Review 139: The Science of Fear

The Science of Fear by Daniel Gardner

Imagine, for a moment, one of our early human ancestors. A first-generation Homo sapiens, exploring his world with an amazing brain that would be the envy of the animal kingdom. If they understood envy. He, and his children, and their children and grandchildren will spread across the Earth as hunter-gatherers, the first beings (so far as we know) who can look at the world and attempt to pass on what it knows and learns. Their threats were simple: survive or don’t. Find food or starve. Hunt or be hunted. And those fantastic brains did such a bang-up job that their descendants are still walking around, thousands of generations later.

Now, take that Paleolithic man – swift of foot, sharp of eye, strong of hand – and drop him in the middle of modern-day Times Square. And, as his minder, give him a bored, easily distracted teenager – one who knows the world, but can’t be bothered to do the work to make decisions.

We are all of us Captain Caveman.

Congratulations. According to Daniel Gardner, we have just constructed a fine metaphor for how the human brain works. Part of it is very old, able to make decisions in an instant based on the slimmest of clues. The other is newer, more rational and savvy, able to put together reasoned, logical arguments, but doesn’t have the sheer speed and force that is prehistoric partner has. And as much as we want it to be true that the rational, modern part of our mind is in charge,the sad fact is that out inner caveman has far more influence over us than we care to admit.

Gardner begins the book with an interesting story about the most terrifying thing to happen in the last decade – the attacks of September 11th in the United States. By the time the towers fell, people around the world were watching, and anyone who didn’t see it live would surely see it soon enough as it was replayed over and over again. It was truly terrifying to watch, unlike anything Americans had seen before in their country, and it scared the ever-loving hell out of people. Many people, as a result, chose to forgo air travel in favor of driving.

Now, as Superman famously told Lois Lane, flying is statistically the safest way to travel. In fact, the most dangerous part of any trip that involves flying is usually the drive to the airport. But, in those days and months after the attacks, people were scared to fly. So they drove instead. And, according to a five year study of traffic fatalities in the U. S. after 9/11 by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, 1,595 people died on the roads who otherwise would not have.

They were afraid, and that’s understandable. But they were afraid of the wrong thing. So they died.

Gardner sets out in this book to figure out why it is that people in the healthiest, safest, most prosperous nations on Earth – in the healthiest, safest, most prosperous era of human history – live in a state of near-constant fear.

As long as he doesn't insist on eating children halal, I don't care...

A lot of it, as the intro implies, comes down to the fact that our brains, which evolved over millions of years to be very good at judging risks that might be found on the savannah, are simply not prepared to do the same in a modern technological world. Our brains can’t tell the difference between risk in fiction and reality, between something that happened to us and something we saw on the news. When it comes to risk, our brains play it very safe, which is great out in nature. Is that shadow in the bushes a tiger? Maybe, maybe not, but either way it’s probably a good idea to get the hell away from it. We can’t say the same thing of that guy sitting on the bus who looks like maybe he might be a Muslim.

We also tend to assume that if we’ve heard of something recently, then it must be more common. Again if you’re out in nature and you saw a bear yesterday, there’s a decent chance that the bear is still around today and you might want to be wary of that. But what if you see constant news coverage of a high-profile child abduction? It’s on every show, being talked about on every blog – does that mean that the chance of your child being abducted has increased? Of course not, but your brain doesn’t see it that way. Your brain thinks that your child will be taken from you the moment you look away, and all the reasoning in the world won’t change its mind.

One more thing: we don’t get numbers. The news tells us that the rate of certain risks is up by 10%, but they don’t tell us what the original figure was. We hear about millions of starving children in Africa, but don’t do anything unless we get a personal story of one. We don’t understand probability at all, we can’t deal with randomness, and this lack of innate numeracy (compounded by an educational culture that makes it hard to teach kids to become numerate) costs us billions. Or more, as the recent economic Clusterthing has shown, when you have people who are good with numbers deliberately exploiting this flaw in order to profit.

