“Risky” Behaviour and Availability

A year and a half ago, when I was barely 18, a friend and I went all the way to Greece and Italy all on our own. It wasn’t a group tour, it was just us; two quite pretty, quite obviously meek teenage girls from Canada alone in countries where they speak different languages, have different rituals and traditions, and sometimes dress kinda funny. We even stayed out past dark in downtown Saranda, Albania – a beautiful city, but one still suffering from the after effects of communism in many readily noticeable ways. Quite a bold move for girls who don’t even go out much at night at home. Yet my parents were happy that I was going, and sent me off with only a reminder to call occasionally.

This past May, we went off to Britain and France (we-ell, Paris, anyway). For part of this trip we were doted on and cared for by my various right-pondian relatives; in Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, and Cornwall, to be specific. But although we also stayed with my family in Cardiff and London, we were mostly left to navigate those much larger cities on our own steam, only checking in once a days worth of exploring and geeking out had come to an end. In Paris we had nobody at all, and Paris is a bit intimidating if you’ve gotten used to hearing the English language all the time.

We spent over a week in London, a weekend in Paris, and at least a day in Cardiff on our own. We passed through some of the poorer parts of London, and although we were on a tour then, it would have been quite easy to get lost in the crowds of these less-desirable (but still fascinating!) areas. We probably got lost more often than it would be comfortable to admit. We walked several blocks from a metro stop to the Eiffel tower, not being able to see it or any landmarks for most of the way there, and we got ourselves home from said tower in the dark (of all things) on that same metro. We wandered aimlessly in downtown Cardiff with only a map of Doctor Who landmarks to give us any indication as to where we were, or if we were in some mystical undesirable part of town where they kill women and stuff. Similarly, in London we navigated mostly via tube map and intuition. Somehow, despite all of this terribly risky behaviour, we didn’t die (not once!).  And my parents were fine with knowing how we were stumbling along. They were probably proud.

Then I came home. Another friend of mine, one who lives in a less-desirable part of Edmonton, was having a party which began at 5:00pm on a Friday. Normally my parents would volunteer to drive me, but I knew that would be an awkward hour for them (since they both work), so I said I’d take the bus.

My mother, bless her proverbial cotton socks, was not impressed with this idea. “You’re not taking the bus to [neighbourhood]!” she insisted, instead making sure that my father would be home in time to drive me. When I pointed out that she had no problem with me spending the night out in Saranda, where children actually begged us for money in the streets, and no problem with me wandering around London without a map (and without an attractive Scottish actor…has anybody else even seen LA Without a Map?), she agreed that she was probably being silly, but still insisted on pointing out how dangerous that area was. It’s in the news all the time, she said.

Well, possibly. The local news. You know, the one that doesn’t report on crimes going on in London, or Naples, or Paris. The one that catches the merest glimpse of blood in a bar fight in north-east Edmonton and doesn’t let the story go for weeks. The one that sort of gives us an inaccurate picture of how dangerous Edmonton really is.

Now, I didn’t for a moment feel scared in London. I stayed alert, making sure I knew where I was at all times, and keeping an eye out for suspicious behaviour, because hey, big European city + North American accents = prime pick-pocketing target. But I’d researched the crime rates of London before travelling and new that, on the whole, it’s a pretty safe city.

Safer than Edmonton?

I’m not sure on the statistics, but I’d guess probably not. London is a big, big city with a hell of a lot of people living in it, all jammed together twenty four hours of the day. It’s also a tourist hotspot, which makes tourism-related crime much easier than in my rather dull home town. By sheer power of numbers alone, the crime rate probably creeps higher. (On the other hand, probably not by much. People on the whole are typically friendly and well meaning, and except for economic disparity and group-think I can’t see much influencing that general niceness.)

The point isn’t that London is safer. Nor is the point that London is more dangerous. The point is that my mother doesn’t hear about knife incidents and gang violence and random attacks in London on a regular basis. She does hear these things about the areas of Edmonton that we tend to turn our noses up at. And the news makes a big deal about it. If it bleeds, my son. If it bleeds.

My mother was making a judgement about my safety in different parts of the world on the basis of how easily examples of dangerous incidents in each of those areas sprang to mind. In psychology this is called the availability heuristic.

Definition time: a heuristic is a helpful procedure for arriving at a solution but not necessarily a proof( thank you Microsoft Word). The availablity heuristic depends on how quickly examples spring to mind (rather than on an actual, concrete number of examples). Basically it’s a rule of thumb on the basis of which we make judgements, that usually turns out to be helpful. After all, if we hear about smokers getting cancer all the time, it’s probably availability rather than cold hard facts that dissuades most of us from smoking. But in this case, the more-gore tendencies of news media cause a fault in the operation.

That’s what I’m really getting at here. News media loves stories of cute little blonde white girls in pigtails getting kidnapped and mutilated, so we tend to assume that cute little blonde white girls are more likely to be kidnapped. Never mind that it’s actually little boys, cute, blonde, and white or not, that are at the higher risk. We hear about random women getting raped and murdered on their way home in the dark much more often than we hear about its more frequent counterpart: people of either/any sex getting raped and murdered at any time of the day by someone they know quite well. And we hear so much about all of these incidents combined that we forget about the billions of people around the world who haven’t been murdered, raped, stabbed, threatened, or spoken to rudely, today and every day.

We forget that, on the whole, the world is pretty safe.

Obviously there’s no point in taking needless risks. Obviously if you go to, for example, a turbulent and deeply religious, deeply conservative part of the world, it’s probably not a wise decision to wear jeans if you’re a gal, and it’s probably not a great idea to pair it with your scarlet A t-shirt. Obviously if you’re walking through L.A. you’re best off avoiding those areas where the crips and the bloods tend to hang, especially if you’re wearing red or blue or some other symbol of affiliation. And if you (for some reason) believe what Jeremy Clarkson has to say, it’s not wise to stop at a gas station in a hick part of Alabama with “Man Love Rules OK” painted on the side of your pick-up.

But not taking any risks is not the same thing as not taking stupid risks. Risks are a part of life. Actually, little known secret: they’re the best part of life. They have the biggest rewards, and they make you grow as a person. Every time I wander around a big city, armed with only an even more timid BFF and a cheesy tourist map, I feel just that little bit more confident in my abilities as a capable, mature adult.

And every time, I feel just a little more cocky.

Note: I’m a first year university psych student. I say this so that you know I’m not completely talking out of my rear, but also so that people who know more about psychology than me don’t think I’m being patronizing or overgeneralizing. As far as knowledge goes, every little bit helps – so if you think you know more about the subject, pass it along.


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