black-swan bias

Post image for Regulation of the Day 194: Facebook Friends

Missouri has a new law that bans teachers from becoming Facebook friends with any current or former student. The goal is to prevent inappropriate teacher-student relationships.

There are several points to make here. The first is that this is what parenting writer Lenore Skenazy calls “worst first” thinking. It’s rooted in black swan bias, a cognitive defect in the human brain that overestimates the frequency of rare but horrifying risks. Black swan bias has led to, among other things, the creation of the TSA.

Here, the concern is pedophilia. Statistically, it is extremely rare. But it is so horrifying that legislators and the parents who vote for them take precautions completely out of proportion to the actual threat. They assume the worst first. Ready, FIRE!, aim. [click to continue…]

The TSA has a habit of confiscating security-unrelated items. Over at The American Spectator, I recall just such an experience that I had at O’Hare. After years of wondering what became of my beloved Leatherman, I was able to find a likely answer: it probably found its way to a government surplus store. One store alone made $300,000 just from TSA-confiscated items. As I conclude:

So rest easy the next time a TSA screener takes away your spear gun (yes, that’s on the verboten list). You’re not just making air travel safer by leaving it behind. You’re also doing your part to reduce government deficits.

TSA policies are an over-reaction to a rare threat that kills fewer people each year than lightning strikes. Unfortunately, the human mind is not entirely rational when calculating the risk from rare but conspicuous threats, so the TSA is probably here to stay.