Thursday, January 31, 2013

Where Our Rationality Fails: Parenting Worries

This piece about the dangers of leaving a child unattended in a locked car for a few minutes (when it is not hot)  reminded me of an earlier similar story about a pediatrician who ran into the store to get some milk and left her children in the locked car, also for a few minutes.  She was accused of child abuse, if I recall the story correctly (can't find the link now).

Yet the actual risk of anything bad happening to children being left alone for a few minutes in a locked car is very, very low.  Indeed, the risk they might face by being taken inside the store is probably about equal, because both choices have very small risks attached to them  :  Perhaps a pedophile just then happens to pass by, happens to have a hammer with which to break the window, and then your child is gone.   But perhaps there's someone inside the store going berserk with a gun.  Or your child could run away from you while in the store to a candy counter, and a pedophile might grab him or her there and run out of the door.  And so on.  All these are extremely unlikely events.)

This risk of a stranger pedophile kidnapping a child is widely (WIDELY) publicized in the popular media, and eagerly read everywhere.  The latter  has to do with the utterly horrible fear that a pederast kidnaps a child, tortures the child and then kills the child.  Indeed, this risk is viewed as something so unbearable that the streets and playgrounds in wealthier American cities are now empty of children playing without an adult present. 

That there are real risks evident in a childhood spent up mostly  indoors, with video games as a substitute for exercise, is not something that feels like a risk with the same urgency to parents.  That always being under parental supervision might stunt a child's development and decrease his or her skills is not viewed as a real risk, either.

In many ways, the threat of some stranger kidnapping one's child is treated by our brains and nervous system with the same errors as the fear of an airplane crash.  For those of us who have feared flying, all the statistical evidence in the world about the comparative safety of flying makes no difference.  And the reason is that the fear of that kind of death ranks so large in the mind of the phobic that no information about the probability of the event (unless it can be made to equal zero) makes any real difference.

Similarly, it is the content of the thoughts that enter a parent's mind when even thinking about a child being kidnapped that overwhelm our ability to be rational.  Or so I think.  Because rationally speaking, the odds of a stranger kidnapping a child for heinous purposes really are very small indeed.  Most child abuse is done by the relatives or family friends of the child, for instance, and the vast majority of child abductions are by the other parent after a divorce.  Stranger abductions are rare.

When I was searching for information on the actual probabilities of child abductions by strangers, I came across a site which told me that the probability of a child being abducted in this manner is one in a hundred:

S  T  A  T  I  S  T  I  C  S
* Every 40 seconds, in the United States alone, a child is reported missing or abducted.
* 1.5 million children are abducted each year. Can you imagine what this figure must be worldwide?
* With approximately 75 million children in the United States, every person has a 1% chance of being snatched away before surviving to adulthood to a parent (even 1% is 1% too much!)
* Of child kidnapping victims, 40% are killed, 4% are never found, with 71% being taken by a complete stranger

That is mostly hogwash.  Because the site gives no sources for the numbers it's hard to know what concepts get confused in that list, but given that the most common child abductions are by the other parent (200,000 in 2010) that 1.5 million figure makes no sense.  And neither does the parent who abducts the child intend to kill the child (or only extremely rarely).

A better source (from 2002) tells us this:

It's every parent's worst fear: a dangerous stranger snatches their child. However, the vast majority of missing children are not kidnapped at all. They are runaways and throwaways, kids who leave and don't come back or are told not to come back, according to a 1990 study by the U.S. Justice Department. Of the remaining cases that are considered abductions, some 350,000 each year, are committed by family members as part of a custody dispute.
In a country with some 59 million children, abductions by a stranger are perhaps the most terrifying of crimes. But they are also the rarest. There are about 114,600 such stranger abductions attempted each year, and about 3,200 to 4,600 or around 4 percent, are successful, according to the study.
Of those, an even smaller fraction, about 200 to 300, are what the FBI calls "stereotypical" kidnappings, where a child is gone overnight, transported over some distance, intended to be kept by the perpetrator or even killed. These incidents make up far less than 1 percent of the total stranger abductions.
The numbers of these cases are small and getting smaller despite the recent publicized incidents, according to FBI statistics. In 2001, agents investigated 93 cases of abduction by someone outside the family. That is a decline from the 115 cases reported in 1998, when such statistics were first kept.

If I had more time for this post I'd look for more recent data because what I found suggests that child abductions have become rarer since 2002.  But you can figure the real probability of a random child being abducted by a stranger for truly heinous purposes.  It is much, much smaller than one percent.  Even the largest probability (applying to attempts by strangers) is only one fifth of a percent.  The probability of the "stereotypical" stranger abductions is 0.0000051, and the probability of the child being killed in those is even smaller (perhaps a little more than one half, given the data in the linked article).

Let's compare all that to car accidents, the major killer (or one of the major killers) of children between the ages of two to fourteen years.  In 2003:

In 2003, there were a total of 42,643 traffic fatalities in the United States. The 0-14
age group accounted for 5 percent (2,136) of those traffic fatalities.

You can figure out the rough probability of a child dying in one of those traffic fatalities by dividing the number of deaths by the number of children in the US in 2003.   But perhaps a clearer comparison would be between actual numbers of death from traffic accidents and from murders by strangers who have abducted a child.  The latter can only be approximated from the data I have given here but the figure was somewhere between 50 and 225 (using the data from the 2002 article on "stereotypical kidnaps": 100 to 300 cases, and assuming rates of murder between 50 and 75%).

Here is what I mean by our rationality failing:  Parents do not change their child-rearing behavior in response to information about traffic fatalities, even though the worst outcome:  the death of a child, is higher in those than in stranger abductions.  Indeed, some of the tradeoffs people make to reduce the probability of the latter, such as chauffeuring the children more, might actually increase the likelihood that the child will die.

And the reason is that failing rationality.  In some ways the contents of one death and the emotional meaning of it are so overpowering that actual probabilities do not matter very much, or one seeks for verification that the risk is not only impossible to contemplate but also very high.  Hence sites like the one I linked to above.

Because data on stranger abductions and related deaths has not been kept in the past we don't know if the problem has become more common.  I doubt that myself.  What HAS become much more common are the media reports about some cases of child abductions, and this is one of those cases where rationality can suffer from more "information."  Those stories trigger our hind-brain reflexes and make it harder to look at the risks logically.  Then we make choices which are not the choices we would arrive at were we able to silence those horror movies that the stories have elicited.

What to do about this all?  I think the media should take a more responsible role in how it covers these kinds of stories, and some media sources have done just that.  But much more remains to be done.  I also think that it's good to acknowledge that no parent, however perfect, can ever keep a child completely safe, that risks are part of being human and that the most important parental task is to protect the child adequately (and first against the largest dangers) while also teaching those skills we all need to cope with the risks inherent in life.
My numbers here are "on the back of the envelope" and based on very little study.  They may be roughly indicative of the current situation but most likely incorrect as specific figures.

I have also ignored the fear of other types of violence which might befall children playing out unattended.  In most higher income areas all those risks are quite low.