Book: The Science of Fear by Daniel Gardener

Excellent book about the psychology of fear and how people are manipulated using it

Daniel Gardener
The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn't -- and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger
Dutton, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-95062-2
304 pages (main text)

The Science of Fear, by the Canadian journalist Daniel Gardener, is a very excellent and, to those of us keen on rationality, a somewhat depressing book. It seems that research into psychology has made some interesting progress in recent years. Psychologists have found that people's minds process information in two distinct ways. One system is rationality. It calculates and weighs evidence. It's the part of our brans that's interested in books about risk. It seems that scientists call it System Two and Mr Gardener calls it, more vividly, Head. System One, on the other hand, is the collection of habits of mind instilled by evolution over the millions of years that humans (and their predecessors) lived as hunter-gatherers. Mr Gardener calls this system Gut. Unfortunately for us, habits of mind that worked quite well on the African savannah don't work so well in modern industrial and post-industrial society. Even more unfortunately, Gut often takes precedence. As Mr Gardener says:

    Summarizing the relationship between Head and
    Gut, Kahneman wrote that they "compete for the
    control of overt responses." One might say -- with
    a touch less precision but a little more color -- that
    each of us is a car racing along a freeway and
    inside each car is a caveman who wants to drive
    and a bright-but-lazy teenager who knows he
    should keep a hand on the wheel but, well, that's
    kind of a hassle and he'd really rather listen to his
    iPod and stare out the window.
    (pp. 30-31)

There is no need to anatomize the mechanisms by which reason works. But Mr Gardener very interestingly describes the habits of mind or rules of thumb by which Gut arrives at its unconscious conclusions. We learn about the Good-Bad Rule (scientifically called the affect heuristic). (Mr Gardener is somewhat fonder of capital letters than I am but I'll go with his usage here.) It seems that Gut thinks that things are either good or bad and doesn't recognize much middle ground. Then there's the Example Rule (the availability heuristic). If we've heard of something recently Gut thinks it's more likely to happen again. And the Anchoring Rule (the anchoring and adjustment heuristic). When asked to guess at an unknown value, a person will tend to guess a value close to a number heard recently, even if that number had nothing at all to do with the value that's being guessed at. A few more of those sorts of rules have been teased out of Gut's reactions.

All that is interesting enough. And Mr Gardener also provides examples of important ways in which people go wrong and expose themselves to greater risk by following Gut's rules of thumb rather than going to the trouble of getting Head involved to do the math.

But the actual situation is worse than that. It seems that marketers, and especially marketers of politicians, had worked much of that out before the psychologists and sociologists did. They probably didn't work it out in quite the same way or in quite as much detail, but Mr Gardener finds many examples of advertisements that are deliberate attempts to dodge Head and appeal directly to Gut. And it goes beyond advertising. Mr Gardener reports a story that the television reporter Lesley Stahl wrote about in her autobiography. It seems that in 1984 Ms Stahl filed a story that was very critical of the Reagan administration. Mr Gardener says:

    But after the story aired, the deputy chief of staff told
    her the White House loved it. Stahl asked him,
    "Didn't you hear what I said?" The politico responded:
    "Nobody heard what you said.... You guys in
    televisionland haven't figured it out yet, have you?
    When the pictures are powerful and emotional, they
    override if not completely drown out the sound. I
    mean it, Lesley. Nobody heard you."

    Even in 1984, this was old hat.
    (p. 143)

The strongest appeal to Gut is through fear and Mr Gardener turns his focus to that. And he finds no shortage of people who make that appeal. I'm less surprised than I once would have been that scientists do it when their work (and therefore funding) is in the public eye. Journalists do it too (but that's sort of understandable because they're human too and, besides, they have to write what people want to read). As Mr Gardener summarizes:

    Unfortunately, there are lots of activists, politicians, and
    corporations who are not nearly as interested in pursuing
    rational risk regulation as they are in scaring people.
    After all, there are donations, votes, and sales to be had.
    Even more unfortunately, Gut will often side with the
    (p. 244)

There isn't much to be done about all that except to be aware of what people are trying to do and to try very hard to think rationally.

Mr Gardener then ends the book with an excellent example of rational analysis. It's a chapter in which he analyzes terrorism and where its dangers lie. I had no idea of the quantity of resources expended by Aum Shinrikyo and the number of entirely unsuccessful attacks they made before managing to kill 12 people and seriously injure 42. All deaths from terrorism are tragic, but properly understanding risks will do us all good.

There are parts of the book that are a trifle repetitive, but that's a trivial complaint about a book that should be read by anyone who wants to be an informed citizen.

Posted: Wed - August 5, 2009 at 05:02 PM   Main   Category: