News

You’re probably not planning enough for unlikely events

In the wee hours of the morning on Monday, February 15, my house, like many others across the state of Texas, lost power during a winter storm. For the next 48 hours, we wore layers of clothes and huddled under blankets as temperatures indoors dropped to about 40 degrees. Even after the power came on, water supplies were low, and the city of Austin was under a boil-water order.

This cold snap and series of storms were by far the worst I have encountered in the 23 years I have lived in town, but longtime Texans do remember other bad winter storms over the years. They are not utterly unprecedented.

So why was Texas so poorly prepared for a week of snow and freezing temperatures?

A lot of it has to do with how people make decisions about unlikely events. People generally have difficulty with understanding very small probabilities—and, importantly, how those small probabilities affect large populations.

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