why we’re obsessed with the most unlikely ways to die

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Let’s choose a year not too far away in time, located before the pandemic to avoid an exceptional mortality peak, as is the case in 2018. Only in Spain, throughout that year, there were 427,721 deathsaccording to him Statistics National Institute (INE), 3,198 more than in the previous year (0.8% more).

Taking into account that a year has 365 days, to deal with all these deaths (investing time in the media or simply mental space in our heads) we would have to manage more than a thousand deaths a day: 1,171. That’s 48 deaths per hour. Almost one death per minute: 0.8 deaths per minute, specifically. Of course, we should stay awake for a whole year.

Naturally, not all deaths have the same importance, the same emotional impact or the same informative relevance. Most of these deaths are due to internal causes linked to advanced age. What has been “dying of old”. And, to a certain extent, they should not be causes of death that concern us more than the rest.

However, according to the WHO International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, there are just over 8,000 things that can kill us. Many of these things have nothing to do with old age. And a large percentage are problematic.

However, in general, our concern (personal or social alarm) and media coverage (feeding back personal or social alarm) do not seem to focus on the causes that produce more deaths, but less. Or synthesized in another way: the perception of risk is the sum of the danger plus the scandal, which is far from objective analysis. Because the problem is that our way of register the danger it is outdated, and the way of reporting by the media exaggerates the scandal.

The paranoid sentinel: the amygdala

Although there are other regions involved, for simplicity we can say that the amygdala is a region of our brain that, among other things, serves to activate fight or flight when danger comes our way. The feeling of fear, then, is produced by the amygdala. If a person does not have amygdala, in fact, stop being afraid.

Logically, the amygdala was very useful for our ancestors to survive snakes and other dangers. However, the amygdala does not activate in the face of risks it does not understand, or invisible risks, such as air pollution. And the problem is that the current risks bear little resemblance to the risks that the amygdala was adapted for. That is why, although the environmental pollution causes 31,600 premature deaths in Spain and snakes only one or two per year, we are much more afraid of snakes than of air pollution.


(adrianna geo/Unsplash)

In addition, our hazard detection system is like a sentinel designed not to go off until the potential hazard is completely gone. But probabilistic risks never go away. In other words, if we are repeatedly informed by some media or media or political pulpits that the risk of being murdered while walking down the street is extremely high, our fear is still there because every so often many hours or even days are spent talking about the murders. that occur in the streets.

Or the terrorist attacks. Or natural disasters.

However, the majority of homicides take place in the sphere of family, friends and close associates. And, furthermore, in countries like Spain, it is between ten and thirteen times more likely to commit suicide than to die at the hands of another person. So we are talking about some 11 suicides on average every day. In other words, the person we should really be afraid of is ourselvesyes Thus, for many many developed countries and for many traditional cultures, suicide has become in a real public health problem that can no longer be hidden. Especially among teenagers.

Feeding fear: media

“Wolf coming, wolf coming!” is the easiest way to get attention and Compartirbut also the easiest to promote bad decisions in society.

Let’s take the example of two big media: New York Times Y Guardian. In 2016, about a third of all causes of death among Americans were due to heart disease. However, this cause of death received only 2-3% coverage of the media. And, by contrast, violent deaths account for more than two-thirds of media coverage, but account for less than 3% of all deaths in the United States.

Therefore, as the British statistician David John Spiegelhalter has calculated in The Norm Chronicles: Stories and numbers about dangeron average it takes more than 8,000 victims of tobacco for a single story on the subject to appear on BBC News, more than 7,000 victims of obesity, more than 4,000 victims of alcohol… but only a few of AIDS , measles or mad cow disease.


The first global cause of death in 2019 was… Cardiovascular diseases. (Our World in Data)

In the end, as journalist Derek Thompson, author of Hit Makers: How to Succeed in the Age of Distraction: “The power of the press lies not only in informing and passing judgment on important issues, but in determining what is worthy of being covered in the first place.” And there is no conspiracy to misinform either. Not even the relevant thing is the political interest. What there is, for the most part, is capitalism: in the attention economy, whoever is more in tune with people’s latent fears gets more audience.

Caught in an emotional and statistical trap

This mixture of the mathematical inability to assimilate certain numbers or percentages, the infinite ways of presenting them and the need for the media to feed the scandal of some dramatic stories in order to obtain a larger audience results in a profoundly biased perception of modern risks.

As I explain in the book What are you (not) going to die of, which focuses on analyzing the risks in everyday life and how the media unconsciously shapes them to tune in with our amygdala, we live in a safer world while perceiving it as more insecure. Especially when it comes to some risks that are not statistically relevant:

Most of these calculations are not done rationally. Furthermore, irrational fear tends to destabilize the cost/benefit balance. Simply, we let ourselves be carried away by panic, by mass hysteria, by the dramatic news reported by the media that are struggling in the attention market.


Another thing that is very difficult for us to accept as a society, because it means using the death figures aseptically in order to determine the costs and benefits of trying to save some victims over others, is that there is no zero risk. Or achieving it entails an enormous social cost.

It sounds cold to use data to organize (finite) resources to save lives, but intuitively it is what we do every day. When we arrive late for work and exceed the maximum speed limit on the highway, we are implicitly accepting that the risk of dying in an accident is acceptable if in return we can arrive on time. Or as Harvard University paleoanthropologist Daniel E. Lieberman writes in his book The history of the human body: “Letting a certain percentage of people die from car pollutants or road accidents is a price we seem willing to pay for the benefit of having cars.”

So let’s go back to that year 2018 and remember that there were 427,721 deaths. But neither terrorist attacks, nor homicides, nor natural disasters, added together, they do not even reach 1% of the causes of death.


(Eli Solitas/Unsplash)

28.3% of deaths in 2018 were caused by diseases of the circulatory system (leading cause of death in women) and 26.4% due to tumors (leading cause in men). Among children under one year of age, 8 out of 10 deaths were due to perinatal conditions and congenital malformations (57.9% and 22.0%, respectively). Suicide remained the leading cause of external death, with 3,539 deaths. Behind were accidental falls (with 3,143 deaths and an increase of 2.8%) and drowning, submersion and suffocation (with 3,090 and a decrease of 0.8%). 1,896 people died due to traffic accidents, which was 2.4% less than in 2017.

Those are the figures, away from the noise of the media and the distortions of our amygdala. So the only thing left for us is to continue doing pedagogy and demand greater rigor in the information. Especially in the time spent on each piece of information.

It has something of an entelechy, without a doubt, because the data rarely kills the story, but that is the path towards which we must pave the way. Until perhaps, one day, it will not be so counterintuitive for us to say that, given the current data on homicide, Western Europe is the safest place in all of human history. Or that the only way not to die is not to live.

Image: GTRES


Let’s choose a year not too far away in time, located before the pandemic to avoid an exceptional mortality peak,…

Let’s choose a year not too far away in time, located before the pandemic to avoid an exceptional mortality peak,…

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