Shark Attack Theory

With the setting sun bathed in pastels of red and orange, a giggling couple sneak away from a beachside party, throw off their clothes and sprint into the cool waters of the ocean.  He dives into the waves; she follows, catches him and puts her arms around his shoulders as they look back at the lights on shore.  They can just hear the party.  She pinches him, swims away and he chases her, both laughing.  The sun finally sets, casting a grey blanket over the dark ocean.  They tread water and watch the light disappear; then she pinches his side again and swims away.

As he goes to catch her, something terrible strikes his leg, like a jagged rock; but his legs are invisible, dangling in the depths of the ocean.  It strikes again.  This time the rock has razors and he feels his shinbones crush together and into a hundred shards.  He opens his mouth to scream, but the razors yank him under with the force of a thousand stones; his bubbles rise harmlessly through a cloud of his own blood.

She hears the gurgle, turns and just sees his hands swallowed by the rolling tides; the growing slick of blood reflects black in the dying light.  She screams and swims for shore, violently—the word shark pounding in her mind, over and over.


So…want to go swimming at the beach tonight?


There is a curious phenomenon—call it Shark Attack Theory—where the story of one influences the actions of many, despite overwhelming data saying “this probably won’t happen to you too…and by ‘probably’ we mean ‘it will not happen to you’.”  For instance can we agree in 2009 there were, maybe, a billion instances of people swimming in the ocean?  Give or take?  Well, only five people were killed by sharks in 2009—or one in 200 million; odds of winning the lottery are usually around one in a 100 million.  You’ve heard these comparisons before, but look at the instances where this same idea holds up in everyday life.  The media uses it all the time.  How often do you hear an individual story that drives an overall narrative?

There was a recent increase in Pertussis, aka Whooping Cough, in southern California.  In the early 1900’s the disease ravaged the US, but with modern medicine it’s very treatable when diagnosed.  During this small outbreak, there have been six deaths—all newborns with poor healthcare.  So when I heard the story on the radio, the correspondent spent most of the time interviewing a mother that had lost her child due to a missed diagnosis.  It was terrible and sad and in no way am I taking away from her heartache, but as I listened, I found myself saying, “Shit! I need to learn about this disease!  This sounds awf…wait a second…there were six deaths—all newborns, with no healthcare and over a thousand miles away.  Why am I getting worried about this?”  There was a genuine moment where I was thinking about my last coughing spell and whether it was symptomatic.

Going further, there is a curious twisting of Shark Attack Theory where individual stories influence our interest, but for the positive.  Think about the headlines from the Middle East: “[Large number of people] killed by bomb in [city].”  We grimace and keep browsing the news.  But if the article was about a family coping with the loss of a father after that bombing we’ll click.  Nicholas Kristof has written extensively about how to draw more public empathy and aid around tragedies like the continuing genocide in Sudan.  If we’re honest, as a country, we really don’t care—so how do you get through to the public that this is a second (or third, or fourth, or…) Holocaust, and we need to do something? (And not wait for Don Cheadle to star in Hotel Sudan)

To summarize, he and a number of social psychologists found that the public is more likely to donate when the Ask is based on one person, rather than many.  If Campaign A said, “Over 1 million people have been murdered in Sudan in the last five years.  Donate now!” and Campaign B said, “Catherine Zamo watched her parents murdered in the streets and escaped in the night with her infant sister in her arms.  She now lives in a refugee camp—her sister’s only caretaker—subsiding on bread and water.  Donate now!” people overwhelmingly give to Campaign B, even though the magnitude of Campaign A is far, far worse.  They even tried adding a second story to Campaign B and donations decreased.  We identify with one person, one story.

So why, as people, if we care so much about the 1, do we disregard the other 999,999?


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Caleb Garling lives in San Francisco and wrote The St George’s Angling Club, available at

3 Responses to Shark Attack Theory

  1. Steph Carter says:

    I’ve also read Connected and other Kristof research and I too find it very interesting how the human psychology works. A connection I just thought of while reading your post is to Barry Schwartz’s Paradox of Choice. Essentially the idea is that we are bombarded with so many choices today (types of tomato sauce, styles of jeans, etc.) and are less happy than we think we would be with fewer choices. He goes so far to say that the increase in rates of depression could be in part linked to this phenomenon. I wonder if part of the the decision we have to make when giving to a bombed village in the Middle East vs. a single mother in Sudan has to do with this idea of being overwhelmed by numbers. Perhaps it’s ingrained in humans to reach out to one individual, not many, because that is the scale at which we know we can successfully help (prior to technology). Maybe it’s not only about feeling that human connection to one individual over a village of heads, that Kristof describes, but also about numbers?

  2. Caleb says:

    That’s an awesome point. We just shut down when there are too many options; our brains can’t handle it. I’m curious to see how Schwartz links to depression. The disease itself is fairly broad in its definition and/or causes, but intuitively, I could see how “too much input” makes us retreat mentally.

    It’s sort of curious in reverse too; usually the general opinion (not plights/stories) of the masses affect our behavior more-so than just one individual opinion.

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