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.
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.
There are nights when the wolves are silent and only the moon howls.
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
But so was Dorothy Thompson.
Fear grows in darkness; if you think there's a bogeyman around, turn on the light.
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