Daniel Gardner, The Science of Fear, Penguin Group, 2009 (paperback edition).

I was introduced to this book by one of my students. Even though officially retired, I continue to teach Introductory Psychology part time. When I covered the section on Emotions last term, one of my students came up to me after class and said that a lot of what I covered about the emotion of fear was discussed in the book, Science of Fear. I bought a copy and read it. It is a nice presentation, in easily understood layperson terms, of the latest scientific evidence regarding the psychology of fear. So even though this book is not one of our official book club selections,  I thought it was interesting enough to include here a chapter-by-chapter summary of some of the main points.

Prologue: 1,595

Almost 3,000 people died on 9/11, but an additional 1,595, died in the years following 9/11 because they became afraid of flying and chose to drive instead.

Chapter I. Prehistoric Refuge

Fear can be a constructive emotion, but “unreasoning fear” is another matter. It was unreasoning fear that killed 1,595 individuals in car accidents following 9/11. We live in a culture of fear. Here are a few of the things we are afraid of: terrorists, internet stalkers, crystal meth, avian flu, genetically modified organisms, contaminated food, climate change, carcinogens, pesticides, etc. But throughout human history there have always been things to worry about. A little fact checking reveals how much less we have to fear than previous generations. In short, “We are the healthiest, wealthiest, and longest-lived people in history. And we are increasingly afraid. This is one of the great paradoxes of our time.”

We are irrational about our fears. For example, we tremble at the thought of a nuclear reactor, but will pay large sums of money to fly somewhere distant to lie on the beach and soak up radiation emitted by the sun. Chernobyl killed 9,000 people total, but more than 10,000 are killed every year from sun cancer. And we are behaving irrationally as a society, “spending gargantuan sums of money to deal with the risk of terrorism – a risk that, by any measure, is no more than a scuttling beetle next to the elephant of disease. As a direct result of this misallocation of resources, countless lives will be lost for no good reason.”

Why are we behaving in this irrational manner? One reason is that fear sells, and countless companies and consultants are making lots of money selling us protections against what we have become convinced we should fear. And politicians and bureaucrats have learned to play the fear card to get elected and to increase their budgets. But that is not the entire story. Research psychologists have learned a lot about how fear operates. Scientist like Kahneman, Tversky, and Slovak have been studying various aspects of irrational thinking since the 1960s. One of the main findings is that there are two brain systems we use to make decisions, Gut and Head. The brain system based on Head works slowly, examines the evidence, and tries to calculate probabilities, although as will be demonstrated in examples throughout this book, it is often woefully bad at doing this. But the system based on Gut works entirely different. It works lightning fast, and without our conscious awareness, to arrive at a snap judgment. A decision that is based on Gut is often impossible to explain in words. You don’t know why you feel the way you do, you just do. Its decisions are based on rules of thumb called heuristics. Heuristics were put into our brain by evolution because they worked quite well in the environment in which humans evolved. “But today, very few human beings spend their days stalking antelope and avoiding lions. … Imagine a Stone Age hunter who falls asleep by the glowing embers of a campfire one night. When he opens his eyes in the morning, he is lying on a sidewalk in Times Square. That is [how our Gut system feels], amazed, confused, and struggling to make sense of the world around him. It would be tough under any circumstances. Mistakes would be inevitable. But the real trouble starts when this prehistoric refugee meets the merchants of fear.”

Chapter 2. Of Two Minds

This chapter provides a brief summary of our evolutionary history. It is not just physical structures that are acquired via evolution as adaptations. Our brains were shaped over evolutionary time based on what behavioral tendencies were adaptive during the Paleolithic period. In other words, many aspects of our behavior reflect what was adaptive for cavemen. This is the working premise of the scientific discipline of evolutionary psychology. An example of a behavioral tendency that is left over from our evolutionary history is a predisposition to be afraid of snakes.

Chapter 3. The Death of Homo economicus

Kahneman and Tversky published a paper in Science in 1974 in which they describe three rules of thumb that operate in the Gut: Anchoring rule, Representative Heuristic, Availability Heuristic.

