Threat Assessment

You know the phrase “deer in the headlights?” It describes someone seemingly paralyzed by fear and shock, unable to react to their impending but obvious doom. We use that phrase because often that’s what deer seem to be experiencing as they just stare, frozen, at the oncoming car about to collide with them.

As it turns out, the phrase doesn’t accurately describe deer. The deer aren’t frozen in terror at all. They’re shrewdly calculating the exact moment they need to run. They’re just wrong.

If you see a squirrel or rabbit, walk towards it slowly. It will look at you, and obviously see you, but it won’t run. Yet. Then when you cross a certain proximity threshold, it will bolt – and that threshold will usually be exactly the distance where you could have caught it if it waited any longer.

Why wait? If prey animals ran every time they simply saw a predator or other threat, they’d be running their whole life. And running costs calories, not to mention opportunity costs. So running too much is just as detrimental to survival as not running enough. As a result, animals have developed an extremely good threat assessment system so they can run only the exact right amount, always waiting until the last possible second before they make their escape.

That threat assessment system just hasn’t caught up to cars yet.

Nothing in the animal kingdom charges at a deer the speed cars do. Deer are staring at the car, “doing the math” on exactly when they have to run, but they’re basing that on the speed of their local predators, which are much slower than cars. So they’re shrewd, but this is a relatively new threat and they haven’t adapted yet.

You are like a deer. You are evolutionarily adapted to many threats, but many of the ones you face in your actual life are too new for those tools. Your innate survival instincts can’t warn you about stock market crashes or accurately assess airplane safety.

Sometimes that means you’ll underestimate a threat, sometimes it means you’ll overestimate it. But it’s good to be aware of the fact. When you’re evaluating risk, don’t assume you can “feel” it. Do the math, gather the info. See the lights for what they are.

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