We Hodophobes Overestimate Risk

I guess I should start by saying I don’t know your travel dreams. Maybe you’re thinking about doing something that truly is dangerous. I guess that’s possible.

You’re in charge of getting your own facts and determining the real risks involved in the trip you’re planning to take. I can’t do that for you. (Google probably can.)

But I can say that in my case, as in the case of every other hodophobe I’ve ever met, the fears that kept us from hitting the road were way out of proportion to the risks. It’s not that the things we feared could never happen. It’s that the chances they will are far smaller than we imagine them to be. So why are our visions of travel disaster so persistent?

There are lots of reasons, as it turns out.


For one thing, travel tragedies, though extremely rare, are memorable. They stand out, making us believe they’re much more common than they really are. The most sensational thing is what catches our attention. That’s just human nature.

A few years ago, a photo of a shapely woman in a tight dress made the rounds on the internet. It was a close-up, taken from behind the woman as she crossed a street, and the narrative that accompanied it told the story of a man wrongly accused.

He says he let go of his wife’s hand to snap the shot and was slapped for his trouble. “How could you?” she wants to know.

“How could I not?” he innocently responds. “It’s not every day you see a dog driving a car.”

Ah, yes. There it is in the background, the even more arresting image that few will even notice without this gentle nudge.

Here’s What’s Really Sensational

Every year, more than 60 million Americans travel to other countries. And out of all the tens of millions of success stories these travelers tell, hodophobes focus only on the handful of headlines that feature travel gone awry. These are the stories that stand out, because they’re so different from the normal, tragedy-free travel experience.

We miss the bigger picture entirely. It’s pretty dog-driving-car amazing that we can visit any of the almost 200 countries spread out over the seven continents that adorn this beautiful planet. We can traverse whole seasons and climates in a single day. And when we do, the chances are good, very good, that nothing bad will happen. Isn’t that amazing?

The Confirmation Bias

Our beliefs, even when they don’t serve us well, run deep, and we have this annoyingly human habit of hearing and seeing only what supports our opinions. Admit it. Whenever you hear about a negative travel incident, a part of you says, “Uh-huh. I knew it. Going out into the world is dangerous.”

But when your best friend tells you about touring the vineyards of France, or staying in a hostel, or grabbing a taxi, the tube or the el after an awesome night out in an unfamiliar town, you don’t even hear him. It’s like you mentally stick your fingers in your ears and start humming.

It’s nothing to be embarrassed about. As unbalanced as our self-reinforcing mental habits are, our minds work this way for a very good reason. Concentration, discernment, fact checking and risk assessment take tons of mental energy. If we had to carefully comb through every trivial detail of life to figure out what’s safe and what’s not, there wouldn’t be much time left for doing anything else.

So we conserve our efforts by developing an inner blueprint of the way things work. Our brains quickly scan events and toss them into pre-made mental files. And we don’t pay any more attention to where it puts them than we think about whether it’s time to draw our next breath. The system is automatic. It’s efficient.

And it’s problematic, at times. There’s probably a lot of so-called “evidence” in your “travel is dangerous” file, because that’s what you already believe. And the file labeled “travel is safe”?

Now where’d I put that thing?

Do the Numbers

Seven people were killed in the 2017 London Bridge attack, and 48 more were injured. That makes London feel like a dangerous travel destination, doesn’t it? And I’ll bet I know where you filed that story.

There are two factors that contribute to our fearful responses to stories like this one. First, we pay special attention to tragedies that involve the simultaneous deaths or injuries of a number of people. That’s just how we’re made.

When seven people are killed in one attack, the story fills the airwaves. We want to know who died, whodunit, and how the authorities are going to respond. Heads of state make their statements, Twitter retweets, and our thoughts and prayers go out to the loved ones of all who were harmed. We’re just thankful we weren’t affected.

Yet when I drive past the sign that tells me 523 motorists have been killed on Georgia’s highways so far this year (it’s June, barely), I don’t bat an eye. That’s because they weren’t all killed in a single giant wreck. They died one at a time. Tragic? Yes! Terrifying? Not so much.

Secondly, stories like this almost always take place in a location where we aren’t. That makes it seem like other places are more dangerous than home is, even though we’ve all heard statistics to the contrary.

Tragedies like the London attack are extremely rare. The chances that you’ll be involved in something similar are minuscule. And if you’re not involved, they aren’t going to be happening at your current location. That’s true whether you’re under the covers of your own snuggy bed, or out in the world, living like a traveler.

How can you combat the human tendency to hear only what stands out or only what you already believe so you can become a confident traveler? I’ve got some ideas I’ll be telling you about soon. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your own.

2 thoughts on “We Hodophobes Overestimate Risk”

  1. I’m a “White-knuckle” flyer, especially over water. But I’ve been to Europe, the Middle East, the West Coast, Hawaii, and I would not trade all of those adventures and beautiful landscapes -with no disasters – for the “safe haven” of my own back yard.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experiences Cece. I’m glad that tolerating your travel fears was worth the ride. And you’ve got some happy memories of your trips – those will always be with you.

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