Illustration of the anchoring rule: Suppose you had recently been exposed to the statement, “Recent figures suggest some 50,000 pedophiles are prowling the internet at any one time.” It doesn’t matter if this statement is accurate or not (and the chapter provides ample evidence that it probably is not). The very fact that you have been exposed to that statement will influence your judgment if you are subsequently asked how many pedophiles are likely to be on the internet. The estimate you give will be substantially higher than it would have been if you had been exposed to the statement “Recent evidence suggests 500 pedophiles are prowling the internet at any one time.” In other words, you judgment has been anchored closer to 5,000 after being exposed to the first statement, and closer to 500 after being exposed to the second. If you are “in the business” of making people afraid of the influence of pedophiles on the internet, and you have no clue about how many pedophiles there really are on the internet, better to pick (make up) a large rather than a small number. That appears to be the primary factor that accounts for the fact that the “50,000 pedophiles” number is reported widely, even though there does not appear to be any empirical support for this number. Another example of the anchoring rule would be a sign seen in a store, “Limit 12 per customer.” Is this put there because there is a shortage of the item, or for some other rational reason? No. The number 12 serves to anchor your choice about how many you will buy. If you were originally inclined to buy only 1 or 2 items, your choice of how many to buy is likely to go up after reading that sign due to the anchoring rule.

Illustration of Representativeness Heuristic (Rule of Typical Things): The Gut is a sucker for a good story, and if a story has a coherent narrative, we will consider it to be plausible even if it defies logic based on probabilities. For example, subjects in an experiment were provided the following description, “Linda is 31 yrs old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in Philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.” Then the subjects were asked if it was more likely that Linda was “a bank teller” or “a bank teller who is also a feminist.” Many replied that the latter was more likely, which defies logic based on statistical probabilities. Elaborate scenarios tied together by a common theme are particularly believable, the more elaborate the more believable. This is one factor that accounts for how susceptible humans are to conspiracy theories.

Availability Heuristic (The Example Rule) – If I can easily bring an example of an event to mind from my memory, then I judge that the event is likely. This heuristic accounts for why flood insurance sales are highest right after a flood, and lowest after many years without a flood. It is the ease of bringing to the event to mind that counts, not the number of events brought to mind. In an experiment, one group of subjects was asked to list 8 factors that cause heart disease, while a second group was asked to list only 3 factors. Following this exercise, the second group judged the prevalence of heart disease higher than the first, presumably because it is easier to bring to mind 3 items than 8. And just because a memory comes to mind does not mean the memory itself was real. Memories are now being implanted constantly by television and the internet, and television shows and movies, and this allows us to easily bring to mind images of things that we have never experienced personally.

Chapter 4. The Emotional Brain

How should we deal with low probability, high consequence hazards such as asteroids? Experts and laypersons often disagree. For example, when asked to rank the riskiness of 30 items, experts placed nuclear power at 20th but most laypersons rated it number one. This is the field of research pursued by U of Oregon psychologist Paul Slovak. When asked to rate the risks of various events, laypersons are often wrong, even when they express high confidence that they know what they are talking about. The affect heuristic refers to the fact that Gut gives us an immediate assessment of whether something is “good or bad”. This unconscious judgment then colors all of the subsequent assessments we make with Head about that item. “Cancer” is a good example, as is “nuclear radiation.”

Fear can make people probability blind because the feeling overwhelms any influence of the actual probabilities involved. When a group of cancer patients was told that a particular treatment would give them a 68% chance of being alive 1 yr later, 44% opted for the treatment, but when informed that there was a 32% chance of dying, only 18% chose to have the treatment. Fear also causes people to disagree with statements such as, “a one-in-10 million lifetime risk is too small to worry about.” This leads to bad policy. For example, if some program costs $100 million dollars to save each life, the $100 million dollars could be spent in many other ways that would spare many more lives. But rational arguments will do nothing to change public opinion. This is why the cynical argument made by the Bush administration about why we should invade Iraq was not based on facts. It was based on fear, “Saddam Hussein might have nuclear weapons.”

