Over 10 times more people die in circulatory diseases than accidents (source). Nevertheless people (in general) fear accidents more than circulatory disease. There are statistically even more unlikely things that people fear, such as lightning.

What is the reason for this?

One thing that came to my mind is that these unlikely things are reported more in the media, but there must also be something else behind this.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Yes, one of the reasons is recency, as you've guessed. More basically, humans did not evolve to do statistics (which is why we fall prey to the recency fallacy too). Statistics is often counterintuitive. $\endgroup$
    – M. Vinay
    Feb 3, 2015 at 12:50
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Another thing to consider is that, say, a movie in which the main character dies of cancer won't be considered a horror movie, but one in which someone is killed (or even just chased) by ghosts will be. Such a movie is scary even for those who don't actually believe in ghosts. Why? Because the ghost movie has a completely different mode of presentation. In the cancer movie, the character isn't suddenly "struck dead" by cancer! But the horror movie is all about the sudden and the hidden. This is true to a large extent about accidents (unexpectedness, and possibility of sudden death). $\endgroup$
    – M. Vinay
    Feb 3, 2015 at 12:57
  • $\begingroup$ possible duplicate of Why are people inclined to praise or fear the unknown? $\endgroup$ Feb 3, 2015 at 17:46
  • $\begingroup$ These questions generally devolve into circle-jerk that is better suited to Skeptics.SE $\endgroup$ Feb 3, 2015 at 17:46
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @New Alexandria, this does not duplicate the question you are referring to. Not suited to Skeptics.SE either. IMO. $\endgroup$ Feb 3, 2015 at 19:47

3 Answers 3


This is a great question. There isn't a single reason for this phenomenon.

There is a genetic predisposition to certain fears. Though humans are bad at statistics, evolution is quite good at it. So if there is a benefit to having a fear response to something, whereby it increases the chances of survival to reproduction, then it is more likely to propagate. The trouble with evolution however, is that it's slow, and depends on survival to reproduction to work, which is not as relevant as it used to be. So humans are predisposed to fear snakes, heights, and lightning, because this fear increased the chance of survival in our evolutionary past. A fear of circulatory disease was not an evolutionary advantage at the time, and arguably still isn't, but in any case, evolution has not had sufficient time to catch up.

Genetics are not the only cause of fears, as learning also plays an important role. This was clearly demonstrated by the seminal Little Albert Experiment in which a fear of rabbits (very uncommon in practice) was induced in a baby through classical conditioning. This experiment is no longer ethical to replicate, but it showed that humans can be taught to fear just about anything. This results in individual differences in fears and phobias that depend on personal experience rather than objective statistical likelihood. Thus, a fear of something with immediate effects, such as failure or embarrassment, is more likely to develop through learning than a fear of something with long-term effects, such as smoking or junk food.

Classical conditioning is also important in understanding the impact of presentation - as mentioned, the way a fear is presented can influence it as well. Fears that more closely resemble or are otherwise associated with other things we already fear are more likely to take hold than abstract ones that we can't relate to. So the key to fears such as radiation, asteroid impact, or aliens, really has to do with framing them in a manner that we can understand.

The role of learning is evident in cultural differences in common fears as well. As you rightly pointed out, media plays a role in this, but importantly, media emphasizes different fears in different cultures, so it is presumably influenced by what each culture is attuned to. Additionally, fear is often used in politics and marketing, so cultural differences may be partially driven by needs and goals of government and corporations for example. This may be why - at least in developed countries - a fear of terrorism is more likely than a fear of ecological disaster for example. Similarly, an issue with market-driven news is that it tends to focus on particularly rare events, such as child abductions, shark bites, and plane crashes, making them seem more common than they are.

Many other factors, such as memory and cognitive biases, influence the likelihood of developing a particular fear, but hopefully this gives you the sense that objective statistical likelihood is not the only factor.

  • $\begingroup$ The evening news program would be a lot longer if all of the people who died that day were told. "Cause of Death" often seems ridiculous to me, as "old" would be appropriate in many cases. Or "stupid"... $\endgroup$
    – user9634
    May 11, 2016 at 22:38

This is because human beings assess the probabilty of an event in a roughly proportional dependence of the emotions its imagination triggers or the emotion its experience triggered.

I have read of a study - sorry can't find the source but anyway it serves as a good illustration of my point - that people when asked will attach a higher probabilty to the event of a plane crash caused by terrorists than to a plane crash in general without specifying why. The first event will cause vivid pictures to pop into your mind, the latter is comparatively abstract.

Why do people tend to think that they systematically always arrive at the bus stop just when the bus leaves? (Or similar misconceptions of the kind "always when I ..." or "never when I ...") It's b/c when you get the bus that is normal and won't trigger much emotion. If you don't get the bus it will trigger negative feelings. Those feelings get associated with the event of missing the bus and make it seem more likely - in terms of neural activity, it is stronger.

Same goes of course for accidents vs some boring illness.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to CogSci SE, and thanks for your interesting answer! If you could find a reference or two to add to your answer, that would be great. +1 $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Feb 11, 2015 at 9:55

There are various reasons of why people behave like that but to answer the statement:

... people fear (in general) more accidents than circulatory disease.

It is probably because accidents are generally more violent and vulgar than circulatory diseases. Additionally, diseases in general are most likely to be preventable than accidents. Also, diseases are much likely to be treatable while accidents came with high chances of instant death.

It is probably the fear of getting an instant death.

  • $\begingroup$ In 50% of cases, the first sign of cardiovascular disease is a heart attack. No matter how gradual or preventable, it can nonetheless cause instant death, which is why people should pay more attention to it than accidents, which are less preventable. But, we didn't evolve to prevent ordinary causes of death, as someone else said. Death always wins in the end, we just try to hold it off. Personally, I would rather go quick than in a lingering illness, like cancer. $\endgroup$
    – user9634
    May 11, 2016 at 22:41

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