Dec 08 2015

What Are You Afraid Of?

Fear is an adaptive emotion, phylogenetically ancient, and anatomically located mostly in the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system. Understanding fear, however, is about more than neuroanatomy. It is interesting to think what people generally fear, why, and what do they do about it.

Fear is an anxious feeling that can focus on either a current active threat (like being chased by a predator) or on the anticipation of a future negative event. It’s easy to see how that feeling would be adaptive – we worry about bad things happening in the future so that we will take action to prevent or at least mitigate them.

What We Fear?

Psychologists have identified five basic fears, out of which most other fears are based. They are: fear of death, mutilation, loss of autonomy, separation, and “ego death” which is the fear of humiliation or shame.

Despite the obvious adaptive function of fear, many people fear the wrong things, meaning that their fear and anxiety is not proportional to actual threat. This mismatch is maladaptive, so why is it the case?

For example, people generally fear flying more than driving. Meanwhile, in the entire history of aviation about 13,000 people have lost their lives, the same amount as die on US roads every 4 months. Another way to look at the probability, which is perhaps a bit more intuitive, is that you would have to fly every day for about 14,000 years before having a greater than 50% chance of crashing. That’s pretty reassuring.

Why do so many people worry about the (statistically) wrong things? There are a couple of reasons.

The first is that humans are intuitively terrible at probability. For most of us, our brains are just not built to be comfortable with large numbers. That is why people gamble and play the lottery.

Another reason is the availability heuristic. A heuristic is a mental short-cut that most people tend to make, without thinking. It is true enough most of the time to be an efficient assumption, but it is not strictly logically true. The availability heuristic is the tendency to assume that something is common or likely if we are easily able to think of an example.

This may have been adaptive when we lived in small communities. If you knew of people who were killed by large predators while hunting north of the river, you might assume it’s a good idea to avoid going north of the river. We probably didn’t evolve from those who ventured north of the river anyway.

However, now we live in a large society with a mass media. This means that the probability of us hearing a story about something happening is completely distorted. The media can draw interesting stories (in the US, for example) from 300 million people, and then we hear about them. We don’t hear about them because they are common or likely or happened in our neighborhood, we hear about them because the media is selecting them from a massive number of people.

Our availability heuristic kicks in, however, and we are given the false sense that the events we see on the news are common or likely. Therefore, the news has a tendency to give us a distorted view of reality. They also tend to focus on fears, because that is what sells. “Should you be afraid of X? Find out at 11.”

Therefore, people are afraid of shark attacks, being killed by terrorists, child abduction, and road rage even though those are all extremely rare events.

Social media has made the problem worse, if anything. There is an entire cottage industry that exists to sell fears about food and toxins. People worry about trace amounts of “chemicals” in their food rather than whether or not they are getting enough exercise.

What Should You Fear?

Optimally our fears would be proportional to the actual risk they pose. Actually I think there are three basic factors that should be taken explicitly into account when considering the appropriate level of fear and what to do about it. The first is the probability of the negative even occurring. The second is the consequences of the negative event. The third is the cost (expense, inconvenience, trade-offs) of taking steps to prevent or mitigate the negative event.

Physicians take a similar approach to disease – how likely is it, how bad is it, how treatable is it, and what are the total costs (including risks and side effects) of diagnosing and treating it?

So – if a negative outcome is likely, devastating, and cheap and easy to prevent, that is a no-brainer. I just described vaccines, for example. They are cheap and easy, with very low risk, and they are effective at preventing diseases that are likely and range from annoying to deadly if they occur.

Plane crashes are very unlikely, although devastating if they occur, and there is nothing you can do about it anyway, so don’t worry. You could avoid flying, but then you have to consider the consequences of that action. If you drive instead of fly, your net risk might increase. If you avoid travel, that might limit your opportunities and quality of life.

