How to fear

| September 19, 2007 | 2 Replies

The June/July 2007 issue of Scientific American Mind presents in article by David G. Myers entitled “The Powers and Perils of Intuition.” (this particular article is not available online except to subscribers).  The starting point for many articles on intuition is the work Kahneman and Tversky, who explored shortcuts we all take, heuristics, which enable us to make quick and intuitive judgments that often work, but not always.  When they go wrong, these heuristics “trigger illusions or misperceptions.”

It is with human fear that our gut feelings most dramatically mislead us.

Why do so many smokers (whose habits shorten their lives, on average, by about five years) worry before flying (which, average across people, shortens life by one day)?  Why do we fear violent crime more than obesity and clogged arteries?  Why have most women feared breast cancer more than heart disease, which is more lethal.  Why do we fear tragic but isolated terrorist acts more than the futures on the present weapon of mass distraction: global climate change?  In a nutshell, why do we fret about remote possibilities while ignoring higher probabilities?

Myers identifies four factors that feed our risk intuitions:

We fear what our ancestral history has prepared us to fear.  With our old brain living in a new world, we are disposed to fear confinement and heights, snakes and spiders, and humans outside our tribe.

We fear what we cannot control.  Behind the wheel of our car, but not in air plane seat 17B, we feel control.

We fear what is immediate.  Smoking is a lethality and the threats of rising seas and extreme weather are in the distant future.  The airplane takeoff is now.

We fear threats readily available in memory.  If a surface to air missile brings down a single American airliner, the result-thanks to the availability heuristic-will be dramatic for the airline industry.  Given the difficulty in grasping the infinitesimal odds of it being (among 11 million annual airline flights) the claim that we are on, probabilities will not persuade us.  Intuitive fears will hijack the rational mind.

The problem seems to be that the human mind has difficulty wrapping itself around the mathematics that one must truly consider in order to accurately understand risks.  Intuitions are a good starting point.  In  fact, without using heuristics we would be paralyzed in our decision-making.  But intuitions alone cause us to lose sight of the big picture, thus causing us to miss big solutions.  Statistics constitute incredibly effective “glasses” to allow us to “see” and thus accommodate the true risks of the modern world.  Large numbers of Americans struggle with mathematics, however.  They are afflicted with “Innumeracy.”  See, for example here and here and here.  They worry more about snakes than they worry about the long-term dangers presented by dysfunctional government policies relating to energy, population control and global warming.

Myers concludesthat “intuition is powerful, often wise, but sometimes perilous, and especially so when we overfeel and underthink.”

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Category: Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (2)

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    Here is an post about viewing risks vs. fears at RandomTruth.org that argues against using the John Allen Paulos logarithmic "Safety Index" well illustrated here but first published in "Innumeracy".

  2. Tim Hogan says:

    To see how the numbers stack up about any fears of death by terrorist attack see http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=1455

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