The science of fear

I’ve spent the last few months reading The Science of Fear by Dan Gardner. It is a book I have recommended to many, quoted several times and it felt like a timely read right now.

While my own book is covered in pink highlighter, I wanted to share some of the key points I have taken away as there are some good things here that help us understand the power of fear and what it makes us do.

As communicators, understanding more about how the brain works and how our work impacts those around us is so important in an age where access to information (right or wrong) is so instant.

The fear of fear

The book includes a quote from President Roosevelt: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance”

The book asserts that despite the current climate, we are the healthiest, wealthiest, and longest-living people in history. Yet we are increasingly afraid.

In line with other books on the brain, it outlines the two systems: feeling and reason. Feeling is the gut and reason is the head. The feeling system works quickly and uses in-built rules/automatic responses. The reason system takes a while to catch up and sometimes they don’t talk to each other at all!

The best example in the book is about focus groups. People are asked if they like a car and the gut reaction might be that they don’t. The interviewer then asks the head why. But the head doesn’t have a clue so it just makes something up and that could be totally wrong. This is why the questions asked and the way you ask them is so important when it comes to gathering real insight.

The tools of the gut

The Rule of Typical Things – The Linda test is the best example here. This rule is simply how typical something is and what that leads us to conclude. How typical is it that July will be sunny? Typical. We make these snap judgements easily as it’s our way of working through complex images of typicality.

The Anchoring Rule – if we are uncertain of an answer and we make a guess, we will use the last number we heard as the anchor for our decision. This is powerful in many scenarios, like retail, where a sign might say ‘buy 12 for you or 18 for the cupboard’, you will start from 18 and work from there. It can be used to skew public opinion surveys and can lead to bias in our own data gathering.

The Example Rule – If you can recall an example that something is high risk, no matter how probable it is, you will decide there is a high risk and not continue (seeing a bizarre crime in a city far away is enough for you to conclude it could happen where you are and therefore decide there is danger/risk).

The Law of Similarity – if it looks like a lion, it is a lion. When food is made to look like something else our brains struggle to eat it – it doesn’t look like food. Appearance is reality is how we are hard-wired to think, and we can act irrationally because of this.

The power of stories and images

We love stories, we are good with stories. We are bad with numbers. Passion and pain are no substitute for reason, and if reason said there was no evidence it’s not a good story. Worryingly, our ability to analyse and gather data and insight continues to grow but our ability to handle and interpret that doesn’t.

When there is no picture, it means that there is no charged emotion and there is no reason for the gut to increase the need for concern. If we show an image and a close up one at that of something that evokes an emotional response, the gut will conclude that the risk is higher or real. This has nothing to do with any facts. It’s purely based on the response to the image.

Our mind is a powerful thing

Imagination is powerful. There is no ‘just imagining’ and it’s important to remember that when we ask people to imagine something – it’s not just forgotten and moved on from. Equally important is knowing that we can make up memories. In experiments, it showed that 20 to 40 per cent believed their imagined scenarios actually happened.

We are more likely to remember events that happened recently but also events that are emotional or novel. This is important when we think about films or TV series because there has been hardly any research into how fiction affects our view of risk. And given the law of similarity, we don’t always differentiate between fiction and fact when it comes to the gut reaction and that can lead to more fear.

We have little understanding of risk

Risks can be classified in two ways: relative and absolute.  Relative risk is simply how much bigger or smaller a risk is relative to something else. Absolute risk which is simply the probability of something happening.

“Having a child abducted by a stranger and returned later is awful, but the ultimate nightmare is having a child stolen by a stranger and murdered or having a child simply vanish from the face of the Earth. That nightmare scenario happens to about 50 teens and children a year in the United States. That’s 50 out of 70 million Americans and eighteen. Thus, the annual risk of a teen or child being abducted by a stranger and killed or not returned is 0.00007 percent or one and 1.4 million.

Risk regulators use a term called de minimus to describe a risk so small it can be treated as if it was zero. What qualifies as a de minimus risk varies, with the threshold sometimes as big as one in 10,000, but a one-in-a million risk is definitely de minimis.

When exploring the risk of terrorism and the change in behaviour towards air travel:

“An American professor calculated that even if terrorists were hijacking and crashing one passenger jet a week in the United States, a person who took one flight a month for a year would have only a one in 135,000 chance of being killed in a hijacking –  a trivial risk compared to the annual one in 6000 odds of being killed in a car crash”

The role of the media

The start of our interest in risk and safety is linked to the growth of the media in the 1970s.

More reporting in the news puts more examples and more emotions into more brains. This means that general public concern rises and as a result, reporters respond with more stories. More stories, more reporting means there is a constant loop of the content and fear steadily grows

A good example in the book is a report of a shark attack. When that report is covered, it establishes a new narrative and there are then reports of shark attacks coming through the media all the time. Incidents like these happen but no one thinks they’re important enough to make national news but when the narrative changes it can elevate trivia to news and that distinction is increasingly hard to make.

Politicians, newspapers, the evening news, novels, movies they are all portraying the fantastically rare as typical while what truly is typical often gets ignored – this is the case for most crime as well as diseases that are more typical but ignored.

The language of science is the opposite of the simple definitive statements the media want. The simple, unconditional absolutely certain statements that politicians and journalists want would mean a scientist is talking as an activist not as a scientist.

Our need for justice and punishment

We often demand action on risk without the slightest consideration of the costs of the action – the unintended consequences. You can’t squash people’s fears with facts – that doesn’t work because you’re talking to the head, but the gut is making the bulk of the decision. Our probability blindness plays a role here as we struggle to make sense of the reality of things happening. Equally, the fact something could occur is very unlikely isn’t a reason to ignore the risk.

We are social animals and we are designed to think about others. We want to know what people are up to, why they are doing it etc. and this is all because it is linked to our survival. Our ancestors depended on cooperation to stay alive. Cooperation requires rules and understanding how and why people break rules is crucial to survival – it’s why we have such a need for punishment and justice.

It is anger that distinguishes our feelings about crime. The burning sense that someone who hurt someone else must be punished and order restored is hardwired by evolution. They must be punished and the scale balanced. But this is not about safety it’s about justice.

There is a lot covered in the book and this just touches the surface but for me, as a communicator, it’s important we understand this stuff. We need to understand how the brain works and how it responds to language, the media, fear etc. so that we know how our work impacts those around us.

When it comes to internal communication where your core audience is employees, understanding more about what it is to be human is fundamental to success.

Click to listen to my podcast episode on fear and trust.

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