As a society we also have to decide on what to fear, and what steps we should take. Here are some interesting examples:

Asteroid strike – Getting hit by a large asteroid is very unlikely over the short term, but a near certainty over millions of years. The consequences could be total – human extinction. The only real downside to doing something to identify and redirect asteroids headed our way is the expense. However, given the risks it seems that the world could afford a few billion dollars to defend ourselves.

Coronal Mass Ejection –  This, in my opinion, is one of the great underrated fears. CME’s are not uncommon, and a large one directed at Earth should happen every couple centuries or so. This is also not a matter of if but when. When we do get struck by a large CME, it could wipe out our satellite infrastructure and maybe even take out our electrical grid. Imagine months, or possibly years, without electricity. It would cost billions to harden our infrastructure against a CME, and to have backup equipment to rapidly replace critical items that are destroyed (like large transformers), but if we don’t do this a large CME can cost us trillions on the back end.

Antibiotic resistance – This too is an underrated fear. Bacteria are quickly evolving resistance to our antibiotics. In the worst case we might enter a post-antibiotic era. The steps to prevent , delay, or minimize this are all win-win – practicing good medicine, and researching new antibiotics. There is no down-side. The problem is that many of the measures are diffuse, meaning we need to get everyone to adopt best practices, and it’s difficult to get everyone to do anything. This one is a bit hard to predict, because technological advances could put off a crisis indefinitely. But such advances are difficult to predict with any precision.

Global warming – AGW is obviously a politically hot topic. Interestingly, the exact factors I name above are part of the debate – how likely is it that AGW is happening, what are the consequences, and what are the costs of steps to prevent or mitigate it? The scientific consensus is that it is likely, and the consequences are likely to be bad. The real debate, in my opinion, should focus on the third question – what measures are available, what are their costs, and how well will they work? We need to consider all options, but I think the best options are the win-wins – technological advances that create clean energy or increase energy efficiency are a win for everyone.


Fear and anxiety are adaptive emotions, but their net effect in a complex technological civilization is not always adaptive. Not surprisingly for a skeptic, I find that backing up our intuitions with an analytical approach is extremely helpful.

Fear can be a net negative when it is hugely distorted, and fear can be manipulated by people with an agenda. Analyzing actual probability, and going through a thoughtful analysis will help put our fears into perspective and identify measures that are likely to be helpful rather than harmful.

25 responses so far

25 Responses to “What Are You Afraid Of?”

  1. Bill Openthalton 08 Dec 2015 at 8:11 am

    What about a mega-volcano eruption? Such eruptions are more likely than an asteroid strike, and potentially as devastating. Unfortunately, there isn’t much one can do to prevent them, or to ward off their effects.

  2. Kawarthajonon 08 Dec 2015 at 9:19 am

    “AGW is obviously a politically hot topic”

    Groan! Very puny!

  3. mumadaddon 08 Dec 2015 at 9:28 am

    Even knowing the comparative risks between air and car travel, I’m still much more anxious about flying than I am about driving. I know the stats, so it’s not that I have a poor understanding of the risk probability (in this case, at least). I wondered if it’s something to do with the lack of control we have while flying. After all, we generally overestimate of our own driving skill, and it follows that our skilful driving would mitigate some of the risk — up in the air there’s nothing a passenger can do.

  4. carbonUniton 08 Dec 2015 at 10:11 am

    I think terrorism is a statistically overrated fear. The US is a big country, I’m guessing a lot of events could happen while the odds of being a victim would be less than being in a car crash. With the big 911 style attacks somewhat blocked, we are left with the lone wolf attacks, relatively small stuff. The number of victims is less than a plane crash or commensurate with a bus crash or chain reaction pile up on the roads or perhaps a fire at a hotel or large business. Our reaction (shutting down cities, heavy security measures) seems disproportionate in that sense but of course that is because it IS an attack, not an accident. It also bothers me that hundreds or thousands die in world trouble spots, but there’s not much reaction until one of our citizens gets beheaded. I guess that is tribalism… I mean no disrespect here to those who have suffered at the hands of terrorists.

