Sunday, August 10, 2008

Fear: the great motivator

Journalist Daniel Gardner has a new book out called The Science of Fear: Why We Fear Things We Shouldn't and Put Ourselves at Greater Danger. I haven't read it, but I've heard him interviewed on a couple of NPR shows, and I find his hypothesis very interesting and his examples spot on.

For instance, in recent weeks in California there have been a couple of apparently false reports of attacks by mountain lions on hikers. One man said he was attacked in Palo Alto, but police and federal trackers could find no sign of a big cat on the man or in the area where he said the attack took place. This from the San Jose Mercury-News:

Interviewed by police to see whether he might have fabricated his account, the unidentified 50-year-old Portola Valley man "stuck with his story," said Palo Alto police Agent Dan Ryan, suggesting that "if it wasn't a mountain lion it was perhaps a dog."
Easy mistake to make. But the point is this: because this guy, who apparently had some reason to need an unassailable excuse for not being somewhere he was supposed to be, came down from the hills screaming "mountain lion," a public saftey effort that cost thousands of dollars was launched and hikers were kept out of the public park where the attack was said to have taken place.

Another rocket surgeon, this one from Orange County, fabricated a story about being "scratched" by a mother lion when he tried to pat one of her cubs. Here's the story from the LA Times.

Scratched. On the arm. Right. That's what an angry lioness will do to defend her cubs. Hookay.

First of all, let me say that the human genome would probably be better off without people who think they should play with mountain lion cubs. But, since that's apparently not what happened here, it's beside the point. Again, a massive public safety effort was launched, the park was closed, and a nearby elementary school was locked down.

(Thanks to Luisa at Lassie, Get Help for calling my attention to these two anecdotes.)

Fear of attack by other top-level predators is probably one of the most visceral fears that humans have. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! The fact that there have been just 16 cougar attacks in California in the last 118 years -- or about one person attacked every 7 and a half years out of a population of 36.5 million -- does nothing to alleviate that fear. It's programmed into us on the genetic level. When we lived as hunter-gatherers, those of us who feared lions, tigers, and bears lived to reproduce. Those of us who didn't fear them, well, there are fewer of us who can trace our ancestry to that kind of person.

But there's a multiplier effect. Human beings are social. We tell stories. We don't have to see our friends be eaten be eaten by a mountain lion to know that we should avoid them. We just have to hear a story from one of the elders of our band about someone who got eaten -- even if it happened two or three generations ago -- to know that we should avoid places where big cats rule. Societies that respected the danger of top-level predators tended to be more successful than those that didn't.

Gardner makes the point that the media has supplanted the role of the band's elders as story tellers. But because of the fact that newspapers have to publish every day, and they can't tell the same story over and over again, we get a false impression of what is dangerous. His example was child abduction by strangers.

When such an abduction takes place, it's big news. It is big news precisely because it is rare and scary. The fact that it is big news means that people talk about it. It becomes part of the tribal lore, and people alter their behavior to avoid this risk.

How do they alter their behavior? The don't let their children ride the bus to school (or heaven forbid, walk). Children are told to stay indoors. They are supervised at all times. All activities are structured, vetted, and safe. Children are told not to talk to strangers.

Now, there is no question that stranger abduction is a real danger. But all of the things that parents do to protect their children also carry risks -- risks that are much greater than the risk they are avoiding. Children are 26 times more likely to die in a car crash than they are to be abducted by a stranger. Every ride in a car carries that danger. Children are kept indoors, where they play video games and are generally inactive. Lo and behold, we have an epidemic of childhood obesity, carrying with it health risks that will substantially shorten the lives of the children who are affected. (In 30 years, it will be normal for a 30 year old to be a type II diabetic. Think about that.)

It is the nature of journalism to report the unusual: man bites dog. Sure, car crashes in which children die will get some space in the news pages. But stories about long term threats such as obesity and lack of risk judgment aren't exactly front-page, above-the-fold material.

Lack of unstructured, unsupervised play prevents children from developing the ability to evaluate risk. In pre-stranger-danger childhoods, children's ability to hurt themselves was limited primarily by their own strength and ingenuity. As children grew up and became more dangerous to themselves, they also developed the ability to assess risk and determine whether they could do something safely or not. They developed an understanding of risk as they became stronger and smarter. Nowadays, because children aren't allowed to do anything that might be dangerous, they don't understand how to take risks. So perhaps the first time they have the opportunity to do something without adult supervision is when they are 16 years old -- as strong as an adult, but without the judgment -- and we give them a driver's license, a three-ton hunk of metal with a 200-HP engine and a loud sound system. And we're surprised when they engage in risky behavior. We thought we taught them so well.

Being eaten by a mountain lion would sure screw up your day. No question about that. But for the one in 274 million chance that Californians face of meeting this grim fate, do we really need to unleash the power of the Federal Government? Do the taxes that I pay, here in New Hampshire where the very existence of cougars is doubtful, really need to support a tracker to go looking for a "rogue cat" that someone apparently made up in a fit of delusion or out of a need to explain an absence? Should we clear out the parks? Do children really need to be locked into their school? Or would we be better off sending them outside to burn off some of the deep-fried chicken fingers and chocolate milk we served them for lunch?

One of the things that I really liked about the Waldorf school my stepkids attended was that they went outside to play every day, no matter what the weather: rain, snow, biting cold. Outside play was part of the school day. They were expected to dress appropriately -- and of course mountain lion attacks weren't really a consideration in western Massachusetts. Now, I can't claim that there are no obese kids in that school, or that the socio-economic demographics of a private elementary school wouldn't tend to limit childhood obesity. (If you want to tie your brain up in knots, think on this one: in the US, the child of a poor family is more likely to be obese than the child of a wealthy one.) But it is a step in the right direction.

And that's what we need here. Baby steps back toward rational decision making. Let's hope Dan Gardner's book points a few folks in the right direction.

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