What Is Your Fear IQ? Why We Fear The Wrong Things

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Fear is having a good season. Fear of terrorists, a Trump presidency, a Clinton presidency, police violence, the Zika virus, immigrants, being left behind, and the usual lethal weather, plane crashes, cancer, Alzheimer's, ... the list goes on. A quick survey of the headlines provides a window on what we fear. And that's part of the problem.

True or False?

1. The chances of being killed in a terrorist attack are the same as the chances of being killed by your furniture. (1 in 20 million)
2. Compared to being killed by a dog, a person is twice as likely to be struck by lightening.
3. The risk of dying in a skydiving accident is 17 times lower than the odds of dying in a car accident.

All of the above are true.

The ability to sense and avoid harm is essential for all animals. Fear has played a central role in our survival as a species. And yet we're very bad at it. By that I mean we fail when it comes to knowing what to be afraid of, risk assessment.

Try these True/False questions to set the stage for a reconceptualization of how we make decisions.

1. We make choices in our best interest.
2. If we have data we make the right choices.
3. We accurately evaluate past experiences.
4. It is unnecessary to protect people from the consequences of their choices.

The data indicate that all of the above are false.

Why?

Risk assessment is not a trivial capacity. It affects how we perceive the world, our health, lifespan, emotional state, how we make decisions, how we prioritize, how we vote, and much more.

The environment in which human risk assessment evolved, presented a very different kind of risk than what we confront today. Ancient formative risks were immediate and obvious, a charging lion. The greatest contemporary risks to our health are delayed and invisibly dangerous, bad diets and inactivity. The risk has changed. Our neurology has not.

That neurology is intuitive, automatic and fast. Two false beliefs frame our misunderstanding of risk assessment. The first, people are generally rational. The second, when people are not rational it is emotion that blocks the proper thought process.

Not so. We make systematic errors in our decisions because of our brain wiring, not because that wiring is corrupted by emotion. A good example of a hardwired flaw in cognitive structure is the availability heuristic. We judge the frequency of any event by the ease with which instances come to mind.

Take a quick quiz to see how you do in choosing the more frequent cause of death.

1. stroke vs. all accidents
2. tornadoes vs. asthma
3. lightening vs. botulism
4. disease vs. accident
5. accidents vs. diabetes

Here's the facts.

1. Stroke causes almost twice as many deaths as accidents
2. Asthma causes 20 times more deaths than tornadoes
3. Death by lightening is 52 times for frequent
4. Death by disease is 18 times more likely than death by accident
5. The ratio of deaths by accidents to deaths by diabetes is 1:4

How'd you do?

If you're like most people, you harbor false ideas about most dangers.

Why?

It's the availability heuristic. We judge the frequency of these events by the ease with which instances come to mind. The two primary sources for our repertoire of events are personal experience and the media.

Personal experience is dwarfed by what we witness through the media. It is easy to forget that the media does not select events to cover on the basis of frequency. Like any business, it selects material that will sell, that captures our attention, that resonates with our primitive risk assessment system.

I guarantee you will never see the headline "Man Dies of
Diabetes After Years of Sedentary Lifestyle and Poor Diet." This story will never be a miniseries despite the following facts: the number of new cases of diabetes has nearly tripled between 1990 and 2010, costs $245 billion annually and is now the leading cause of lower extremity amputations in the U.S.

It is no coincidence that we overestimate the risk of events that are beyond our control, cause many deaths at once, that kill in spectacular ways, and that we underestimate what we can control. Look at the front page of a newspaper or television news.

Research also indicates that our confidence in a belief depends on the quality of the story we can tell about our observation. Narrative trumps numbers. Hence, simple stories free of hard data stick with us. Unfortunately, these stories often do not reflect the real world.

If we are to make reasonable decisions, and by that I mean informed ones, we must scrutinize the data. This issue affects every aspect of our lives. It determines what we pay attention to, what we protect ourselves from, how we see the world and how we vote.

But it's hard work. It requires double duty. There is the difficult work of sorting out the complexities of a story. There is also the work of uncovering misinformation, intentional falsehoods. For the freedom of choice provided by our democracy to have any value, our choices must be based on a reasonable approximation of reality.