Just 20 miles north-west of my house a horrendous wildfire rages. And it breaks my heart to see the smoke billowing above our beautiful Poudre Canyon. In just 3 days the fire has grown to 5,000 acres and only 5% of it is contained. What’s worse, is that like the majority of wildfires that devastate our dry countryside, this one is also man made.
The situation makes me think of a TED talk that I recently watched about the optimism bias, which “is our likelihood to overestimate good events in our life and underestimate our likelihood of experiencing bad events” Tali Sharot. Her research found that even though we might know a statistic, that we do not identify with it. For example 40% of marriages will end in divorce. But when newlyweds were asked about their chances of getting divorced they said it was 0%, even though the reality is that 2 out of 5 marriages will end in divorce.
This can be seen in people’s perceptions of their own chances for getting cancer, getting in a car accident, etc. So, what does this have to do with the Hewlett Gulch fire? I can’t help but wonder why people continue to make careless, reckless decisions that result in horrendous wildfires ravaging our forests and threatening homes. Even though the statistics show that humans cause the vast majority wildfires, people still make bonfires when there are restrictions, carelessly discard cigarettes and literally play with fire.
I think that these problems persist because people do not identify with statistics. And it is really not shocking that we don’t identify with statistics, their impersonal, static and feel distant from our reality. So that’s why we ultimately won’t make decisions based on statistics alone. For example, even though someone might know that they’re statistically more likely to die in a car accident when not wearing a seatbelt, doesn’t mean they’ll start wearing a seatbelt.
We do, however identify with stories. And when we hear a story about someone else’s suffering, we can identify with that. Suddenly we can place ourselves in their story which makes the potential negative consequences feel all the more real. Granted everyone will have a different reaction to stories, and some stories we can identify with more than others.
You never hear about someone that caused a wildfire going on the circuit, sharing their story about the pain and suffering they caused. Sure, we have smokey the bear, and he’s a lovable icon. He’s been anthropomorphized and his story is touching. But unless you’re a child, whose imagination is taken away by stories of mystical creatures like Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the boogie man, Smooky’s story is not one we can easily identify with as we become hardened by reality.
The exact cause of the fire is still under investigation. But still I wonder if the individual(s) that caused this horrendous disaster fell prey to the optimism bias. Did they just assume that they were immune to the statistics that over 80% of wildfires are caused by humans? Did an innocent act take a turn for the worse? Was this an intentionally sadistic effort or an accident all together?