Numeracy is also useful for getting certain kinds of jokes.

We think that correlation equals causation. We believe stories over facts. We think we don’t have biases that we clearly possess. We assign high risk to things we don’t like and low risk to things we do, regardless of how risky they actually are. And on top of all that, we know how to exploit others’ fears in order to gain money and power for ourselves. It’s easy to do, and it works like a charm.

Reading this book won’t make you into a magically unflappable person, mainly because all of this stuff is pretty well hard-wired in our brains. Even Gardner, who should have known better, tells a story about hunting through the slums of Lagos in the middle of the night to retrieve a photo of his children from the wallet that had been stolen from him. He had plenty more, but at that moment, his brain was convinced that losing the photo meant losing his children. Irrational, yes, and it nearly got him killed, but that’s just one example of what a powerful force this primitive brain is.

Never overlook an opportunity for a Green Lantern reference.

The good news, though, is that you can strengthen the newer, more recent brain – the lazy teenager from the initial example. By knowing how you make mistakes, how you can be fooled into fearing things that you don’t need to fear, you can better understand your own reactions to events and make better decisions. You can educate yourself about the things that are actually dangerous, and stop losing sleep over the things that are not a threat. Being afraid is not your fault – it’s an ingrained biological feature. Staying afraid, on the other hand, is something over which you have control. With enough will power, even you can overcome great fear.

Sorry. Nerd moment there.

Are there terrorists who want to destroy the United States? Sure. But they won’t, because doing so is indescribably harder than certain politicians would have you believe. Are there creepy child molesters who want to abduct and defile your children? Yup. But the chances of that actually happening are so low that the odds of any specific child becoming such a victim are nil. Are there angry teens who want to come to their school and kill everyone they see? Of course. But when you look at the incidence of school shooting compared to how many kids go to school every day, you can see that the odds of your children being caught in a school shooting are slim to none. In fact, there are many parts of the country where your children are probably safer in school than out of it.

There are real risks in our modern world, but they’re not spectacular and they’re not viscerally terrifying. A car accident, a heart attack, a diabetic death – these things don’t make the news. Imagine a 9/11-style attack happening every three days, 3,000 dead each time. It would be an outrage, a national disgrace, and people would be scared to their bones. But it would take just about 233 attacks to equal the number of deaths in 2001 that occurred from cardiovascular disease in the United States.

The nearly nonexistent chance of being killed by terrorists is enough to get people to submit to any number of indignities and intrusions on their persons and liberties when they travel, but the very real risk of death from a heart attack isn’t enough to get people to go take a walk once in a while or stop eating junk food. So enjoy that delicious moment of irony the next time you go through the TSA molest-a-thon and get a seriously overweight screener taking liberties with your person.

The fact is that we have it damn good compared to our ancestors. We live longer, we live better, even in parts of the world that are still developing, and it looks like the future will progress that way. But we still insist on needing to be afraid, even as we have less and less to actually fear. So put down the newspaper, turn off the 24-hour news, and take some time to figure out what is actually a threat. Give that bored teenager something to do with his time and let the caveman go back to his cave.

————————————————–

You don't see a lot of these anymore. There's a reason for that. (photo by Steve Cornelius on Flickr)

“Anyone who has spent time in a Victorian cemetery knows that gratitude, not fear, should be the defining feeling of our age. And yet it is fear that defines us. We worry. We cringe. It seems the less we have to fear, the more we fear.”
– Daniel Gardner, The Science of Fear

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1 Comment

Filed under culture, Daniel Gardner, fear, media, nonfiction, psychology, science, security, society, terrorism, The United States

One response to “Review 139: The Science of Fear

  1. Fascinating. Jen used to work with criminals in prisons and knows that alot of our fears are irrational. For example, you’re much more likely to be killed by someone you know than a stranger, but we fear strangers. And murdererss are much less likely to reoffend than thieves, but we let thieves out on early parole and keep murderers locked up forever. Why? Because of fear.

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