safe…. But another part of my brain wants to barricade myself in the bathroom all over again.12
There's a good reason evolution has wired our brains this way. If you're a higher-order primate living in the jungle and you're attacked by a lion, it makes sense that you develop a lifelong fear of lions, or at least fear lions more than another animal you haven't personally been attacked by. From a risk/reward perspective, it's a good trade-off for the brain to make, and—if you think about it—it's really no different than your body developing antibodies against, say, chicken pox based on a single exposure. In both cases, your body is saying: "This happened once, and therefore it's likely to happen again. And when it does, I'll be ready." In a world where the threats are limited—where there are only a few diseases and predators that happen to affect the small patch of earth occupied by your particular tribe—it works.
Unfortunately, the brain's fear system doesn't scale the same way the body's immune system does. While the body can develop antibodies for hundreds of diseases, and those antibodies can sit around in the bloodstream waiting for a second attack by the same disease, it's harder for the brain to deal with a multitude of lifelong fears.
The second fundamental problem is that because the analytic system in the neocortex is so new, it's not finished evolving. Psychologist Daniel Gilbert has a great quotation that explains this:
The brain is a beautifully engineered get-out-of-the-way machine that constantly scans the environment for things out of whose way it should right now get. That's what brains did for several hundred million years—and then, just a few million years ago, the mammalian brain learned a new trick: to predict the timing and location of dangers before they actually happened.
Our ability to duck that which is not yet coming is one of the brain's most stunning innovations, and we wouldn't have dental floss or 401(k) plans without it. But this innovation is in the early stages of development. The application that allows us to respond to visible baseballs is ancient and reliable, but the add-on utility that allows us to respond to threats that loom in an unseen future is still in beta testing. 13
A lot of what I write in the following sections are examples of these newer parts of the brain getting things wrong.
And it's not just risks. People are not computers. We don't evaluate security trade-offs mathematically, by examining the relative probabilities of different events. Instead, we have shortcuts, rules of thumb, stereotypes, and biases—generally known as "heuristics." These heuristics affect how we think about risks, how we evaluate the probability of future events, how we consider costs, and how we make trade-offs. We have ways of generating close-to-optimal answers quickly with limited cognitive capabilities. Don Norman's wonderful essay, "Being Analog," provides a great background for all this.14
When you read about the heuristics I describe below, you can find evolutionary reasons for why they exist. And most of them are still very useful.15 The problem is that they can fail us, especially in the context of a modern society. Our social and technological evolution has vastly outpaced our evolution as a species, and our brains are stuck with heuristics that are better suited to living in primitive and small family groups.
And when those heuristics fail, our feeling of security diverges from the reality of security

Risk Heuristics

The first area that can cause the feeling of security to diverge from the reality of security is the perception of risk. Security is a trade-off, and if we get the severity of the risk wrong, we're going to get the trade-off wrong. We can do this both ways, of course. We can underestimate some risks, like the risk of automobile accidents. Or we can overestimate risks, like the risk of a stranger sneaking into our home at night and kidnapping our child. How we get the risk wrong, and when we overestimate and when we estimate, is governed by a few specific brain heuristics.



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