Chapter 5. A Story About Numbers

The moral of the silicone breast implant story: Humans are good with stories but bad with numbers. Storytelling probably had advantages over evolutionary time. We could learn from the experiences of others that one should avoid the tiger without having to be eaten by the tiger to learn this important lesson. But stories are sometimes wrong. Could all those stories about women who had implants that caused suffering and pain be wrong? Based on the empirical evidence, the answer is, possibly yes. Stories about thousands of women who got implants and nothing happened are not good stories and do not get covered in the media. Stories about women who get implants and something bad happens are the kinds of stories that do get covered. But the rational question is not whether some women who received breast implants also got cancer. The important question is what caused the cancer. Did those women who got cancer do so because of the implants, or was it just chance that some women who happened to have implants also happened to get cancer. But Gut does not care about these facts, it likes to hear good stories, and so the media bombards us with those.

Another example that illustrates how irrational we are with numbers is that we will give more to appeals from charities that are based on a single story than on appeals based on large numbers of victims. And we are often irrational even when the arguments are based on numbers. Subjects in an experiment were willing to give more money when told it would be used to help 95% of 150 people than when told it would help 150 people.

Chapter 6. The Herd Senses Danger

The psychologist Ash conducted experiments in the 1950s demonstrating that we will conform to group opinion even when that opinion contradicts what our senses tell us. In general, it was probably adaptive from an evolutionary point of view for our ancestors to conform to the group.

However, in our high tech society where most of us do not have enough technical expertise to evaluate the empirical evidence, following the herd can is not always a rational decision. Our society is rapidly losing the ability to trust the judgments of experts. Skepticism is healthy, but our society is in danger of moving from skepticism to cynicism, and the sneer of the cynic, especially when combined with appeals based on fear, can mutate into irrational distrust of all authority. Examples are the global warming deniers, and the anti-vaccine and anti-nuclear waste movements. Whenever large enough numbers of people begin to hold a common belief, whether rational or irrational, the herd instinct kicks in, and then the confirmation bias kicks in, and then group polarization kicks in and this means the belief (even if irrational) will go on forever, regardless of what the evidence shows. Drew Weston at Emory demonstrated how this works for political views. It was expected that having access to cable news and internet would make our society less polarized. Opposite has happened.

Culture also plays a role. Consider image of pork roast in the oven. This image gives quite different reactions to individuals raised on kosher diets and those raised in a culture of bbq. Similarly, consider the opposite reactions many of us in our culture have to two classes of drugs, alcohol and cocaine.

Chapter 7. Fear Inc.

LOTS of money is made by marketing fear, and the marketers have learned how to appeal to Gut. Lighting to scare off that which is hiding in the shadows. Water filters to eliminate risks that lurk in water. Purell to eliminate the germs that are everywhere. Pills to eliminate that awful cholesterol in your system, and so on. And it is not just corporations. The techniques of using fear to sell have now been adopted by politicians, bureaucrats, and charitable organizations.

Chapter 8. All the Fear That’s Fit to Print

Our beliefs about the prevalence of things that can harm us is totally skewed by the images shown by the media. The media show images that appeal to Gut, whereas if Head was able to evaluate the numbers we would see that we should be more concerned about being struck by lightning than about being affected by what is depicted in the images. Death-per-news-story for smoking is 8,571, but for mad-cow disease is only 0.33. Christmas tree lights actually kill more people each year than shark attacks.

Chapter 9. Crime and Perception

The odds of a child 14 years or younger being kidnapped are 1 in 655,555. Odds of drowning in a swimming pool are 1 in 245,614 (2.5 times as likely), of being killed in a car crash are 1 in 29,070 (26 times more likely). The odds of being kidnapped and then killed or not returned are even less, only 1 in 1.4 million. But Gut knows or cares nothing about numbers, it only reacts to images. And the corporations, bureaucrats,and politicians have learned to use this fact. And we react irrationally as a society. As a whole, statistics show that sex offenders are less likely to commit another crime after release than many other categories of criminals. But mandated life sentences and lifetime monitoring are common only for the criminal category of “sex offender”, and that can include everything from a violent pedophile to an 18-yr-old who has consensual sex with his 15-yr-old girlfriend. Studies based on empirical evidence have concluded that the resources currently applied to registering sex-offenders could do more good if redirected to other programs.

