Whether you're driving in a car, walking down the street, or merely sitting in a chair, there are about a hundred ways that life could end: instantly, slowly, ironically, stupidly, early, or even painfully. Yet despite the precariousness native to existence, most of us manage to soldier on.
Every so often, however, we get hung up on something, and our stoic composure gets tossed out the window. Topics like nuclear power, genetically-modified foods, and more recently, horse meat in food, bring out humanity's true nature, "guided by emotion rather than by reason, easily swayed by trivial details, and inadequately sensitive to differences between low and negligibly low probabilities," as psychologist Daniel Kahneman wrote. In short, we humans are flighty, irrational creatures.
In 1987, psychologist and risk perception expert Paul Slovic skillfully summarized in the journal Science how we calculate risk. In general, humans tend to be wary and apprehensive of risks that are uncontrollable, potentially fatal, possibly catastrophic, and relatively unknown. A quarter century ago, Slovic described these criteria in the context of nuclear power, and with them in mind, he predicted that genetic engineering would become controversial and frightening to the public. Slovic was certainly prophetic, particularly evidenced by today's contentious debate surrounding genetically modified food.
According to Hope College social psychologist David Myers, we also tend to fear what our evolutionary ancestors were afraid of:
Human emotions wereThe fear that Myers describes is founded in emotion, not based in evidence. With this type of fear, misappropriation of risk follows. This is predominantly fueled by what's called the availability heuristic, the human tendency to judge an event based upon the information and examples that are most easily recalled. These days, most fodder for the availability heuristic originates from the Internet or television, where sensationalism and scaremongering are rampant. As we view vivid, frightening images and read disturbing reports, our brain commits them to easily-retrieved memory.
road tested in the Stone Age. Yesterday's risks prepare us to fear
snakes, lizards, and spiders, although all three combined now kill only a
dozen Americans a year. Flying may be far safer than biking, but our
biological past predisposes us to fear confinement and heights, and