Mar 16, 2007

The Psychology of Security

Posted by in category: existential risks

An excellent article by Bruce Schneier on the psychology of security is available here. It starts as follows:

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.

The difference between the feeling of security and true security, and the difference between pursuing one thing or the other, is central to the Lifeboat Foundation’s mission. For example, planetwide risks like synthetic life or unfriendly AI should be analyzed more thoroughly and given more effort than prevention of nuclear proliferation, even if we consider the near-term probability of the former scenarios to be less, simply because their scope is so much larger. For more on this topic, see Cognitive biases affecting judgement of existential risks.

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