Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Science of Fear

Daniel Gardner's 2009 How the Culture of Fear Manipulates Your Brain is a work of genius.

Quoting de Montaigne, who wrote, "the thing I fear most is fear" he goes on to show that the relative safety of air travel despite the 9/11 crisis resulted in 1,595 unnecessary deaths which were statistically the consequence of the reaction to the crash shots of 9/11. He goes on to show how various special interest groups can use this lack of rational thought that pervades human endeavour. Fewer than 20 terrorist attacks killed more than 100 people and 9/11 killed less than 1/5 the number of Americans murdered each year. In consequence obesity may kill 100,000 each year and yet 'we're spending gargantuan sums of money to deal with the risk of terrorism – a risk that, by any measure, is no more than a scuttling beetle next to the elephant ofdisease." Why have we become a "culture of fear." For one, the 'more fear, the better the sales."

Given that man as we know him is only a 12,000 year old creature, he says if the amount of time we spent on earth were divided as a book, the first 200 years would be as hunter gatherer, a page would be the agricultural era and a paragraph would describe modern man of the last 200 years. The consequence is that our processing of risk and threat is done by two systems of thoughts, system one, the unconscious or 'gut' and System two, 'rational thought'. Feelings or gut dominates. The image he uses to sum up the present day accumulation of research on this matter is that 'each of us is in 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 shoul keep a hand on the wheel but, well, that's kind of a hassle and he'd rather listen to his iPod and stare out the window." He points out that numerous studies show that weather affects gains and losses in stock market because people are positive on sunny days, yet it's ludicrous that sunshine should have any bearing on financial calculations of Wall Street though it clearly does.

Quoting from Kahneman and Tversky's research on 'how people form judgements when they're uncertain, Gardner discusses the how the Gut does this using 1) Anchoring Rule 2) the Rule of Typical Things and 3) the Example Rule. Each of these over ride rational thought on a regular basis.

In the Example rule, "the more easily people are able to think of examples of something the more common they judge that thing to be." For hunter gatherers this latter rule might make good sense because the 'brain culls low priority memories. If time passes and a memory isn't used, it is likely to fade. It is particularly good for learning from the very worst sort of experience. However, 'any emotional content makes a memory stickier." Novelty, and concentration and repetition help solidify memories however memory is an organic process and 'memories routinely fade, vanish or transform - sometimes dramatically." "The mind can even fabricate memories.' In one experiment volunteers were asked to imagine a scenario such as being lost in a mall and the days later were asked about experiences and 20 to 40% believed the imagined scenarios were true.

And that's just the beginning of this extraordinary book that details how profoundly this 'caveman' can be manipulated while the teen ager rational consciousness is distracted. An must read for everyone who feels that something is terribly wrong with the affairs of state. As Freud said, 'maybe the paranoids are right".

Psychologists have show that "confirmation bias' is how we 'screen' the environment for proof of what we already believe. Further, people are vulnerable to 'group polarization' which means when people share beliefs and get together in groups, they become more convinced their beliefs are right and they become more extreme in their views.

Because, as Robert Fogel, the nobel laureate of University of Chicago has demonstrated in his book, Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100, it is our profound good fortune to be alive today and there is promise of more to come. "those blessed to live in Western countries are the most prosperous humans in the history of the species, and we feel a little guilty even mentioning it because we know so many others don't share our good fortune. Not so well known, however is that there have been major improvements in the developing world too. In the last two decades those suffering malnourishment in the developing world 'though unconscionably high' fell from 28 to 17 percent.

"We're not just living longer. We're living betters. Fewer people develop chronic illnesses like heart disease, lung disease, and arthritis than those 25 years ago. We're even smarter with IQ's improving steadily for years.

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