Closer to Danger, and Less Frightened

Fear is our brain’s way of preparing us for danger in the world around us. But, though we may think of fear and danger as being closely linked, they can actually be wildly out of sync with one another. As David Ropeik has been discussing on his blog at Psychology Today, we often feel a great deal of fear when there is little actual risk  (such as flying commercial), and little fear when there is actually substantial risk (such as smoking or driving on the highway).

In my book, I describe a particularly compelling example of this disjuncture between fear and danger, one that occurred during the Blitz in World War II, when the German Luftwaffe tried to bomb Britain into submission.

Londoners who were subjected to German bombings regularly during the Blitz eventually grew blase. They grew used to the wail of the air-raid sirens, the ritual tramping down into the bomb shelter, the rumbling thuds of distant explosions. The terror of aerial devastation, which prewar theorists had predicted would quickly cow a populace into submission, instead became a commonplace, a part of daily life.  Britons who lived in the suburbs, by contract, became progressively more terrified of German raids.

The difference, I argued (with a nod to Stanley Rachman), is that people living with daily exposure to the terrors of bombing eventually grew used to it through a process called habituation, which requires frequent and regular exposure to a stimulus. Conversely, infrequent or irregular exposure to fear may not lead to habituation at all, but to its opposite: sensitization. Instead of grow smaller, the response to a stimulus grows more intense.

Recently, however, I came across another explanation for this disparity, one which requires neither habituation nor sensitization and in fact can happen almost instantaneously.

Via Vaughan Bell at Mindhacks I came across a piece by Noah Gray at Haiti Rewired about the “Psychological Typhoon Eye” effect, discovered by Chinese researchers in the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Essentially, the effect involves people living in the center of a risk zone feeling less afraid than those on the periphery.

The “Psychological Typhoon Eye” describes an inverse relationship between the proximity of the victim to natural disaster devastation and their perceived health or safety risks. Essentially, if a person lives close to the center of the destruction, they are more likely to underestimate the public health risks associated with the aftermath of the natural disaster. The name has its origins in meteorology, referring to the eye of a typhoon, a region of calm weather at the center of a strong storm. A similar phenomenon has been reported in the literature regarding risk perception [3]; in France, those living closer to a nuclear reactor feel less anxiety about the potential danger while those living further away tended to be more apprehensive of the risk.

Gray suggests that, of the different explanations offered for the phenomenon so far, the most likely is “cognitive dissonance” — the process by which the brain reconciles contradictory beliefs by subconsciously suppressing one of them. He writes:

In the example of the psychological eye, the devastation of the area creates a sense of danger, yet the individual may have no choice but to remain close by, counter to the survival instinct. To reconcile these conflicting beliefs, the individual may unconsciously lower self-assessed risk to justify remaining in the area.

As Bell points out, the nature of this mechanism isn’t merely of academic interest; the way that people respond to trauma will affect the way that policy makers attempt to help them. This can vary not only on the nature of the disaster but on the culture upon which it is visited. “The psychological impact of devastation changes through time and space,” Bell writes, “and we need to be careful to understand its local significance lest we inadvertently amplify the chaos.”

Regardless of the mechanism, I take the phenomenon as yet another example of how finely tuned are our brains’ subconscious mechanisms for responding to danger. We tend to think of fear as annoying, unpleasant, and limiting, but the fear response has been bestowed on us by evolution for a very important purpose: keeping us alive in the face of danger. Time and again, it proves surprisingly nuanced for a supposedly “primitive” part of the brain.

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