Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Science of Fear

Few recent reads have amazed me as much as Daniel Gardner’s The Science of Fear. Using scientific studies Gardner examines in detail how fear works in the human psyche and then often gets misapplied in our lives.

As a regular consumer of news and information, I’ve long been convinced we often fear the wrong things while ignoring real dangers. Gardner confirmed a lot of my suspicions.

His first best example is fear of flying after 9/11. In the year after the terrorists attacks Americans avoided flying. Airlines struggled to stay afloat. When we could, we drove rather than flew. Yet, flying, even when factoring in terrorism is safer than driving. A study compared flying and driving statistics and increases traffic deaths in 2002. It estimated that 1,595 people needlessly died on America’s roads because they drove rather than flew in the year after 9/11.

Why do we make such bad choices about danger?

When a plane filled with 200 people crashes, our gut reacts and the event is indelibly imprinted in our memory. But when traffic deaths mount in a slow dribble – 1 at the edge of town, 3 a hundred miles away, and so on, we hardly notice. Yet, at the end of the year, for every 10,000 people who flew vs. those who drove, more will die in their cars than in a plane crash. Fear of flying in the year after 9/11 actually made travelers less safe.

How about silicon breast implants? They can leak and make women sick, right? We all know it to be true. Yet, Gardner goes looking for proof and finds that not one single medical study has been able to prove it. You’d never know it by following the issue. There were endless, emotional news stories of women, with tears in their eyes and agony in their faces relating how a ruptured implant led to a connective tissue disorder. It must be true, right? Lawyers saw an opportunity and filed lawsuits. As newspaper, television and magazine stories of ruptured implants and sick women mounted, public perception was universal; they’re dangerous! Manufacturers were forced to establish a $4.25 billion fund to settle suits ($1billion went to attorneys).

Gardner’s conclusion: “Humans are good with stories and bad with numbers.”

What numbers got lost in all the emotional stories of suffering women? The rate of connective tissue disorder in women who’ve never had implants is exactly the same as it is in those who did. That’s why the FDA has once again approved implants.

Gardner explains (with the help of volumes of social science studies) how dramatic, emotional media stories create a recognizable narrative. When future stories appear that create the impression of a trend, they’re reported no matter how meaningless the related story might be, giving us an impression of a trend much bigger than it is. After Timothy McVey blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the media dramatically increased their coverage of militia groups filled with angry white men with guns, no matter how unimportant the story or minimal the threat. It was part of the ongoing narrative. 9/11 broke that narrative and replaced angry white men with militant Muslims. Now actual terrorism committed by angry white men gets far less media attention than simple charges or suspicions of Muslim extremists.

Needless fear also gets stoked when danger is presented without context showing how dangerous it actually is. Fears of both child abduction and West Nile virus are great examples of dangers presented without context.

In 1999 West Nile virus became an exotic new threat and spread through eastern states. Media outlets tallied the death count daily. Public health official issued daily updates. Public fear spread. Yet, only 1 in 150 people who contract West Nile actually suffer any serious symptoms, and far, far fewer die. But news reports rarely gave that context. They instead said things like, “West Nile claimed it’s 18th victim today.” And 18 was the grand total of deaths from the virus in all of 2002. They didn’t offer any context, like 875 Americans die in a typical year choking on food – that’s over 48 times the threat of West Nile.

Where’s our daily report on choking?

Still, a 2002 Pew survey found that 70% of American were closely following the West Nile story even though the chances of getting it were tiny, chances of suffering symptoms were rarer still, and the chances of dying from it were statistically miniscule. Only 7% more (77%) were following the build-up to war with Iraq.

Few things scare a parent more than the threat of child abduction. We have Amber alerts, we have Anderson Cooper specials about bizarre abductions, we finger print children and train them in self-defense. Yet, the odds of a child being abducted by a stranger and never returned are freakishly rare.

Gardner documents routine claims by law enforcement officials, child advocacy groups, and the media claiming “50,000- 75,000 children were stolen from their parent’s arms each year.” He goes looking for the original source of these numbers and can’t find it. The phantom numbers were caught in a feedback loop. One group used them, another group sited the first group’s use of the numbers, and on and on until newspapers and TV anchors are reporting, “Child advocacy groups claim that 50,000-75,000 . . .”

Gardner instead found a 1999 study that finally laid out the actual numbers. That year 797,500 people under the age of 18 were reported missing. If you take that number, subtract the runaways and the family abductions (one parent or other family member taking a child in a custody dispute), and then subtract the 18 year old boyfriends who drove their 16 year old girlfriends across state lines, and concentrate on just stereotypical kidnappings of children under the age of 14, you’re left with only 90 cases.

But then the personal stories of those 90 kidnappings get reported over and over along with unfounded numbers, “50,000-70,000” thrown in for effect. Without the context we’re left thinking our children are in terrible danger. What are the real odds your child will be kidnapped? 1 in 608,696. But an American child is 2.5 times more likely to drown in a swimming pool and 26 times more likely to die in a car crash.

So why is there so much fear in our world and why do we spend so much energy fearing the wrong things and ignoring real dangers? Gardner states it pretty well; “We are safer and healthier than ever and yet we are more worried about injury, disease, and death than ever. Why? In part, it’s because there are few opportunities to make money from convincing people they are, in fact, safer and healthier than ever – but there are huge profits to be made promoting fear.”

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