Why are you so afraid of one-in-a-million events like shark attacks, child abductions or dying in a plane crash? Why are you so willing to believe elaborate scenarios about possible future climatic events from the same people who can’t even accurately predict tomorrow’s weather? Have you ever stopped to realize that so many of the near hysterical “Pop” fears you too were once alarmed by–fears like BSE, acid rain, dangerous silicon breast implants, road rage, SARS or avian flu–miraculously disappeared at one point only to be replaced by others which have now or will soon disappear in the same mysterious manner? Why are you so afraid? In a nutshell, it’s because of your caveman brain.
Consider this: Psychological testing has proven that you have a brain that somehow believes a piece of fudge shaped like dog poo really is dog poo. You have a brain that will use the first available number suggested to it to make an estimate about something that has absolutely nothing to do with that number. You have a brain that concludes that elaborate predictions about the future are more likely to come true than simple ones. You have a brain that concludes that the things easier to recall are more likely to happen again. And, most importantly, you have a brain that is constantly being subjected to the machinations of self-interested parties and fear merchants who have a vested interest in keeping you afraid.
As Daniel Gardner explains in his book The Science of Fear, when it comes to evolutionary psychology, try to picture the development of the human brain by equating the past 2,000,000 years of human development to a 201 page book. Two hundred pages would cover the entire time our species spent being nomadic hunter-gatherers in the Old Stone Age. The last page would cover our time in agrarian society, a period which began a mere 12,000 years ago (the first settlement only appeared about 4,600 years ago). The last paragraphs of that final page would cover the last two centuries of the world we now live in. We are cavemen.
Now take a look around you. How could a cave woman, at a lower but yet decisive level of her brain, not be frightened by everything she sees in this strange and complex world of ours? Her head was designed for wandering the savannah, not for dealing with most of what bombards her here. That is why her gut remains the dominant decision-making force. And that is the force that skews our perception of the world around us. The gut reacts instinctively and lightening fast and living in the lightning-fast time we do, the head just can’t keep up, or it can’t get through. That is the reason why we now live in a nation of worriers, in a society obsessed with risk. It doesn’t matter that our head is trying to tell us we live in a much safer and healthier time than previous generations ever enjoyed, our gut blocks this out and only fixates on what it sees to be the contrary on the evening news. It lies in wait in anxious anticipation for the next fear to cling to, real or imaginary. Needless to say, Gut never has to wait for very long.
There are many complex psychological mechanisms in play during this ongoing conflict between Gut and Head. Three that can be singled out here are:
The availability heuristic. If examples of something can be easily recalled, Gut tells us that it must be common. If there is a brutal murder in City X, Gut convinces you that you too are at high risk because you can easily recall this. After all, you “saw” it on TV. It makes no difference that Head is trying to tell you how tiny the odds are of you being in danger. And memory is biased; the more recent, emotional, and vivid events are, the more likely they are to be remembered and therefore, according to Gut, more likely to happen.
Confirmation bias. Once a fear is in place, we screen what we see and hear in a biased way that ensures our fears are “proven” justified. Gut doesn’t want to be confused by reasonable arguments or reassuring statistics to the contrary. Gut is bad with numbers. It likes a good story.
Group polarization. When people who share fears get together in groups, they become more convinced that their fears are right and they become even more extreme in their views. Once a fear goes mainstream, so-to-speak, the distortion about what should be frightening and what shouldn’t be becomes insurmountable. We are social animals and what others think matters to us. That’s why we don’t need reasons for believing in risks and issues that “everybody knows” are true. We don’t want them.
Seen in this context, we delude ourselves when we think that we evaluate evidence and make decisions about risks by calculating rationally. Experts are wrong to think they can ease fears about a risk simply by getting the facts out. Gut doesn’t listen to reason. And experts, as we shall see, can’t be trusted.
We overestimate the likelihood of being killed by the things that make the evening news and underestimate those that don’t. It doesn’t matter that disease related to smoking or obesity kills much higher numbers than catastrophic events, accidents, terrorism and murder. Gut sees these again and again on TV (or in other media), becomes obsessed with stories related to them and thus indirectly contributes to what then turns into a feedback loop of fear. Our skewed perception is easy to explain once we understand that Gut is in control while Head is asleep at the wheel. Head can’t wipe out intuition. It can’t change how we feel. And how we feel is the essential part of the calculation here: Fear sells. Gut feeling buys.
Is there anything sinister or conspiratorial about selling fear? Not really. After all, self-interest is the natural state of humankind. The news industry and new media make no secret about their desire to make money, nor need they. And it doesn’t stop here. Fear is also a fantastic marketing tool for companies, consultants, politicians, bureaucrats, scientists, activists and NGOs, all of them in competition with one another, fighting for influence and sales with fear. For example, it is a standard practice for companies selling cleaning products or alarm systems to heighten your awareness about the risks you take by not using their products. What politician has not jumped at the opportunity to overplay a real or imaginary danger concerning an issue his political opponent has failed to address? Law enforcement and security officials are naturally adverse to risking their funding by playing down security risks to you. Scientists need funding too and well, no problem, no funding. NGOs and other groups have political agendas to promote. Would they hesitate to spread fear if this helped them achieve their goals?
What can Head do to help alleviate this skewed perception problem of ours? Not much, really. Many of the issues facing us today are so complex that we as individuals are not in the position to properly understand them. Being that we simply don’t have enough time or energy to research them ourselves, we must rely on experts to do this for us. And these experts are generally biased, most likely belonging to one of the various groups mentioned above. And we are often just as biased as the experts are. Strangely, displaying fear about particular issues has become a form of expressing cultural identity or making a political statement. I find it amusing that peering into the future and imagining what can go wrong has become something of a parlor game for intellectuals, for instance. And sadly, another problem is that questioning things that “everybody knows to be true” requires a lot of effort and stamina that many of us simply do not have.
So why are you so afraid? Your caveman brain wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s just too bad that too many of your inner caveman’s risk-perception buttons are being pressed by someone else.