What is the probability of our death

These are your real risks

There are many risks in life. However, people often attach greater importance to the rare than to everyday hazards. This can lead to irrational behavior.

The Germans are a rather fearful people compared to other nations. They fear forest dieback, the worst-case scenario, hyperinflation and terror. They are trembling from bird flu, nitrogen oxides, old-age poverty and every form of change in general. This paranoia is even internationally known as “German Angst”.

For all their concern, however, Germans find it difficult to properly weight risks. They tend to underestimate frequent dangers and overestimate rare events. According to a study by the TH Köln and the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, for example, one in four assumes that people in this country are more likely to be killed by a terrorist attack. The probability of this is just 0.0004 percent - if you take the tragic events of 2016 as a basis. The risk is about as high as dying from a hornet, wasp or bee sting.

Extraordinary risks tend to be overestimated

Other fatal dangers - such as a motorcycle, car or pedestrian accident - are also chronically overestimated by many Germans. Horst Müller-Peters, professor at the TH Köln, attributes this primarily to the "high media impact of such events". The principle of so-called "availability heuristics" works here. That is, the more often we hear or read about an incident, the greater the likelihood of such an incident. Experiences with family or friends can also lead us to misjudge probabilities.

Because people pay particular attention to the extraordinary cases, the everyday dangers fade into the background. Who knows that around 24,000 people died of diabetes in Germany in 2015 alone? Or around 21,000 from flu or pneumonia? There would probably not be many deaths if people ate more healthily or if they were more careful from time to time. Health risks are usually underestimated. “When it comes to things like this, people often ignore them - and forget that such a stroke of fate can hit anyone,” observes Müller-Peters.

Many people misjudge the chance of a long life

Old age is also one of those events whose probability of occurrence people misjudge. In a 2012 study by the Munich Center for the Economics of Aging, respondents underestimated their life expectancy by an average of seven years. Women expected an age of no more than 80.3 years, but statistically it was 87.4 years. The men calculated at 75.8 years, but had to expect an average of 82.2 years.

It is not a trivial problem to be able to assess risks poorly. The distorted perception of danger sometimes leads to irrational behavior. This is shown, for example, by an investigation into the travel behavior of Americans after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. For months afterwards, many US citizens preferred to use the car over the plane, even for long distances. The result: In the twelve months after the attacks, 1,600 more people died on the streets than statistically expected.

Let facts do the talking, not your gut

Underestimating life expectancy can also have a negative impact. Because then the money may not be enough in old age. For financial planning, even statistics are only “partially useful for orientation”, as Jochen Ruß from the Institute for Finance and Actuarial Sciences knows: “Life expectancy describes the normal case, that is, a statistical average value for a large number of people. According to the Federal Statistical Office, if you have 100,000 60-year-old men, they will be on average 87.5 years old. But that doesn't mean anything for the individual. He can be unlucky and die at the age of 75, but he can also be lucky and live to be 95 or older. "

Ultimately, statistics cannot determine the individual risk exactly either. Still, it is more reliable than your own gut. "Decisions based on a perceived risk are necessarily suboptimal," explains Tim Stuchtey, Director of the Brandenburg Institute for Society and Security (BIGS). And that applies not only to the assessment of the major life risks, but also to the apparently smaller dangers of everyday life. "The most important basis for this are sober facts and statistics - not gut feeling."