Category Archives: Fear

What Should We Be Afraid Of?

My last post, “Guns are security blankets not insurance policies,” discussed the irrationality that motivates people to possess firearms. This post tries to partly explain why fear in general is such a powerful motivator.

There is a lot to say about why fear motivates us, but the explanation is no doubt neurophysiological, relating to the amygdala, the sympathetic nervous system, and other elements of the reptilian and paleomammalian parts of the human brain. This physiology combined with a cultural environment which exaggerates risks—the firearms industry, the military industrial complex, certain news organizations, etc.—creates a situation in which people constantly misconstrue risks.

Consider that about 32,000 Americans die every year on America’s roads in motor vehicle accidents—many less than 30-40 years ago thanks to government regulations of the auto industry—and well over a million people around the world die every year in auto accidents. Moreover, 5,000 pedestrians a year die in traffic accidents each year in America alone. Yet people hop in cars and cross the street everyday without fear—yet we don’t go to war against cars!

Now think about the time Americans spend worrying about being killed by terrorists and the amount of money spent on wars and security to defeat it. Is being killed by a terrorist (whatever that means) something to really be afraid of? No, for as Timothy Egan put it in his recent New York Times op-ed, “What to be Afraid Of,”

You are much more likely to be struck dead by lightning, choke on a chicken bone or drown in the bathtub than be killed by a terrorist. Any number of well-known diseases—cancer, diabetes, the flu—take the lives of far, far more people. Yet, by one estimate, the United States spends $500 million per victim of terrorism, and a piddling $10,000 per cancer death.

Consider that cancer and heart disease kill more than a million Americans each year and that only a handful of Americans die each year as a result of terrorism. In 2011 the US State Department reported 17 US non-combatants killed as a result of terrorism. (To put this in perspective about 50 people are killed annually in the US by lightning.) In fact your chances as a US citizen of being killed by a terrorist are vanishingly small compared to other risks. Yet the US spends 50,000 times as much per victim on death from terrorists as deaths from cancer.

And this is not even to mention that over 16,000 Americans are murdered each year in their own country, more than 11,000 of those by firearms.  If you do want to be afraid, look around you at your fellow Americans, not mostly imaginary, foreign bogeymen. There is so much more to be said about all this, but we’ll let Egan have the last words:

So what should you be afraid of? Are you sitting down? Get up—you shouldn’t be. Sitting for more than three hours a day can shave life expectancy by two years, through increased risk of heart disease or Type 2 diabetes …

“Guns are security blankets, not insurance policies”

At his wonderful blog, The Weekly Sift, the mathematician Doug Mudar posted an insightful piece recently about the psychology of gun owners titled: “Guns are security blankets, not insurance policies.” He begins with a quote from the sci-fi author William Gibson: “People who feel safer with a gun than with guaranteed medical insurance don’t yet have a fully adult concept of scary.” This, Mudar notes, explains a lot about the gun-control debate in America today.

Mudar points out that proponents of gun control tend to cite statistics about how many more homicides and suicides we have in America compared to other countries with fewer guns, or how much more likely you are to kill yourself or a household member than an intruder, and so on. While pro-gun advocates tend to tell what-if fantasy stories to defend their position. “What if home invaders came to kill you, kidnap your baby, or rape your teen-age daughter? What if you were a hostage in a bank robbery? What if you were at a restaurant or grocery store when terrorists broke in and started killing people? Wouldn’t you wish you had a gun then?”

Mudar says that these camps have “two very different ways to think about risk and security. One is the mature, rational way. What are the most likely risks and how can we mitigate them. So while people in America tend to worry about things like terrorists attacks and plane crashes, which pose virtually no risk to them, they forget about mundane risks like car accidents, heart disease and cancer which pose far, far greater risk. If you really want to be safe do things like wear your seat belt, eat well, exercise and don’t smoke.

The other way to think about risk is the childish, irrational way. In this mode you worry about monsters in your closet or ghosts in your room. Now frightened children aren’t always assured when you tell them that the chances of being eaten by a monster or haunted by a ghose are very, very low. Sometimes it is better to give the child “a security blanket or a teddy bear” to serve as a talisman to create an aura of security. And that’s what guns do for most gun owners. As Mudar concludes:

The point isn’t that home invasion is a major risk in your life , that you are well-trained enough to win a middle-of-the-night shoot-out if home invaders show up, or even that you have a practical way to get the gun out of its safe-storage location in time to use it at all; it’s that when the home-invasion fantasy plagues you, you can tell yourself, “It’s OK. I have a gun.”

(Of course, some people have real security problems whose solution may involve guns. For example, four Presidents of the United States, about 1 in 10, have been assassinated, others have been the target of assassinations, and all receive numerous threats.  US Presidents have special security risks. But most of us aren’t presidents, drug dealers or the kinds of people for whom being shot is much more than an imaginary monster.)

In my next post I’ll briefly discuss the origins of irrational fears.