There’s a mad logic to fear. From one angle, fear makes sense. It warns us of possible harm or danger; that’s why fire is scary, and also bears, heights, and creepy strangers. But, from the opposite angle, fear is madness. That’s because the things we fear most are often the least likely to happen. However, we’re often not afraid of things that are the most dangerous for us.
In a study conducted at Chapman University, 1,500 adults from all walks of life unveiled their greatest fears. Those polled placed their fears into four categories: personal fears, crime, natural disasters, and fear factors.
According to the Chapman University study, our number one fear is walking alone at night. The second greatest fear is becoming the victim of identity theft. Internet safety qualifies as the third greatest fear, followed by fear of being the victim of a mass shooting. And the last of the top-five greatest fears reported in this study is that of public speaking.
Whereas some of the top fears are harmful enough to justify feeling afraid, not many are dangerous enough to be life-threatening. The threats that are most lethal, however, don’t appear on the list.
None of the leading causes of death is among the most-feared. Statistically, sickness and disease pose the greatest threat to our lives; heart disease and cancer are the two leading causes of death. Accidents kill significantly more people than gun violence. On average, there are 16.4 mass shootings per year in America, killing an average of 52 people in total. Motor vehicle accidents, on the other hand, kill over 30,000 people a year.
Influenza is even more dangerous. Influenza and pneumonia cause over 56,000 deaths a year.
But who’s afraid of texting while driving, which increases the likelihood of being in an accident? Who’s afraid of eating too much and exercising too little (a risk factor for heart disease and diabetes)? How much fear surrounds influenza? If the logic of fear actually worked in a conventional way, a greasy hamburger would be just as scary as a serial killer seen on TV.
It’s time to rework this strange logic of fear that makes us scared of the things that are least likely to harm us. In the dark room of popular fears, a report by the National Safety Council sheds some light on our misguided fright.
“[We] often worry about the wrong things,” the report said, “like being killed in a plane crash or struck by lightning, but in our lifetime, we’re far more likely to be killed by things we do every day – or things that we don’t even think about.”
According to the National Safety Council, we face chances of one in 358 of being assaulted with a firearm. But the likelihood of being killed through unintentional poisoning – an overdose of alcohol, for example – is one in 109, three times greater. The odds are greater for dying by legal execution than by being struck by lightning or by being bitten by a dog.
Flying makes many people nervous, and after 9-11, our fear of flying spiked. But we actually stand a one in 96,566 chance of dying in a plane crash. Back on land, and in the driver’s seat, we answer the phone while zipping down the highway and send text messages while sitting at stop signs, oblivious to our one in 112 chances of dying in a motor vehicle crash.
It’s time to match our fears with likely threats. Or, even better, it’s time to prepare for more likely threats in a more intelligent manner. Fear alone tends to freeze up decision-making ability and foster paranoia. But gaining an understanding of what should really cause fear, and then taking wise action will help us in cases of real danger.
Even though many people are afraid of natural disasters – over one-third of adults report being afraid of earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, and pandemics – relatively few people keep an emergency kit ready at home. Chapman University researcher Christopher Bader notes, “Despite a lot of fear, there is very little preparation.”
PrepareAThon presents an opportunity to respond to fear with practical solutions, by teaching how to prepare for natural disasters, including how to develop a communications plan and how to ensure that you’ll have enough food and water.
Unreasonable fear brings negative effects for society, but these effects can be avoided by choosing smart thinking over believing in myths. Dr. Bader found that his students were afraid of helping someone stranded on the side of the road, in case that person turned out to be a serial killer. But serial killings are extremely rare, and our fears result in a less-connected and supportive society. Most people believe that abductions and violent crimes have increased over the past 20 years, but in fact, the opposite is true; there have been fewer abductions and violent crimes. Yet fear causes people to avoid public places, such as parks. Consequently, these places are deserted, which causes them to become more dangerous.
Beyond damaging the bonds of society, fear also increases stress and anxiety, making people less healthy, more prone to illness, and less productive.
Fear makes sense when it matches a specific threat and helps us respond quickly, avoiding danger. Fears rooted in the darkness of ignorance and based on overblown and imaginary scenarios result in high-voltage freak-outs, and shut out clarity and light.
“What Are the Odds of Dying From…” National Safety Council. http://www.nsc.org/learn/safety-knowledge/Pages/injury-facts-chart.aspx
“What Americans Fear Most.” Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. October 21, 2014. https://blogs.chapman.edu/wilkinson/2014/10/21/what-americans-fear-the-most/
Dahl, Melissa. “The 5 Things Americans Fear Most.” New York Magazine. October 27, 2014. http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2014/10/5-things-americans-fear-the-most.html
Khazan, Olga. “The Psychology of Irrational Fear.” The Atlantic. October 31, 2014. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/10/the-psychology-of-irrational-fear/382080/
North, Anna. “What Are You Afraid Of?” The New York Times. October 22, 2014. http://op-talk.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/10/22/what-are-you-afraid-of/?_r=0