When Fear Kills

The Washington Post has a terrific story about the manner in which fear, rather than the at-large sniper, is raising the risks of living in the D.C. area. “Is it meaningful,” the story asks, “to suggest that the risk of being shot by the sniper is tiny compared with risks you take every day, like driving, jaywalking or smoking?” The story, written by David Ropeik, director of risk communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, notes that the odds of being killed by the sniper are 517,422 to one. The odds of being killed in a car accident are far higher, yet people are driving out of their way to avoid places where they think they might get shot. “Fear, born of that most ancient and genetically embedded imperative—survival—is real, and at times far overpowers reason,” Ropeik writes. “This is one of those times.”

Ropeik’s insights into risk and human behavior relate to more than the sniper killings:

“It is also fair to suggest that fear is, in and of itself, a risk. Frightened people seeking a sense of safety can make dangerous choices: to drive extra miles to avoid a location they think is unsafe, to buy a gun they’re not trained to use, or to reduce their physical exercise by staying indoors or close to home. In fact, just the stress of fear is dangerous. It raises levels of certain hormones that suppress the immune system, thus increasing our susceptibility to infectious disease. We have to fear the sniper, but we also have to fear fear itself. It’s a complicated conflict between our natural, self-protective emotions on the one hand and, on the other, the risk that our fears might actually exacerbate the dangers we face.

Psychologists who study this field, known as risk perception, find that humans tend to fear similar things for similar reasons. Essentially, risks have unique affective characteristics that cause us to be more or less afraid, regardless of the facts…Some responses do more to make us feel safe than they do to protect us. Driving extra miles to avoid perceived danger zones increases the probability of our being in a motor vehicle crash far more than it reduces our chances of being shot. Buying a gun for protection makes us the owner of a weapon that is both reassuring and dangerous, a weapon that research shows is far more likely to be fired for reasons other than self-defense.

There is a battle between fear and fact taking place in the hearts and minds of my relatives and friends in the D.C. area, and all their friends. It’s a cautionary tale for all of us, whether we’re facing snipers, West Nile virus, child abductions or terrorism. Frightened people can make dangerous choices. Understanding why risks make us so afraid can help us apply both our emotional and our rational sides to the challenge of making ourselves safe.”

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.