    I think the urge to carry a firearm also plays on false fears. The odds of being at an event where it would be useful/possible to be able to intervene seem small compared to the odds of accidental shooting, the classic argument spiraling out of control scenario, etc. (I certainly see that the numbers could skew in a dangerous area or if one carries large amounts of cash etc. – specific threats.) The guns everywhere mentality scares me. Too many rubes will be carrying guns, like the one who was at a fast food joint and had his gun fall out of his jacket, hitting the floor aligned with a co-worker of mine. Fortunately it did not go off. I worry about an Aurora type event where armed patrons engage in a firefight in a theater with a shooter, but wind up with a lot of friendly fire casualties. Or the police showing up and not being able to figure out who the bad guy is. Allowing guns into bars seems insane. I’m really surprised we haven’t yet had a bar shootout, or accidental shooting at a school or other friendly fire catastrophe…

  5. Steve Crosson 08 Dec 2015 at 10:29 am


    I’m sure that the “loss of control aspect” while flying plays a large role in any related fears, but I also think that the availability heuristic is just as big a factor.

    After all, we’ve all read news reports about, known or perhaps even been survivors of horrific automobile accidents — OTOH, it is much more rare for anyone to survive a plane crash. In other words (and of course disregarding statistics) it just SEEMS that you are less likely to DIE in an automobile crash.

  6. John Danleyon 08 Dec 2015 at 11:03 am

    This analysis explains why certain primates are considered legitimate political candidates for America’s growing kakistocracy. The collective imagination is writing campaign contribution checks for armchair adumbrations that reality can’t subsidize.

  7. tmac57on 08 Dec 2015 at 11:19 am

    I generally don’t worry too much, but after reading this article I am having a panic attack.

    mumadadd- I too think the loss of control plays a big factor in how we view driving vs flying. One question though, how do you handle riding in a car when you are not the driver? For me, it is very uncomfortable to be a passenger in a car unless I see the driver doing the same things that I would do, reacting the same way, paying attention to the same things, not taking chances etc. .
    Overall, I am more stressed by being a passenger in a car than flying, but I generally feel more comfortable driving than flying unless traffic is crazy. I also feel a loss of control with dangerous drivers swarming around me. On the open road, or in quieter slower streets, not so much.

  8. mumadaddon 08 Dec 2015 at 11:31 am


    “One question though, how do you handle riding in a car when you are not the driver?”

    Hmmm, actually, I’m generally a pretty relaxed passenger. There is one of Steve N’s triad of considerations which is much worse with flying, and that’s the cost of something going wrong (which Steve Cross also alluded to above). You can be a minor car crash, or in fact a full spectrum of severity, but air crashes with a non-fatal outcome are exceptionally rare. This is all just based on me wondering why the hell I’m still more anxious about air travel than car travel, but I’m now thinking it’s both the lack of control and the likely severity of the outcome that gets me on edge.

  9. TomJLon 08 Dec 2015 at 11:55 am


    I’m not sure about lack of control as it doesn’t seem to be any issue in most other scenarios where people are passengers, i.e. buses, trains, cars etc. (albeit not in line with tmac57’s experience!). I wonder if lack of familiarity is a main factor, which could also potentially exacerbate the feeling of lack of control. Flying is a fairly atypical experience for most people and the stressful process probably lends to heightened responses (boarding a plane is not as straightforward as popping out in a car).

  10. Pete Aon 08 Dec 2015 at 1:03 pm

    Airplanes are the only type of vehicle in which we are totally trapped inside until it lands and comes to rest. Land vehicles have breaks; boats have lifeboats, life rafts, and/or life jackets; even submarines have a means of escape. I think it fair to say that air travel is the only type of transport in which we and ‘the driver’ have such a total loss of control over our situation and our destiny. We have to rely on statistics to help overcome our innate fear of being trapped / having zero control.

    I think that our fear and anxiety depend a fair bit on whether we have a mainly internal or a mainly external locus of control.

