Threats, Fear, Reality, Stats, Probability, Rights
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As far as response to fear is concerned, human brain can be divided into two major divisions from physiological functioning point of view:
1. Primitive, animal like, emotional, perceive and react, mostly automatic part.
2. More recent, advanced, intelligent, analytic, reasoning and strategic part.
First part is mostly controlled by a primitive component of brain in Medial Temporal Lobe, lying right over the brain stem called Amygdala. The second part is mostly controlled more recently developed Neocortex. Responses produced by Amygdala are common, emotional, automatic and reactionary responses like anger, fear, fight or flight, nervousness, anxiety and panic. Responses produced by Neocortex are not immediate and reactionary. On the contrary, Neocortex perceives, analyzes, comprehends, measures probability, compares cost and benefits and predicts.
Since, Neocortex is slow and relatively new compared to primitive Amygdala which is quick and produces strong emotional responses, under the influence of fear, only very intelligent people whose Neocortex has a very strong capability of controlling responses generated by Amygdala through highly developed analytical and reasoning capabilities, can generate a reasonable response which is neither too exaggerated nor too downplaying the real risks. There are specific educational, propaganda and media oriented techniques which make it very easy for Amygdala to overcome the control from Neocortex. When Amygdala has overcome the control from Neocortex, the people tend to panic more easily and frequently respond in more like a primitive animal fashion.
The abuse of this complex human response to fear is rampant in fear mongering politics and big media. It is amazing, how can they totally flip the response just by changing the words and / or perspective. Common in these fear mongering reports is that they completely overlook the probability, and cost and benefit analyses, and never provide a comparison to other similar risks and benefits. To give you an example, if the emphasis in reports is on losses rather than the chances of escaping the risks, the responses get totally exaggerated and skewed in the direction of overreaction.
It is very important to know that security always has some sort of trade off in terms of freedoms, inconvenience and costs. For example leaving your door unlocked verses buying a lock or even getting a security system and then paying for it every month, and locking and unlocking your home every time you are in and out or even arming and disarming your security system each time when you go to sleep and wake up in the morning.
Responses evoked by primitive Amygdala, as opposed to responses from more advanced and human Neocortex, are far more likely to overlook mathematical calculations like probability and severity of risks, magnitude of cost and effectiveness, benefits of countermeasures, and how the disparate risks and costs can be compared. The primitive animal like responses evoked by Amygdala are more based on perception rather than reality of risks. Schneier writes about the conventional wisdom of risks:
“In Beyond Fear, I listed five:
People exaggerate spectacular but rare risks and downplay common risks.
People have trouble estimating risks for anything not exactly like their normal situation.
Personified risks are perceived to be greater than anonymous risks.
People underestimate risks they willingly take and overestimate risks in situations they can’t control.
Last, people overestimate risks that are being talked about and remain an object of public scrutiny.”
He also writes:
“David Ropeik and George Gray have a longer list in their book Risk: A Practical Guide for Deciding What’s Really Safe and What’s Really Dangerous in the World Around You:
Most people are more afraid of risks that are new than those they’ve lived with for a while. In the summer of 1999, New Yorkers were extremely afraid of West Nile virus, a mosquito-borne infection that had never been seen in the United States. By the summer of 2001, though the virus continued to show up and make a few people sick, the fear had abated. The risk was still there, but New Yorkers had lived with it for a while. Their familiarity with it helped them see it differently.
Most people are less afraid of risks that are natural than those that are human-made. Many people are more afraid of radiation from nuclear waste, or cell phones, than they are of radiation from the sun, a far greater risk.
Most people are less afraid of a risk they choose to take than of a risk imposed on them. Smokers are less afraid of smoking than they are of asbestos and other indoor air pollution in their workplace, which is something over which they have little choice.
Most people are less afraid of risks if the risk also confers some benefits they want. People risk injury or death in an earthquake by living in San Francisco or Los Angeles because they like those areas, or they can find work there.
Most people are more afraid of risks that can kill them in particularly awful ways, like being eaten by a shark, than they are of the risk of dying in less awful ways, like heart disease–the leading killer in America.
Most people are less afraid of a risk they feel they have some control over, like driving, and more afraid of a risk they don’t control, like flying, or sitting in the passenger seat while somebody else drives.
Most people are less afraid of risks that come from places, people, corporations, or governments they trust, and more afraid if the risk comes from a source they don’t trust. Imagine being offered two glasses of clear liquid. You have to drink one. One comes from Oprah Winfrey. The other comes from a chemical company. Most people would choose Oprah’s, even though they have no facts at all about what’s in either glass.
We are more afraid of risks that we are more aware of and less afraid of risks that we are less aware of. In the fall of 2001, awareness of terrorism was so high that fear was rampant, while fear of street crime and global climate change and other risks was low, not because those risks were gone, but because awareness was down.
We are much more afraid of risks when uncertainty is high, and less afraid when we know more, which explains why we meet many new technologies with high initial concern.
Adults are much more afraid of risks to their children than risks to themselves. Most people are more afraid of asbestos in their kids’ school than asbestos in their own workplace.
You will generally be more afraid of a risk that could directly affect you than a risk that threatens others. U.S. citizens were less afraid of terrorism before September 11, 2001, because up till then the Americans who had been the targets of terrorist attacks were almost always overseas. But suddenly on September 11, the risk became personal. When that happens, fear goes up, even though the statistical reality of the risk may still be very low.”