Some Halloween Thoughts on Fear

What should scare us the most is the danger that arises when we get risk wrong, when we’re more afraid than the evidence says we need to be, or not as afraid as the evidence says we ought to be.

There are nights when the wolves are silent and only the moon howls.  

George Carlin

Fear. We all know what it is. We’re all familiar with its iconography, from the ghosts and gremlins of Halloween to the snakes and spiders and heights and dark enclosed spaces of “Fear Factor”. We all understand that, as negative as the word ‘fear’ seems, a little fear is good for you. Indeed, the very fact that you’re alive and reading this may be due in no small measure to the fear you experienced at some point when being afraid kept you alive.

But though we may be able to name many things that scare us, there is a lurking, hidden danger out there this Halloween you have probably never heard of, an invisible killer that has never starred in a horror flick or made it to the 10 Things That Scare You the Most list. It has never appeared in a nightmare. You won’t see it as a Halloween costume, or in a haunted house. But this faceless, nameless danger may be one of the biggest threats we face, as individuals and together as a society. It’s the danger that arises when we get risk wrong, when we’re more afraid than the evidence says we need to be, or not as afraid as the evidence says we ought to be. And the bogeyman that creates this danger is hidden deep inside you and me.

Perhaps we can start protecting ourselves from this monster in the closet by pulling it out into the light, and giving it a name. I call it The Perception Gap, the danger that arises when we’re too afraid or not afraid enough, and the choices we make, make things worse. The Perception Gap is the product of the subjective, instinctive Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde way humans perceive and respond to risk. The Dr. Jekyll side of the system has served us well. It has mostly gotten things right, after all, and helped us get this far along evolution’s winding road. But we have to recognize the threatening Mr. Hyde side as well. While the subjective system we rely on to keep ourselves safe often makes the right call, it sometimes get things wrong, and leaves us too afraid or not afraid enough, and that produces a Perception Gap that gets us into trouble.

     - Many people afraid of flying after the 9/11 terrorist attacks chose to drive, a far more dangerous way to travel, and the death toll on America’s roads soared in the first three months after those attacks.

     - People too afraid of vaccines, and not afraid enough of the contagious diseases the vaccines protect us from, choose not to vaccinate their children or themselves, and diseases that were all be eradicated are now breaking out again.

     - A society freaked out about nuclear power drives energy policy that results in more reliance on coal, which may be less scary but is far far dirtier and deadlier.

Texting while driving. Spending more than half an hour in the sun without protection. Weighing too much. Too little concern about climate change. Too much about terrorism. Talk about a bogeyman! It’s stunning how ubiquitous the danger of the Perception Gap really is, how many choices we make that fly in the face of the facts, and raise our risk. With our superior mental abilities, shouldn’t we be able to do better than this?

The problem is, we give our cognitive mental abilities way too much credit. Risk perception is not a matter of carefully, consciously, objectively analyzing the evidence. It’s a mix of the facts and how those facts feel when we subconsciously apply a suite of mental shortcuts that help us make decisions when we only have some of the facts (which is almost always the case), and how those facts feel when seen through a complex set of emotional and instinctive filters, psychological ‘fear factors’ we have developed that help us subconsciously judge which facts feel scarier than others. Risk perception is a subjective blend of facts and feelings.

This system of reason and gut reaction is perfectly captured in Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Telltale Heart”, about the guy who committed a murder, hid the corpse under the floorboards, then as police interrogated him there in the room he thought he heard the victim’s heart pounding so loudly that he flipped out and confessed and told police where the body was. Still, Poe’s murderous protagonist professes his sanity and wisdom; “You fancy me mad,” he says. “Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded…”  As he saw himself, he was wise, shrewd. As Poe reveals him, he was unable to see how his emotions led him to perceive a risk that wasn’t there. He was a victim of The Perception Gap.

And so are we, as long as we continue to deny the reality of this subjective, affective system, and smugly wrap ourselves in the false protection of our post-Enlightenment hubris about in the capacity of the human animal to reason. As long as we believe that we’re so smart that we can outsmart the instincts and emotions that inform our perception of risk, The Perception Gap will stay hidden, and continue to harm us.

So yes, this Halloween is as good a time as any to start recognizing the monster behind the mask you see in the mirror, the hidden hazard that is the way you and I and all of us perceive risk. Emily Dickinson was right:

One need not be a chamber to be haunted;
One need not be a house;

The brain has corridors surpassing
Material place.

But so was Dorothy Thompson.

      Fear grows in darkness; if you think there's a bogeyman around, turn on the light.

Happy Halloween

         (I describe the inner working of The Perception Gap, and offer some suggestions for what we can do about it, in How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts)

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

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Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.