  11. MikeBon 08 Dec 2015 at 1:16 pm

    Thanks for this. It will go into my “remember to continually update your views” file.

    Things I used to fear but don’t anymore once I learned more about the very psychological issues you raise:

    Peak oil apocalypse
    Pesticides “contamination”

    These now rank very, very low on my list of concerns. Indeed, they’ve gone from the top to near the bottom!

    Things I now fear a little more than I used to:

    Death and illness (I’m now 55)
    Economic turmoil caused by increases in human numbers (a vague fear)
    Human stupidity (Internetsitis).

    Reading Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” has been transformative. I now view all media “events” with profound suspicion.

    Every human should read the chapter on Availability, Emotion, and Risk. The “Availability Cascade” will blow you the f. away.

  12. BaSon 10 Dec 2015 at 10:38 am

    I’m not a statistician, but the way the air travel risk is compared to car travel has always seemed wrong to me, because there are a lot more person-miles traveled by car than plane, but the risks are presented as though they are completely interchangeable ways of traveling for every person on every trip. If there were roughly as many person-miles traveled by each mode, I think air travel would not appear so vastly safer. I assume it’s still safer to some extent though, at least due to the mass transit effect where for each group of people flying you have a professional pilot instead of a hundred individuals.

  13. Niche Geekon 10 Dec 2015 at 3:59 pm


    I too am not a statistician either, but doesn’t event per passenger mile address your concern? Or are you concerned that the error bars on hose metrics overlap?

  14. RCon 10 Dec 2015 at 4:11 pm


    The sort of accidents you’re talking about do happen –

    This “good guy” even policed his shell casings

    Here’s a customer with a concealed carry permit accidentally killing the clerk at a store that someone was trying to rob:

    There’s a lot of these. What’s scarier, and kind of enforces the ‘lots of guns aren’t safer’ point is that your odds of being killed in a home invasion go UP significantly if you own a gun. If you’re looking to protect your property – a good insurance policy is a much better investment.

    The big problem with “everybody should have guns” is that guns escalate situations, and they escalate situations in a way where they can’t be de-escalated. They turn a lot of what should be quickly broken up fist fights (or heated arguments) into a body.

  15. Ivan Groznyon 10 Dec 2015 at 4:12 pm

    Mike B,

    you should add global warming BS to the list of things you don’t fear, or fear very little. That’s just another “sky is falling” apocalyptic quasi-religious paranoia, of the exactly same sort as global cooling, peak oil, “population bomb”, pesticide contamination, GMO “poisoning” of whatever, and so on. Same people, same principles, same ideology, same motives, same bullshit.

  16. mumadaddon 10 Dec 2015 at 4:27 pm


    Let’s assume for the sake of argument that you had just now heard of AGW for the first time; where, and for what kind of information, would you look for if you wanted to find out what it was and if it was real?


  17. mumadaddon 10 Dec 2015 at 4:37 pm


    The climate change “hoax” seems to me like a much grander conspiracy than does the US orchestrating 911. Doesn’t the sheer scale and magnitude of the conspiracy you’re proposing give you pause? (btw, I’m going on memory of previous posts on other threads, and if I’ve mixed you up with someone else I apologise profusely).

  18. Ivan Groznyon 10 Dec 2015 at 7:53 pm

    there is no conspiracy. 9-11 talk on your part is lame.

    People simply believe what they want to believe. Look for example at three very prominent scientists-promoters of this scam and what they had to say about the issue: James Hansen former chief of NASA’s GISS, Stephen Schneider and Mike Hulme of Tyndall Center:

    Hansen: “Emphasis on extreme scenarios may have been appropriate at one time, when the public and decision-makers were relatively unaware of the global warming issue. Now, however, the need is for demonstrably objective climate forcing scenarios consistent with what is realistic”

    Schneider: “we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This ‘double ethical bind’ we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.”

    Hulme: “The idea of climate change should be seen as an intellectual resource around which our
    collective and personal identities and projects can form and take shape. We need to ask not what we can do for climate change, but to ask what climate change can do for us.”

