Sharks or Hippos? or the Attentional Bias

Which animal kills more humans per year?

Sharks or Hippopotamuses?

Deadlier Shark or Hippo?








And the winner is …

…the river horse, a.k.a. Hippopotamus, with a tally of 500 to 2,900 lives per year.

These beauties weigh about 8,000 pounds each and are capable of darting at 18 miles per hour.  Moreover, they are unpredictable, ill-tempered and have many reasons for attacking; the males become aggressive in defending their territory, while the females, in protecting their young.

The perceived scary Shark, on the other hand, decimates only 10 to 100 lives per year in spite of its fearsome reputation.  It is just that we hear and read more often about Shark-attacks than Hippo-attacks.

Quick side note: Even the Common Selfie (yes, that one you take with your smartphone of your pretty face) kills more people than sharks.  

The tally so far for 2015 (Sep) stands at Death by Selfie = 10 vs Death by Shark-Attack = 9.  Talk about ‘avoidable deaths.’  (update for full year of 2016:  Death by Selfie = min 89 vs Death by Shark-Attacks = 8)

The Mosquito is actually by far the deadliest animal, with between 700,000 to 1,000,000 losses of lives attributed to it.  Nevertheless, it still has not gotten the deserved publicity.

mosquito the deadliest animal

  Some cheap publicity for the killer number one

What about our judgement on killer diseases then?

Research has shown that people judge death by accident 300 times more likely than death by diabetes, although the actual ratio is 1:4.

And on airplane accidents?

Some of the biggest news stories of 2014 involved commercial plane crashes, but in fact 2014 had the fewest number of crashes since the commercial aviation industry began in 1949.

So, why are we so misguided when it comes to giving a more accurate estimation of such figures?

The “Attentional Bias” can be blamed for this because most of us falsely believe that the occurrence of certain events are more frequent (than they really are), just because we pay them more attention. Attentional Bias

In truth, all the mentioned examples are non-events that have been inflated by the media and the public till they fill our TV screens and become all that anyone talks about.

The human mind does not cope well with non-events because (by nature) our perception has the tendency to be affected by recurring thoughts.

This causal intuition occurs because we are inclined to apply causal thinking inappropriately to situations that require statistical reasoning instead.  Because statistical thinking derives conclusions about individual cases from characteristics of broad categories, we should neither jump to conclusions (after analysing existent evidence), nor should we totally ignore absent evidence.

Despite laziness being ingrained in our nature, we should resist the law of least effort and pay more attention and pursue the obvious.

We should also be watchful of our good moods because a happy mood loosens the control of our logical brain over performance.  When we are in a good mood, we become more intuitive and more creative, but we also become less vigilant and more susceptible to logical errors!

Most of the above mentioned examples are unfortunately about (you might have noticed) bad news and we can thank our brain for this, since the brains of humans and other animals contain a mechanism that is designed to give priority to bad news.

That’s the reason why an angry face “pops-out” of a crowd of happy faces, but a single happy face does not stand out in an angry crowd.  It’s also why a single cockroach will completely wreck the appeal of a bowl of cherries, but a cherry will do nothing at all for a bowl of cockroaches (Paul Rozin’s study on Disgust).

So, the next time you hear or read about a Stock Market Crash (and there will be one as certain as the sun setting every day)do not panicinstead, calmly pay attention to the overall statistics: The U.S. stocks lost at least 20% of its value 20 times during the period between 1928 and 2014, but a broad based index of U.S. stocks nevertheless increased 2,000-fold in that same period.

Then tell yourself, “It is not a big deal.  They overdo it sometimes.  Everything that lives and breathes needs a break once in a while.”  and thereafter be rational and proceed to buy more stocks or ETFs at those lower prices, to grow your nest-egg.

And then only one of life’s questions remains unanswered.  Is a hippopotamus a hippopotamus or just a really cool opotamus?


“The emotional tail wags the rational dog.” — Jonathan Haidt

In case you have always wondered where these beautiful but ill-tempered Hippos came from: Hippo-Ancestry-Unveiled.

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