Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Should Not--and Put Ourselves in Great Danger, by Daniel Gardner (author), Scott L. Peterson (narrator)

Your Coach Digital, ISBN 9781596594326, July 2009

Gardner takes a clear-eyed, reality-driven look at the things we fear and the things we don't fear, and why gut so often overrides head even when we have all the information we should need.

We spend much of our time worrying about terrorists, environmental toxins, random street crime, damage to our children's health from vaccines, and "stranger danger" to our children. In reality, while these dangers are real in the sense that yes, they can happen, their actual incidence is very, very low. 9/11 was the worst terrorist attack in history, and if we had an equivalent attack every month for a year, it still wouldn't come close to equaling the number of Americans killed in car accidents. Yet we happily get into our cars every day and drive to work, the supermarket, visits to our friends, and maybe resent the laws that require us to wear our seat belts. There are many reasons to be concerned about what we're pumping into our environment, but the simple and direct fear of cancer and other terrible illnesses from toxins is not one of them, based on the ability of the few-parts-per-billion levels of toxins in our food and water to cause illness.

What's worse than being afraid of the wrong things is that they distract us from threats that are much more significant but less dramatic. Heart disease, diabetes, and car accidents kill far more Americans than the things we obsess about. Abduction of children by strangers is, despite its huge presence in our minds, a singularly rare event.

Our brains developed during the millions of years we were hunter-gatherers living in small groups, and had limited tools, even when our intelligence was fully developed, for analyzing risks. And the driving force was survival, which in turn created a "better safe than sorry" attitude in many circumstances. If you see what looks like a face in the trees, it might be a lion stalking you, or it might be a pattern formed by leaves. It's far safer to assume it's a lion and be wrong, than to assume it's just leaves and be wrong.

So we tend to form quick, strong reactions to any possible threat, and while the thinking, rational part of our brains can override that, it takes time to work through the analysis of the evidence--and it often doesn't have a reason to do so. The possibility that that apparent face is a lion is not something you want to ignore and be wrong about.

A large part of how likely we think a particular risk is depends on how easy it is to remember other instances of it. This more or less worked when we were hunter-gatherers living in small groups, and interacting with other similarly small groups moving in adjoining or overlapping territories. If something has happened to one of  your neighbors, there's certainly a fair chance it could happen to you. If a child of your clan or a neighboring clan has been killed by a predator lately, there's a predator out there you need to worry about.

The kicker, from a modern perspective, is that we hear of stranger abductions of children from all over the country, and even, sometimes, as in the case of Madeleine McCann, the British little girl who disappeared in Portugal, all over the world. If you're wondering whether you need to worry about a stranger abducting your child, it's easy to remember similar incidents, and our hunter-gatherer brains don't really process (unless we put a lot of effort into doing so deliberately) the fact that these events happened 1500 miles away, or across an ocean. We have a false impression of how likely it is, and with the safety of our children potentially at stake, we are more inclined to err on the side of caution.

One effect of this is that while kids of my generation roamed freely in groups of other kids or on our own during the summer, from breakfast until dinner, with possibly a stop at home for lunch (or possibly not), today's kids live circumscribed, protected lives that keep them inside or in scheduled, organized activities supervised by adults. They play video games partly because they're fun, but partly because it's what's available to them. We are keeping our children safe, but at what cost? And is the actual risk worth it?

This is a thoughtful look at risk, how we calculate it, and the effects of the divergence between real risk and our perception of risk.


I borrowed this book from a friend.