The world is full of potential hazards. Unfortunately, the things that we’re afraid of oftentimes aren’t the things that are actually mostly likely to hurt us. Our brains’ admirably lightning-fast danger-detection system evolved in an environment different from the modern world, so it tends to trigger our alarms when the situation isn’t really that grievous. Worse, it can fail to activate when we really are faced with a real-and-present danger, leaving us prone to walk right into potentially harmful situations. That doesn’t mean we’re totally SOL, however. With a little effort we can consciously arm ourselves with rational risk-benefit analysis and try to override our erroneous automatic impulses.
For example? Here are some perceived dangers that get blown out of proportion:
Cell phone radiation. Uncertainty is a powerful trigger of anxiety. When new technologies reach a broad public, they can seem uncomfortably mysterious, and hence ready targets for health-scare furors. Remember Alar, silicone breast implants, electromagnetic fields from power lines? In the case of cell phones, the word “radiation” adds additional emotional baggage. The fact is, numerous studies have failed to turn up any conclusive evidence that cell phone emissions pose health risks, and the physics suggests it’s most likely impossible.
Vaccinations. We tend to be less afraid of things that provide an immediate, palpable benefit. The problem with vaccinations is that we never really know if they’ve helped us or not. What’s more, we’re intuitively suspicious of things we perceive as artificial rather than natural. These biases have helped stoke widespread panic about childhood vaccinations, which in turn expose kids to very real risk. Continue reading Why Your Brain’s Wrong About Danger
Courage: it’s not just for heroes. Fear is an emotion we all deal with, and how we handle it is everything. How we grapple with our anxieties determines what kind of life we’ll lead — whether shackled by anxiety and dread, or empowered to conquer new challenges. Yet we spend most of our time trying to avoid fear, so we muddle along, rarely getting much better at the art of mastering it. That’s a shame, because with a little effort we can find the courage to push beyond our comfort zone and tackle new worlds.
In my book Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger — out this month in paperback — I explore the neurological underpinnings of the brain’s fear response to better understand how to take charge of this formidable emotion, shedding light on the science with stories of people who have faced terrible threats and managed to come through intact.
One of my constant themes is that our fears, left unchallenged, hedge in our lives and prevent us from becoming the fullest expressions of ourselves. But what if we go the other way entirely, and not only embrace the things we fear, but fear itself?
I recently got a note from a reader, Jason Tyne, who wrote: “Since reading your book, I continue to be fascinated by the idea of fear but at least I have some perspective on it. Recently (and inspired by your book) I took my own jump out of an airplane and it was amazing…in fact I just blogged that it was my number one recommendation for EVERYONE to do in 2011.” I followed the link to Jason’s website and found a very entertaining account of an experience very much like what I had when I jumped out of an airplane for the first time. It really is bizarre, if you’ve never done anything like this before, how an alternate personality or parallel mind seems to wake from its slumber and start wrestling with you for control of your body. As Jason puts it, “I was sane all the way up to the moment that I stepped out of an airplane at 10,000 feet; it was the very next moment that I lost my mind.” He describes his inner dialogue like this: Continue reading Why Would You Jump Out of a Perfectly Good Airplane?
Most of the mistakes that we make in life are survivable. We suffer our punishment, painful as it may be, and then move on. But there is a different category of mistake that exacts a penalty of another error. The small miscalculations, seemingly insignificant errors of judgment that can snowball into a life-threatening crisis. These mental traps can occur in all sorts of situations, but many a great majority can be lumped into just a handful of categories. Here, I’d like to consider one of the most pernicious: hanging on too long.
When a ground crew is getting ready to launch a hot-air balloon, they have to hold on to the basket to prevent it from taking flight prematurely. They grasp the edge of the basket with both hands and plant a foot on a hold near the base. Only, ever, one. The one sacred unbreakable rule of balloon ground handling is: always keep one foot on the ground.
Why?, I asked the ground handler who first revealed this wisdom to me.
How to take a really boring story about a bureaucratic procedural revision and turn it into a hot national news story? Spray on a coating of terrorism. While you’re at it, add a dash of drug-war hysteria.
Okay, to get the boring part out of the way: The Federal Aviation Administration has been wanting to update the way it registers airplanes for years. Ever since forever, plane owners only had to register their aircraft once, when they bought it, and they had to pay a nominal fee. Now the FAA wants owners to renew every couple years, like car owners do. Naturally plane owners are going to have to shell out more money. This is the way of the world.
This is not something very many people should care about, even pilots like me. The only ones who are going to get shellacked are people like Brian Boland, a balloon maker who lives in rural Vermont. He makes a lot of balloons for his own amusement; he’s got over a hundred of them, packed into bags in his loft. Every time he built a new one, he’d send the government a few bucks, and they’d issue him a registration certificate. Now, under the new rules, he’ll be on the hook for thousands of dollars just to register a bunch of balloons he hardly ever flies. He’s not a rich man; he’s going to have to cancel all those registrations. The days when he could pull out any balloon he wanted and take it for a ride are over.