    Global warming alarmism is a religion, and that is the problem. There are many more like Hansen, Schneider and Hume, and they are richly rewarded by the government by research grants and prestige. There are even more of them who may have been sceptical but don’t want to jeopardize their careers and research money.

    I’ll give you just one fact that should give YOU pause:
    Last 5 or 6 years all studies of climate sensitivity published in the literature (amount of warming from doubling the CO2) was estimated at or below 2 deg C (that’s the reason why the IPCC did not offer the best estimate in the new assesment report because it would have to be dramatically lower than before). Previous, and now obsolete estimates on which all alarm was based predicted 3 degrees or more. I am not going even to begin with the lack of warming in the last 20 years and a gross mismatch between the models and the data.

    As for the single resource for information about the issue, you can start with recent Senate hearing in which prominent scientist-sceptics John Christy, Judith Curry and and William Happer testified.

    Or take a look at some of the lectures by Richard Lindzen, one of the real heavy weights in climate research for decades,, for example this

    By far the best blog on climate, “alarmist” or “sceptical”, is Climate Audit.

    The very way you put the problem testifies to the fact that you don’t know what you are talking about: the “phenomenon” could be perfectly real (and is real inded), namely CO2 is a greenhouse gas and it causes warming. But that’s irrelevant: what is relevant is – how much of warming? And is that dangerous or not?

  19. Pete Aon 10 Dec 2015 at 8:48 pm

    Oh, please, not Richard Lindzen again:

  20. RickKon 10 Dec 2015 at 9:14 pm


    I do hope you’re right and that human-generated climate change is not devastating over the next 50-100 years. Given continued rates of population growth, economic development and energy usage – I’m not particularly hopeful if we don’t rapidly and successfully develop clean energy sources.

    But really – flogging the Schneider quote when he has directly contradicted that interpretation just reduces your voice to that of quote-mining creationist. Don’t do that.

  21. BillyJoe7on 10 Dec 2015 at 10:39 pm


    I don’t think you have the wrong person.
    I’m pretty sure it was our friend Ivan who bought into the East Antartica beat up recently only to scurry away when the going got tough.
    Pretty well the same will happen here, I imagine.

  22. mumadaddon 11 Dec 2015 at 4:16 am


    You are right in that I know next to nothing about climate science; my understanding starts and ends with greenhouse effect and strong scientific consensus, which is why I’ve never challenged you on the science. This is my default position on science I don’t understand, and it’s most definitely subject to error and misunderstanding — it’s pretty easy to mislead by mainstream media reporting, for example. So in many cases, I can quite easily accept that I misunderstood the scientific consensus, or that it’s been misrepresented, and then change my own view to accommodate this. In the case of AGW though, we have some actual numbers, so the consensus seems pretty clear cut to me.

    When I asked you where, and what kind of information you’d look for, what I was trying to dig into is how you arrived at your current position. I wonder if you went via the scientific consensus then added to it, or if you bypassed it altogether. There’s a lot of political content in the bulk of your posts here, and I’m curious as to whether your understanding of climate science has been formed entirely within the context of your political views — were you a libertarian when you first learned about climate change, and did you get your information from sources who already agreed with the party line?

  23. BillyJoe7on 11 Dec 2015 at 4:38 am


    I think you’ve pretty well nailed him: political ideology -> climate denialist websites

  24. BillyJoe7on 11 Dec 2015 at 5:02 am


    Regarding the full Schneider quote:

    On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but – which means that we must include all doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change. To do that we need to get some broad based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, means getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This “double ethical bind” we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both

    I have a problem with the bolded part.

    In the long run it never helps to lie.
    You may get a temporary advantage but eventually you will be found out.

    This is exactly what is happening to climate deniers.
    They are being found out and the wheel is slowing turning against them.
    That is why they are starting to squeal – like our friend Ivan

  25. mumadaddon 11 Dec 2015 at 7:31 pm


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