The Science of Fear: How Culture of Fear Manipulates Your Brain

Takeaway: Humans are very bad as understanding risk whenever risk becomes complicated.

The Science of Fear feels like a book that was written specifically for me.  It is filled with statistics, it has a good bit of sociology and psychology.  Its messages is overwhelmingly that we fear the wrong things, that humans as a whole are not all that good at evaluating risk, and that in the end it is very easy to manipulate people into fear.

That is not to say this is a perfect book.  Even for someone as stats obsessed as I am, this book was easily 75 pages too long.

The summary thesis is that we have a rational side and an emotional (gut) side.  The gut side is what takes over the majority of the time and only rarely does the rational side come up on top.

There are several psychological or behavioral economic principles that that make it hard for the rational side to hold the gut side at bay.  Gardner gives several examples: The Anchoring Rule (if you give a number or example even if completely unrelated to the topic, the listener will use that to anchor the evaluation), the Rule of Typical Things (basically if it sounds right it probably is right: chemicals are bad, rare things must be more dangerous, etc.) and The Example Rule (if you can see that anyone has had this happen to them, then it is probably more frequent than you know).  He also uses some of the more familiar principles of confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance but focuses more on the behavior economics rather than the older psychological ideas.

So in an example on the fear of serious degenerative diseases from leaks in silicone breast implants you see how this works.  The example rule says that is a woman has breast implants and has a degenerative disease then they are probably connected.  But if there are a million women with implants and the particular degenerative disease occurs in the general population at 1 percent, then normally 10,000 women with implants should have that disease.  It requires large scale epidemiological studies to know if it is likely that the implants and the disease are related.  In this case they were not.  But the Rule of Typical things says that putting silicone in your body sounds like a bad idea, so it is probably the cause of the disease.

The other very significant take away from the book is that the world is not a simple place.  For example, people stop flying after 9/11 because they are afraid of terrorism.  But driving is actually more dangerous.  So it is estimated that more than twice as many people died from the extra driving in the year following 9/11 than in the actually 9/11 terrorist attacks.  Or some people are allergic to the chlorine that is used to treat water.  But without the chlorine more people will died of water borne illnesses.

One of the things I appreciated about the book is that the author is very careful not to assign too much blame.  So many people blame sloppy tv journalists for highlighting the wrong things in news reports.  But Gardner says it is unlikely that journalist are intentionally misleading people.  Yes some are sloppy.  But it is more likely that journalists have the same risk evaluation problems that everyone else has.  They are more likely to put on a story about a young woman with breast cancer because she is young, pretty, interesting, and tragic, even if the woman is highly unrepresentative of actual breast cancer (which is mostly a disease of 70-90 year old women.)

The problem is that without someone that really thinks about the broader picture (which as humans we do not do well), we end up keeping our children inside for fear of predators or away from school for fear of school shootings and locked inside the house watching tv and actually condemn them to poor exercise which is more likely to kill them than the predators or the school shootings.  Or we try to insist on organic only fruits and vegetables but that makes the cost of the fruits and vegetables more expensive so people eat less of them and the lose the larger heath benefit that would come from eating more vegetables in order to save them from the smaller risk of pesticides.

As a Christian, one of the clear takeaways is that it is easy to scare people into the direction that you want, by misrepresenting the risk.  You feel like you have good intentions (and the author claims virtually all advocacy groups have good intentions) so what is wrong with not verifying your numbers or frankly just making some numbers up in order to move people in the right direction?  Ed Stetzer has been blogging about this, Bradley Wright has a whole book about this.  The means to the end do matter.  Creating people who do the right thing out of fear, does not create healthy people.  It creates fearful people.

We have been all subjected to the wild speculative conspiracy theories on facebook or in chain emails.  And there is some evidence that Christians are actually more likely to participate in these than the standard person. (My personal theory is that Christians are people of a book and the written word, whether email or facebook holds power.  In addition many Christians are strong believers in authority.  So if someone that you trust says it, then it is likely to be true.)  It is important that we set aside our ego and admit we are wrong when we do pass on false information.  Or better yet try to break out of the gut reaction and involve some research, especially when it feel like it must be true.

Not too long ago a friend passed on a news story from a Christian news website.  It was about the supreme court case where a teen girl was refusing to wear her school id because it had an RFID tag to take attendance and open locked doors.  She felt it was the mark of the beast.  So already Christians identify with the sentiment.  The Christian News website instead of putting a picture of the RFID name tag next to the story put a picture of nearly microscopic RFID chips. It was neer said in the article, but the insinuation was clearly that these were going to be injected into the students.  And that is what was in the comments on the article (I will not let my high school student be injected with tracking devices).  I understand why there were comments like that.  That is what the news site was insinuating, whether intentionally or not.

My point is that if we are going to be credible as Christians, as people that are claiming to be bearers of the ultimate truth, we need to be careful that we bend over backward to make sure that the truths we share, whether particularly about Christ and actually ultimate truth or about news and minor issues like RFID tags, is actually as true as we can make it.  It isn’t good enough that we are factual.  The picture in that news site was showing actual RFID tags and the caption was accurate.  It is just that the picture and the caption had nothing to do with the type of RFID tags that the girl was being asked to wear.  If the caption had had a standard RFID name tag like what huge numbers of office complexes require their staff to wear then it would have been much less sensational, much more accurate (and probably much less page views and Facebook shares.)

So on the whole I think this is a book well worth reading.  It is too long, it does focus more on evolutionary theory more than some people will be comfortable with, but it is worth reading, or at least skimming.

The Science of Fear Purchase Links: Hardcover, Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook


One Comment

Sounds like a book that is worth reading but better yet summarizing for the general public to hear. It would be a good TV or newspaper news article! Christians do jump on the bandwagon faster than others it seems, maybe we are more guillible? Most Christians it seems believe in a degenerative world or society and anything bad seems to confirm this so they pass it on to others.

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