Fear Shuts Down Boston
I'm an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. I run a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk. I was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which I was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
What a revealing real-time lesson we are living through right now in how humans respond to risk. More than a million people in Boston and several large surrounding cities have been told by authorities to stay indoors and not open the door to anyone but uniformed police. Businesses are closed. Mass transit is shut down. Rail service into and out of Boston is suspended. This, as one of the largest law enforcement and military manhunts in American history goes building to building in Watertown Massachusetts looking for one man, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who they believe was one of two brothers who bombed the Boston Marathon Monday, killing three and injuring more than 100.
Make no mistake. The 19 year-old Chechnyan, who had lived with older brother Tamerlan in Cambridge for years and who had attended Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School and was studying at the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth, is thought to be a dangerous man. Police say last night he and his brother robbed a convenience store near MIT, shot dead an MIT police officer who stopped them, carjacked a car nearby (telling the driver they were the marathon bombers before letting him go) and led police on a ten mile chase to Watertown, throwing explosives out of the car at pursuing police. The chase ended in a wild long gunfire shoot out with dozens of shots fired, Tamerlan dead (police say they found explosives or a detonator on his body) and a police officer wounded. Some neighborhood houses are perforated, through to interior rooms and furniture, with bullet holes.
But make no mistake that the risk here is infinitesimal. Even for those who remain in the immediate 20 block area of Watertown where the suspect is believed to be trapped (most have been evacuated) – at this writing police say they have gone through 60-70% of the area - the risk that they will be hurt is tiny. Statistically. But not emotionally. The fear is very real. And in the name of that fear incredible things are happening.
Easily more than a thousand law enforcement and military personnel have turned the area into a heavily armed zone. Military helicopters hover overhead. SWAT teams and bomb trucks and armored vehicles are everywhere. (The photos are dramatic, frightening all by themselves.) The economy and civic life of one of the biggest cities in America has been shut down. The cost of this response could easily exceed a hundred million dollars.
But no one, yet, is seriously questioning whether this response is an overreaction. People are staying home. Businesses are closing. The public is complying with the response, because though the risk may be statistically tiny, the fear is HUGE and REAL and NOW. In these circumstances human cognition defaults to something called ‘loss aversion’, when the emotional power of danger and loss outweighs the more rational consideration of other factors. Another things happens when we are afraid. The Fight or Flight or Freeze response to fear shifts neural chemistry and systems in the brain so we give way more weight to emotion and instinct than to careful cognitive rational reason. The question about whether this WAS an overreaction, which will probably come up after this all calms down, will sound logical LATER. It sounds absurd now, because we are afraid.
Yet another aspect of risk perception psychology is playing out at this moment. We are glued to our TVs and twitter feeds and websites and radio stations…and not just because we’re stuck inside with nothing else to do. Like moths to flame, we are drawn to information about potentially imminent risk, because knowledge is empowerment, and the feeling of control is reassuring. As one TV anchor person said, “I wish this would end. It’s the beginning of the healing process. You want to know who did it and what their motivations were.” Knowledge is power, and power is control, and without control we are more afraid. So we want to know.
Never mind that most of what is coming out of the media is a repetitious, constant rehash of the key facts, mixed with an awful lot of silly babble to fill the time between the last actual development and the next. We really could leave the TV or radio or computer for a while and come back, and not have missed anything that would help keep us safe.
In fact, it would keep us safe to step away from the coverage for a bit. Heightened awareness feeds heightened fear, and fear causes physical stress that, if it persists, does real harm to our health, from raised blood pressure, weakened immune systems, and other impacts. But the need for information – the need for control – turns us into 24/7 information victims, most of us at far greater risk from the stress caused by constant alarmist reports than from the killer on the loose himself.
Yet another critical aspect of risk perception psychology playing out in this incredible moment is the importance of trust, and in that sense, the overreaction of law enforcement and the military is a good thing, not only now but down the road. We can’t protect ourselves from threats like this, the unpredictable wanton madness wrought by someone who has lived among us that springs up now and again to remind us of how vulnerable we really are. We need the government to do that. To the extent that we are confident in them, we fear these sorts of things less than if we didn’t think they were doing all they could to protect us. For this event, and others in the future, across America, the heavy response is adding - for many - to a foundation of trust in the authorities to keep us as safe as they can.
Given the powerfully emotional nature of how we respond to danger, all the moreso the more real and imminent and “it could happen to me” the threat feels, it would be incredibly naïve and disrespectful to suggest that the response of the government, and ours as individuals, don’t make sense. Of course they do. Because risk perception is not just a matter of the facts, but how they feel. Our responses may not make intellectual sense tomorrow, or whenever this calms down (hopefully with no or minimal additional violence), when we can look back at things in the cool calm of rational hindsight, but they make emotional sense now. Because we are afraid.
The ability to speak clearly, succinctly, and powerfully is easier than you think
The ability to communicate effectively can make or break a person's assessment of your intelligence, competence, and authenticity.
Antimicrobial resistance is growing worldwide, rendering many "work horse" medicines ineffective. Without intervention, drug-resistant pathogens could lead to millions of deaths by 2050. Thankfully, companies like Pfizer are taking action.
- Antimicrobial-resistant pathogens are one of the largest threats to global health today.
- As we get older, our immune systems age, increasing our risk of life threatening infections. Without reliable antibiotics, life expectancy could decline for the first time in modern history.
- If antibiotics become ineffective, common infections could result in hospitalization or even death. Life-saving interventions like cancer treatments and organ transplantation would become more difficult, more often resulting in death. Routine procedures would become hard to perform.
- Without intervention, resistant pathogens could result in 10 million annual deaths by 2050.
- By taking a multi-faceted approach—inclusive of adherence to good stewardship, surveillance and responsible manufacturing practices, as well as an emphasis on prevention and treatment—companies like Pfizer are fighting to help curb the spread.
Journalism got a big wake up call in 2016. Can we be optimistic about the future of media?
- "[T]o have a democracy that thrives and actually that manages to stay alive at all, you need regular citizens being able to get good, solid information," says Craig Newmark.
- The only constructive way to deal with fake news? Support trustworthy media. In 2018, Newmark was announced as a major donor of two new media organizations, The City, which will report on New York City-area stories which may have otherwise gone unreported, and The Markup, which will report on technology.
- Greater transparency of fact-checking within media organizations could help confront and correct fake news. Organizations already exist to make media more trustworthy — are we using them? There's The Trust Project, International Fact-Checkers Network, and Tech & Check.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.