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Dying for the Ultimate Selfie: We're Really Bad at Assessing Risk Well

Dying for the Ultimate Selfie: We’re Really Bad at Accurately Assessing Risk

Selfies are the journaling of our time. We take them everywhere we go, not only to remind our future selves of things we’ve done, but to also broadcast to the world what a fun, exciting, and carefully-curated life we lead.

But in a story that’s becoming as commonplace as school shootings in America, more and more people are either dying or putting themselves in extreme physical danger to take the ultimate selfie. And for what? Fame in the form of more likes and followers on social media.

Why are we so bad at rationally assessing risk in situations such as this?

It’s hard to believe we’ve come to a point in humanity where a simple act of photography could be life-threatening. But combine narcissism, the desire for popularity that extends beyond high school, and the human psychology of risk assessment, and you get a dangerous combination.

Reasons People Put Their Life at Risk for a Selfie

Humans fundamentally underestimate risk. Our minds have developed evolutionary shortcuts in order to make decisions more quickly — especially decisions about risk. This quick shortcut reaction in our brains evolved because it provided us an advantage in our fight-or-flight response, allowing us to decide whether we needed to get away from a potential predator or fight it. It served humanity well for thousands of years.

But over time, the risks changed from natural predators and dangers in the wild to less obvious risks in a mechanical and technologically-driven world. Our brains aren’t naturally wired to take into account these new man-made risks, and so the brain engages in a faulty and biased risk assessment.

Rewards can obscure the risk. When a person becomes so focused on the reward of attaining a goal they’ve worked hard to get — such as taking that ultimate selfie — their brains put aside risk or downplay it in such a way as to make the risk seem significantly less than it actually is. The amount of new follows and likes a person believes they are likely to receive from an amazing selfie simply outweigh their own personal safety.

Sunk costs may come into play as well. If a person has spent the past two hours trying to get to a specific remote rock outcropping to take the ultimate selfie, most people can’t imagine spending all that time and effort — and then not take the selfie. At that point, the person already has so much sunk cost — a cost that has already been expended in time, money, and effort that cannot be recovered. Turning back doesn’t seem like a reasonable option to most people’s brains. The supposed benefits gained from the once-in-a-lifetime selfie simply outweigh the risk.

Risks that we have control over — such as standing on a dangerous ledge — are perceived as lesser and more acceptable than risks we don’t have control over. This is why flying in an airplane is so scary to some — they aren’t the ones driving it; they have no control over the minimal risk they’re taking. This is also why nobody thinks about injury or death when getting into their car. Even though the statistical chances are infinitely higher in getting into an automobile accident rather than an airplane accident, we have control over the car we drive. In our brain, such control provides more acceptable risk — even when the data show that our brain is biased and wrong.

Memory also gets us into trouble when it comes to accurate risk assessment. If we’ve taken dozens of selfies in potentially-dangerous situations in the past without issue, our mind remembers and emphasizes that datapoint. So if 100 percent of the previous times we’ve taken a risky selfie, we’ve had no problem, our brain says, “Why would this time be any different?”

Humans regularly overestimate the odds of unlikely or rare events occurring, while simultaneously underestimating how dangerous or risky commonplace events can be. For instance, we believe that catastrophes, like a school shooting, happen far more frequently than they do. Some people even have a fear of going to school because of them. It’s splashed all over the news when it happens. Statistically, however, school shootings are still relatively rare events.

Everyday risks, on the other hand, we take for granted. They never get any news coverage. Auto accidents, for instance, occur far more frequently and are just as traumatizing to those involved. But you rarely see one in the news, or hear about it from friends — unless it affects someone you personally know.

That’s why people driving an automobile feel safer and believe they’ll never get into an accident — that sort of thing happens to other people. This false belief completely obscures the truth — that most people will be involved in an auto accident in their lifetime. And some people will even lose their lives from one.

Add all these reasons up, and you have a perfect equation for why people take extreme risks to take a selfie. Their brains have miscalculated the risks involved and decided that the rewards, sunk costs, and sense of control outweigh any possible downside.

Sadly, some people are paying for it with their lives. No selfie is worth a person’s life. But saying that won’t magically make a person reassess their selfie choices, because fame and popularity are the virtual drug of choice these days. Sometimes common sense just won’t win out until the fad has faded.

Dying for the Ultimate Selfie: We’re Really Bad at Accurately Assessing Risk


John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.


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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2019). Dying for the Ultimate Selfie: We’re Really Bad at Accurately Assessing Risk. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 19, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/dying-for-the-ultimate-selfie-were-really-bad-at-accurately-assessing-risk/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 13 May 2019
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 13 May 2019
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