Are you afraid to go to Mexico? Mental shortcuts may promote misperceptions about risk

By Kevin R. Betts

Whenever I mention growing up in Metro Detroit to people in my current city of Fargo, I find myself begrudgingly answering questions about street crime and gang violence — regional attractions and achievements, in contrast, are rarely mentioned. Maybe this shouldn’t be surprising given Detroit’s current label as “America’s most dangerous city” and generally gritty reputation. But I can understand why Mexico’s tourism division speaks of fighting battles against misunderstood risks and geographical imprecision propagated by politicians and the media. Speaking to Newsweek about Mexico’s recent achievements, a Mexican official says “Everything you do is like the fourth paragraph. It should be the headline.

The generalized American fear of traveling to Mexico is not without reason. The country’s drug war alone has lasted four and a half years and left 35,000 dead. Yet, politicians and the media speak of this violence as if it were the only story to be told about the country. In reality, risks faced by Americans in Mexico are quite low. Newsweek’s Bryan Curtis crunches the numbers: “…if you look at the number of Americans killed in Mexico since the drug war began in 2006, and then isolate the number of innocents “caught in the crossfire,” it amounts to only 10 or 20 killings per year….This is in a country with hundreds of thousands of American expats and more than 17 million American tourists.” David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute, confirms: “It would be naïve to say there is zero risk…But it would be alarmist to say the risk is much higher than ‘very low.’

So why do so many Americans fear crossing their southern border? It probably has a lot to do with the way in which we process information about unknowns. The availability heuristic, for example, is a rule of thumb we use to predict the likelihood of events based on the ease with which examples can be brought to mind. When we think of Mexico, we may visualize beheadings, kidnappings, and mass graves — images that have been provided for us by politicians and the media in recent years. Just as our attention is drawn toward these acts of violence, our attention is drawn away from Mexico’s natural beauty, delicious food, and friendly people. Another rule of thumb known as the representativeness heuristic contributes to this misperception by leading us to judge the probability of one event by finding a comparable event and assuming the probabilities will be similar. So when we hear about violence in Ciudad Juárez, we wrongly assume that violence is commonplace in places like Acapulco as well. Or more precisely, when we hear about violence in Ciudad Juárez, we wrongly assume that all parts of the city are equally dangerous.

Residents of Detroit understand that their community is more than “America’s most dangerous” and violence in one part of the city says little about violence in another part of the city. Likewise, Americans should realize there is more to Mexico than drug wars and that violence in one region says little about violence in other regions.

Read more:

Bishop, M.A. (2006). Fast and frugal heuristics. Philosophy Compass, 1/2, 201-223.

Come on in, the water’s fine (Newsweek)

America’s most dangerous cities (Forbes)

One response to “Are you afraid to go to Mexico? Mental shortcuts may promote misperceptions about risk

  1. Caught in the cross fire might be rare but caught being American is not. One does not even have to enter Mexico to suffer from Mexico’s crime or to die in Mexico. Mexican gangs have kidnapped dozens of American citizens and dragged them into Mexico or executed them inside the US in the last few years. The most blatant examples being bloggers who were critical of Mexican cartels being dragged out of their US homes and killed for merely criticizing Mexican corruption and the cartels. Americans are seen as wealthy, naive and as representatives of a nation which “stole” Mexican pride and territory. While racism is a dirty word in the US, in Mexico it is not only alive and well but promoted by the dominant culture. There is no social pressure to be tolerant in Mexican culture. Quite the opposite, whether by internal or external sources such as the European beer maker who roused anti-American sentiment when they depicted the Mexican map as including the US states of Texas, California and Arizona or the Mexican president blaming the US for all of Mexico’s problems, the result is the same. Then on top of all this is the typical dislike of tourists felt by native populations in tourist destinations. Tourists rarely make good ambassadors. Mexico having one of the highest crime rates and murder rates in the world doesn’t exactly inspire confidence either. Even in tourist hotspots, rampant crime against tourists has caused most Western nations to issue travel advisories against several Mexican tourist destinations like Cancun. You forget Mexico had one of the highest murder rates in the world BEFORE the drug cartels went to war. The cartel wars have only amped not created the murder rates, thus moving Mexico up a few spots. Mexico has not been a safe place for anyone of any nationality in my lifetime. Something unlikely to change any time soon except to get worse.

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