Living In Fear: It Might Just Kill You

Americans are more afraid of terrorism than they are of guns, despite the fact that the odds of an American dying by a terrorist are actually minimal. If one rationally examines the last 40 years of data, one actually sees the chance an American would be killed by a foreign refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion per year. The chance of an American being murdered by an undocumented immigrant is actually 1 in 10.9 billion per year. The risk an American could be killed by someone on a typical tourist visa is 1 in 3.9 million (CATO Institute, 2016).

In reality, guns are 3,210 times more likely to kill Americans than a “terrorist.” Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the US, with 52,404 lethal drug overdoses in 2015. Opioid addiction is driving this epidemic, with 20,101 overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers and 12,990 overdose deaths related to heroin in 2015. All indications are that this has continued a dramatic upturn in 2016. Deaths by heroin overdose rose 23 percent in a single year — which is now even greater than the number of homicides by guns (DEA, 2016). On the whole overdose deaths rose last year, to 52,404. By comparison, the number of people who died in car crashes was 37,757, an increase of 12 percent, with Americans being at one in 7,000 risk of dying in a car accident in any given year. Gun deaths, including homicides and suicides, totaled 36,252, up 7 percent. So — guns deaths, drug overdoses, and car crashes pose a far greater risk than foreign terrorists lurking in the shadows.

Risk related to health style behaviors such as poor diet; alcohol use; and lack of exercise haven’t even been mentioned yet. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, alcohol is implicated in 39% of all fatal traffic crashes and nearly half of all intentional injuries, including homicides and suicides. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for 614,000 fatalities in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Influenza and pneumonia ranked eighth in 2014, accounting for some 55,000 fatalities. Americans have a one in 600 risk of dying from cancer in any given year.

What is going here? Why are humans so poor at understanding and reacting to actual death, and health, and well-being risk? Why does our culture act, react, vote, and spend millions, even trillions of dollars in a way that is disproportionably mismatched to actual health and well-being?

One reason a person’s fears often do not organize around actual risks is something called evolutionary mismatch. Evolutionary mismatch is a state of imbalance whereby traits that evolved in one environment becomes maladaptive or destructive in another environment (Lloyd, Wilson, & Sober, 2011). Our brains are wired by evolution to make swift judgements which are often not supported by logical reasoning. Fear can lead to lower frontal brain cortex stimulation and higher amygdala activation — which have implications for unconscious fear conditioning, impulsivity, reduced empathy, as well as all sorts of maladaptive reactions (including poor rational reasoning). Emotions, especially fear, often play a powerful role in decision-making and influence how we perceive risk. Our emotions push us to make instant judgments that were once useful — but under current circumstances may be less than sensible. In regards to fears for safety there are two evolutionary mismatches (as described by evolutionary Psychologist Glenn Geher Ph.D.) that are particularly applicable:

(1) Today — you are surrounded in your day-to-day life by a higher proportion of strangers than would ever have been true of our pre-agrarian hominid ancestors.

(2) Today — you have been exposed to more images of violence than ever would have been possible for pre-agrarian hominids.

Thus, “strangers” were much more lately to be a novel and potentially a real dangerous interactional experience (with group raiding). While today we are among more strangers, it also less true that you interact with them less. In the modern technological world we are more likely to be “alone together” than ever before. Although we might be among strangers more — we still fear violence from them, regardless of actual risk. Couple this “stranger danger” predisposition with repeated exposure to images of human violence, and you stoke the fears of “The Other.”

This is consistent with the ample anthropological and psychological research which demonstrates the penchant of humans to organize for safety around group tribalism and insularity — with the tendency to categorize individuals on the basis of their group membership, and treat in-group members benevolently and approach out-group members with fear, disdain, and even anger (particularly when there is no prior actual contact with that group). Evolution has selected for “false-positives” in a fear prediction adaption (over-prediction of fear). Any hominid ancestor who likely under-predicted risk or had less fear, would have been less likely to survive.

Fear also strengthens memory: One-off catastrophes like terrorist attacks or even plane crashes embed in our memories, while we minimize the horrible accidents and many real dangers we may be exposed to on a daily basis. As a result, we overestimate the odds of dreadful but infrequent events and underestimate how risky ordinary behavior or events actually are. Most people do not distinguish well between a one-in-a-thousand risk and a one-in-a-million risk. The unpredictability of terrorism can make it scarier than something like a car crash, a gun death, drug overdose, or health vulnerability. Media saturation may also be to blame. Having ready access to images of every atrocity known to mankind makes us prone to what behavioral scientists call “availability bias,” the tendency to give weight to what comes to mind most easily, which will be the most intense or the most novel. Assessment or perception of risk is also influenced by control and uncertainty (lack of control and an increase in uncertainly escalates fear). This miscalculation of risk can have devastating results. This is reflected by what Americans did after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. People started flying less and driving more. The result was that 1,595 more Americans died in road accidents during the 12 months after 9/11 than would have otherwise. The odds of a hijacking remained extremely small in comparison to driving risks.

Politicians also overstate and use the tendency to miscalculate risk, or they fall victim to poor risk calculations as well. Our current President recently stated his view on the role of his administration: “The nation-state remains the best model for human happiness. Erasing national borders does not make people safer.” Clearly the rhetoric openly suggests –we need to fear “The Other” and build strong borders not only legally, but physically against a perceived risk or danger.

The real question on safety and fear is whether in the current environment — does our fear and risk assessment actually helps or hinder our attempts at true well-being, not only as an individual of a nation-state, but as a citizen of the world?

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