A small loss in the grand scheme of things, perhaps, but what does humanity get in return, apart from increased government revenue? The latest spin is that the new registrations are going to protect us from the darkest forces on the planet.
Crazy video, via Mark Frauenfelder at Boing Boing, of Xmas shoppers trampling each other to get at Black Friday bargains at 4am.
Not a proud moment for humanity. But as I’ve written before, this kind of crowd dynamic isn’t unique to the US; in 19th century Russia 1389 people died at a coronation ceremony for Tsar Alexander II of Russia when a rumor circulated through the crowd that souvenirs were in short supply, causing people to rush forward en masse.
There’s a wonderfully insightful piece in the New York Times today by science writer Gina Kolata, who describes a cycling accident in which she ran into another rider, fell off her bike, and broke her collar bone. The injury was not crippling – she managed to ride another 90 miles that same day – but the psychological ramifications were long-lasting, as the accident made her realize how vulnerable she really was when riding a bicycle. All at once, an activity that had long given her joy became a source of fear. An important part of her life was shut off.
As I’ve written before, the two main tools that we possess to control fear are information and a sense of control. In Kolata’s case, she realized that the sense of control that she had once felt while riding her bike was illusory. Stripped of her sense of control, she was helpless against her fear. She just couldn’t get back on the bike, at least for a while.
“Control makes a big difference in whether we take risks,” [Carnegie Mellon] professor of economics] Dr. Loewenstein said. “With biking, you feel in control until you have an accident. Then all of a sudden you realize you are not in control. That can have a dramatic effect — you can shift abruptly from excessive daring to exaggerated caution.”
I’m currently working on a story for Psychology Today about why some people are mentally tougher in the face of crisis than others, and what the rest of us can learn from them. A major lesson I’ve taken away from my research is that the way we choose to think about our struggles is a critical factor in resilience. Those who bounce back easiest are those who can think of a negative outcome as a challenge rather than a defeat, and recognize in each setback an opportunity to grow and test themselves.
In Kolata’s case, she was not able to take such an upbeat stance. She had come to feel that when she was on a bicycle, something bad could happen to her at any time, and there was nothing she could do about it. Yet at the same time she continued to run, even though that activity poses an even greater risk of injury. Why? Continue reading An Accident Strikes, and the World Becomes Smaller
Once again, a stampede has turned a large celebration into a tragedy. Just four months after 21 people died at the Love Parade in Duisburg, Germany, more than 350 were killed and a similar number injured yesterday at a festival in Cambodia. The terrible irony of stampedes is that for decades engineers and sociologists have been studying how to design spaces so that crowds don’t turn deadly, yet the number of incidents only continues to grow. As I pointed out recently, there were only 24 such tragedies around the world in the 1980s; in the last decade, there have been well over 100.
Part of the problem is likely that growing affluence around the world, together with improved communication and transportation, means that it’s easier for large crowds to assemble. But another factor may be that the general public has erroneous ideas about what a stampede actually looks like, how it can turn deadly, and what one can do should one occur. Maybe if more people were aware of what a potentially dangerous situation looked like, they could take steps to defuse it. So: what does a real-life stampede look like? Continue reading Caught in a Stampede, What Would You Do?
I’ve got a post up today on the Popular Mechanics website with an interview I conducted yesterday with cryptology expert and security consultant Bruce Schneier, who since 9/11 has been one of the most pointed critics of the government’s anti-terrorism security programs. In his 2003 book Beyond Fear he coined the phrase “security theater” to refer to measures which are undertaken not because they will be effective at thwarting attacks, but because the agencies carrying them out need to appear to be doing something useful. I asked Schneier about the recent controversy involving the Transport Security Agency’s use of invasive scanners and full-body pat-downs. You can read the full interview here. Here’s the transcript: Continue reading Security Guru Bruce Schneier: "I Predicted TSA Brouhaha"
This month’s issue of Psychology Today includes my article “Stealth Superpowers,” about how the brain’s automatic fear-response systems can unleash hidden mental and physical abilities. A portion of the article is now online on the magazine’s website. The excerpt tells the story of Tom Boyle, Jr, a man who quite suddenly and unexpectedly found himself in the middle of a life-or-death drama:
“Oh God, do you see that?” his wife said.
Boyle saw it: the crumpled frame of a bike under the car’s bumper, and tangled within it a boy, trapped. That’s when Boyle got out and started running. For an agonizing eternity the Camaro screeched on, dragging the mass under it. As it slowed to a stop he could hear the bicyclist pounding on the car with his free hand, screaming. Without hesitating Boyle bent down, grabbed the bottom of the chassis, and lifted with everything he had. Slowly, the car’s frame rose a few inches. The bicyclist screamed for him to keep lifting. Boyle strained. “It’s off me!” the boy yelled. Someone pulled him free, and Boyle let the car back down.