And we are probably safer from crime than at any other time in history. Calculations reveal that London’s homicide rate in Middle Ages was 11 times higher than ours.

Chapter 10. Chemistry of Fear

Toxic chemicals are invading our bodies reads the headline. The transformation of the term “chemical” into something toxic began with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962. Chemicals are now associated with another toxic term, cancer, and cancer is now one of the most feared diseases for most people. But the reality is that the main reason cancer now kills more than other diseases is that we have wiped out other diseases that used to kill more. The only type of cancer that has truly risen is lung cancer, with a single major cause, smoking. Other than smoking, only 2% of cancers are caused by chemicals in the environment, and most of those are naturally occurring (in vegetables for example), with less than 1% being synthetic chemicals. Half of everything tested is a carcinogen in high doses, so labeling something as being a carcinogen is not very meaningful. The rational question to ask about any substance, including synthetic chemicals, is “At what dose does the chemical pose a risk as a carcinogen?” Surveys of toxicologists reveal that they are not particularly concerned about trace amount of most synthetic chemicals in the environment or in our bodies. But Gut hasn’t got a clue about what numbers such as parts per billion mean.  Our susceptibility to irrationality is exemplified by the example of a bag of charcoal briquettes (a dangerous carcinogen) for sale in a store in Berkeley under a sign that read “no artificial additives, all natural.”  When asked to identify leading causes of cancer, only 49% listed diet low in fruits and vegetables, only 46% listed obesity, but 71% list pesticide residues in food. In actual fact, age is the major risk factor for cancer, and since we are living longer, cancer rates are going up. The increases in reported incidence of childhood cancer reflect primarily the improvement in methods of detection.

Chapter 11. Terrified of Terrorism

September 11, 2001. Gut sees the images presented by the media over and over and over, and registers, this is a huge danger that will probably happen again. On the 5th anniversary, after there had not been another attack in the intervening 5 years, surveys showed that 50% still believed another terrorist attack was likely. Worldwide, terrorist attacks took an average of 379 lives per year between 1968 and 2007. Compare that with the following statistic. In the US alone, 497 people suffocate in their beds every year.

In Israel, lifetime risk of being injured or killed by an act of terrorism is between 1 in 100 and 1 in 1,000. In rest of world, lifetime risk falls to between 1 in 10,000 and 1 in a million. Compare that with risk of being killed by lightning (1 in 79,746), killed by venomous plant or animal (1 in 39,873), or drowning in the bathtub (1 in 11,289). But, screams the Gut, what about the possibility of WMD? Based on rational arguments, we could probably conclude that if that was going to happen, it would probably already have happened to Israel. The example of the Japanese cult of Aum Shinrikyo is instructive. It had large amounts of resources, but killed only a few dozen people. And suppose terrorists did explode a nuclear weapon in a city. Estimates are that this could kill 100,000 people, a number not much more than killed by diabetes each year, or who die from infections contacted in hospitals. And many of these deaths could be prevented if we were to devote resources that are a small fraction of what we are now spending on homeland security. The reason we changed our entire society based on 9/11 has little to do with the actual probabilities of the risks that are involved relative to other risks faced by our society. But Gut reacts only to the propaganda, “this is a war on terrorism, case closed, there is nothing else I care to hear about it.” The propaganda scare stories are all based on the irrational logic of a story, this could happen, and if so then this could happen, and if so then this could happen, etc. The cumulative probability of all of those things happening is extremely low. But that is an appeal to Head; Gut doesn’t care and isn’t listening.

Chapter 12. There’s Never Been a Better Time to Be alive.

We are the safest, healthiest, and wealthiest humans who ever lived, but you would be hard pressed to know that because Gut isn’t paying attention to numbers or facts.

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About Ron Boothe

I am a retired professor of psychology living in Tacoma Washington USA.
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One Response to Daniel Gardner, The Science of Fear, Penguin Group, 2009 (paperback edition).

  1. In fact when someone doesn’t know after that its up to other users that they will help, so here it occurs.

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