Diandra Toyos claims that she and her children were nearly victims of human trafficking. In a Facebook post that quickly went viral, she wrote of a recent visit to her local Ikea with her three children:

“I noticed a well dressed, middle aged man circling the area, getting closer to me and the kids. At one point he came right up to me and the boys, and instinctively I put myself between he and my mobile son. I had a bad feeling. He continued to circle the area, staring at the kids.”

Continuing:

“Something was off. We knew it in our gut. I am almost sure that we were the targets of human trafficking. This is happening all over. Including the United States. It’s in our backyards.”

A back-of-the-envelope critical review reveals this claim to be nonsense on its face. We are to believe that this woman spent over half an hour in the store (by her own admission), all the while (apparently) thinking someone was attempting to kidnap her children.

One can only assume Diandra’s inner monologue went something like this: “Gee, I really do want to avoid having my children kidnapped and sold into slavery, but I really need a sofa at an affordable price. Ours is rather old and lumpy. So I’m going to putter around the store for another 30 minutes. Ooooh! Is that a Taiga desk? I just love midcentury modern!”

“Strains credulity” doesn’t even come close. An explanation more compatible with Occam’s Razor is that some woman thought a dude in Ikea was creepy and wrote about it on Facebook. Film at 11.

And yet — as anyone who has a social media account and friends with children is no doubt aware these stories are popping up everywhere. A Snopes article documents incidents reported from a Longview, Texas Target store, a Dillard’s in Denton, Texas, and a Kroger in Brownstown Township, Michigan. The full list is even longer, but you get the gist.

Why are people falling for these urban legends when there is so much real danger we need to avoid?

Moral panics vs. data

We are naturally drawn to narratives that inspire panic. This is a phenomenon in American culture that goes back at least as far as the “white slavery epidemic” of the early 1900s. It resurfaced in the 1980s, as we became increasingly paranoid about satanic cults embedded in daycares selecting children for ritualistic abuse (no evidence of such a phenomenon ever materialized). Today, the term “sex trafficking” has made its way into our common discourse as if it were an identifiable phenomenon.

But the data indicate otherwise. As Elizabeth Nolan Brown documents, a Department of Justice report indicates that such incidents of child abduction are exceedingly rare. Such “stereotypical” kidnappings (e.g., by a stranger or “slight acquaintance,” with the intent to detain the child indefinitely, etc.) occurred in the U.S. only 105 times in 2011 (the same number of occurrences as 1997so no, things are not getting worse). A whopping 92 percent of the time, an abducted child was recovered.

Let’s put this in perspective: in terms of relative risk, compared to the nightmare Ikea scenario outlined above (where presumably a child would be abducted and never returned to his or her family), a child is more likely to experience the following on a yearly basis:

(Regarding that last item, I can’t help but point out: the real danger in an Ikea store may be their furniture. One wonders if Ms. Toyos has safely secured her purchased goods to a wall, as Ikea recommends, or if she was too busy fanning the flames of moral panic on social media.)

Cognitive errors and moral panics

Cognitive psychologists have long recognized that people have a tendency to overestimate the occurrence of certain types of rare events. We routinely utilize heuristics mental shortcuts that are easy ways of performing “quick and dirty” calculations to make decisions. Heuristics are essential, as it would be impossible to rationally analyze every potential outcome for every decision we make in a disinterested, rational manner. However, heuristics are not without cost.

One classic (and relevant) example is the availability heuristic: we tend to think that events we recall more readily are more likely to occur. A child being abducted from a public place and (presumably) sold into slavery is horrific, to be sure. As such, it occupies a disproportionate amount of space in our minds. We can easily recall that terrible story we read on Facebook about a child who was (supposedly) almost abducted from a grocery store, so we assume that it is a real danger.

But just because a scenario is easy to imagine does not mean that it is likely to occur. Real dangers are far more mundane. And more specifically, the vast majority of kidnappings that occur do not fit the “stranger at Target” motif: they are often committed by non-custodial parents or other family members

Heuristics and the real cost of moral panics

This brings me to my final point: the scenario Toyos outlines is implausible, but the fear it creates is real. The energy we expend worrying about this kind of event could easily supplant efforts to avoid real dangers.

For example: the vast majority of sexual abuse perpetrators are known to their victims. Logically, I should be far more concerned about my children’s babysitters, teachers, and ministers than a random patron in a grocery store. Such conclusions are counterintuitive. I like my children’s babysitters. It’s easy to think that evil lurks in every corner of my local Ikea store, but difficult to imagine that a respected member of my community might actually be dangerous.

If we’re applying proper reasoning, however, we will apply greater scrutiny to people we know than strangers.

This is but one example of how cognitive biases can adversely affect our lives. There are others. For example, the base rate fallacy refers to the fact that we routinely fail to recognize the low underlying rates of a given phenomenon and incorporate that fact into our assessments of risk. Yes, it may be true that one bad sunburn will increase your risk of developing skin cancer by 50 percent. Scary, no? But in fact, roughly 2.2 percent of the population will develop skin cancer in their lifetime — a substantial portion of which have had at least one sunburn (so the risk is baked in). This puts the risk of developing skin cancer — to say nothing of dying of it — as a result of a single sunburn at a fraction of what we would normally assume.

Simply being aware of how heuristics affect our judgments can be helpful. When you come across an article over social media that plays on your fears, ask yourself: how are my emotions being manipulated? What is the real risk? How are heuristics fooling me?

The answer may surprise you.