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Why we are afraid of the wrong things

This week many of us celebrated Halloween or, if you prefer the more local version, Undas. This season, which in many traditions involve remembering the dead, also involves celebrating the scary and the spooky.

So, what things scare and spook us? Judging by our horror stories, most of us are scared of ghosts, vampires, and monsters. But are these the right things to be scared of? Why are we afraid of the things we are afraid of? And does it matter?

Here are the short answers. One: We are scared of the wrong things. Two: Our fears come from our evolutionary heritage, our life experiences, and our intuition about risks. Three: It matters because fear is a powerful emotion that drives a lot of our important decisions.

Now for the longer answers.

Fear is an emotion that evolved to help us deal with threats. This is why our main response to fear, which is triggered by the part of our brain called the amygdala, is the “flight-or-fight” response. When we are scared, our body prepares us to either fight the threat or to flee from it.

If we based our fears on what is actually a threat to most of us, what should we be most afraid of?

According to official government records, the main cause of death in the Philippines are non-communicable diseases (NCDs), in particular diseases related to lifestyle such as heart diseases, stroke, diabetes, and neoplasms or abnormal tissue growth. According to the Department of Health, the most threatening lifestyle related diseases are linked to “smoking, unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and stress.”

During a health symposium held last July, Dr. Anthony Leachon, president of the Manila Doctors Hospital Medical Staff Association, said that almost 300,000 Filipinos die annually because of lifestyle diseases. “That’s 800 deaths every day, equivalent to two jumbo jets crashing every day,” Dr. Leachon said.

Why aren’t we all terrified of the things that increase the risk of said lifestyle-related diseases? Why don’t sugary and fatty foods, inactivity, or second-hand smoke trigger the fear response in us?

In his book Snakes, Sunrises, and Shakespeare, evolutionary biologist Gordon H. Orians explains that many of our deepest fears can be traced back to the biggest threats faced by our ancestors. Our evolutionary history explains why we have a primal fear of heights, strangers, snakes, and spiders—they represent the things that were an ever-present dangers to our ancestors.

Our ancestors were also constantly under threat of being cornered or ambushed by predators, and this might explain our primal fear of closed spaces, the dark, and of “monsters.”

In a way, our brains are still calibrated for the stone age, which is why many of us fear harmless, non-venomous snakes more than we fear greasy foods.

Not all of our fears are primal. For example, many of us fear flying, terrorist attacks, sharks, or nuclear energy, fears that are mostly ingrained to us by the media.

Unlike our primal fears which come from evolution, our fear of things such as flying are a result of our ineptitude at assessing risks.

In his essay Living Is Fatal, Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineer Seth Lloyd writes, “People are bad at assessing probabilities… They overestimate the probability of rare but shocking events—a burglar breaking into your bedroom, say. Conversely, they underestimate the probability of common but quiet and insidious events—the slow accretion of globules of fat on the walls of an artery, or another ton of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere.”

“Why do we fear flying, when, for most of us, the most dangerous part of our trip is the drive to the airport?” asks David G. Myers, professor of psychology at Hope College. Myers explains that this is due to something called the “availability heuristic.”

“We fear what’s readily available in memory,” Myers writes. “Vivid, cognitively available images—a horrific air crash, a mass slaughter—distort our judgement of risks. Thus, we remember—and fear—disasters (tornadoes, air crashes, attacks) that kill people dramatically, in bunches, while fearing too little the things threats that claim lives one by one.”

In other words, our brains treat newsworthy events as if they were commonplace and therefore threatening. Our brains don’t know that events have to be uncommon to be deemed newsworthy.

Given how powerful fear can be, it is therefore important that we as a society reevaluate what we are afraid of. In the words of media researcher George Gerbner, “Fearful people are more dependent, more easily manipulated and controlled, more susceptible to deceptively simple, strong, tough, measures and hard-line postures.”

In other words, when we fear the wrong things, we are more likely to make the wrong decisions, and that is dangerous not only for us but for everyone else.

Topics: Sounds of Science , Halloween , Fear
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