Why are we Afraid?
We’ve all been afraid of something at one time or another. The classic situation that I remember as a kid was being afraid of the dark; it haunted me for years and stopped me doing a lot of things. In more recent times, I recall being afraid of two guys who ‘looked like terrorists’ when I was on an international flight soon after 9/11 (more on this later). I recognise that fear has impacted my life in many ways. It can be debilitating, restrictive and a source of much anxiety. Today, I remain fearful of many things; least of all the fear of rejection, loneliness and isolation.
It could be easy though when we are not in the midst of a fearful situation to think that fear has no real influence on how we feel or how we make decisions or judgments. But perhaps this is because we are just not aware of how fear works? If our approach to understanding fear is focused on rational and logical decision-making, perhaps we only understand a small part of the story. In this piece I explore fear and try to understand how it makes us feel, why it can have such an impact on our lives and understand how it impacts on our decisions about risk.
Firstly, if we are to better understand what impacts on our decisions and judgments, including about fear, we need to accept the important role that communication, particularly the media, plays in our unconscious thinking (decisions and judgments). My friend Hayden Collins wrote a great piece on this if you’d like to explore this further (https://safetyrisk.net/how-is-the-unconscious-in-communication-critical-for-understanding-and-managing-risk/). So why is an understanding of the unconscious in communication important in understanding fear, and its impact on how we discern risk?
As a start to answering this question, we can turn to Daniel Gardner who outlines in his book The Science of Fear, the importance of the ‘two system’ model of decision making made famous by Daniel Kahneman in his research that lead to the book Thinking Fast and Slow. Gardner (p.16) suggests that “every human brain has not one, but two systems of thought. They called them Systems One and System Two. The ancient Greeks arrived at this conception of humanity a little earlier than scientists-personified the two systems in the form of gods Dionysus and Apollo. We know them better as Feeling and Reason”.
Of course, it is well documented that we use our fast, intuitive and frugal non-conscious mind (‘feeling’) more often than our slower, rational and logical mind (‘reason’) when making decisions and judgments. Further, we know the impact that heuristics, biases, semiotics and our social arrangements have on our non-conscious which is quick to jump to a decision or judgment to save our ‘slow mind’ the trouble of having to get involved. This is when fear works best as it relies on our quick decisions or judgments in our non-conscious. What this means is that when we later reflect and consider the same situation with our rational mind (‘reason’), our ‘fast and frugal’ decisions may not seem to make sense. It can be difficult to understand the grey and messiness of the non-conscious at times, but the more we try to understand how important it is in our decisions and judgments, the more we will understand fear and how it works. So how does fear work so well to get into our non-conscious mind?
Whether we like it or not, the media influences us in so many ways every day. Even those of us who try to resist watching the evening news or do our best to avoid Facebook and other social media or try to turn away from the many signs and posters that we are faced with every day, we cannot escape the influence and affect that the media has. Whether it is through news reports (sponsored or not!), through alerts, through signs, symbols or notices, the media impact on our non-conscious almost all of the time. An understanding of the impact of semiotics on our non-conscious is critical if we are to better understand fear. The media (including traditional media, social media, marketing campaigns etc…) are experts in playing on our non-conscious and they stand to profit considerably by elevating public anxiety. The same goes for governments, marketing campaigns and of course those whose aim is to create terror.
So what is an example of how our non-rational minds may ‘rule our thinking’ when it comes to risk. In particular, how may fear change what we do, even if it may not make rational sense?
Gardner provides a good example when he describes the actions taken by many Americans in the 12 months following the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the US. Gardner refers to a study conducted by Gerd Gigerenzer in 2006 in which Gigerenzer reports:
“I analyse the behavioural reactions of Americans to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and provide evidence for the dread hypothesis: (i) Americans reduced their air travel after the attack; (ii) for a period of one year following the attacks, interstate highway travel increased, suggesting that a proportion of those who did not fly instead drove to their destination; and (iii) for the same period, in each month the number of fatal highway crashes exceeded the base line of the previous years. An estimated 1,500 Americans died on the road in the attempt to avoid the fate of the passengers who were killed in the four fatal flights.” (p.1)
What this study showed is that due to fear, in the 12 months following the attacks, many Americans switched from air travel to car travel because it was perceived to be safer. The reality though, as Gardner notes, is that the number of people who died on the road in this 12-month period “is more than one-half the total death toll of history’s worst terrorist atrocity”. In relation to risk, Gardner notes:
An American profession calculated that even if terrorists were hijacking and crashing one passenger jet a week in the United States, a person who took one flight a month for a year would have only a 1-in-135,000 chance of being killed in a hijacking – a trivial risk compared to the annual 1-in-6,000 odds of being killed in a car crash” (p.3)
It just doesn’t make sense as I sit here now thinking about this with the luxury of time and in my rational mind, why people would take this action, how can it make sense when we have numbers like this? Likewise, I refer back to the start of this piece when I recalled feeling fearful when I saw two men who ‘looked like terrorists’ as I sat on a plane about to take off on an international flight. I can sit here now and think how judgmental of me and ask what does a terrorist look like anyway? Of course, the answer lies in our non-conscious, for me, like most people in the western world; we were swamped with visions of ‘terrorists’ for so long after 9/11 that these images must have been playing in my non-conscious and bam! there you go, quick judgment with no rational thinking. That’s the power of the non-conscious on our decisions and judgments.
So now that I’ve done some research on fear, written this piece and become more conscious of how it impacts on my non-conscious, I should be right. I will be immune to the affect that my non-conscious has on decisions and judgments. I will be able to counter my gut feelings with more rational and logical decisions. I will be able to resist the many temptations of the messages in adverts, news reports and ‘breaking news’ bulletins. Right?
Not likely! Instead, I will have to continue to remember that reflection makes sense when it comes to risk.
Why are we afraid? I’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences and questions.
Author: Robert Sams
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