This article was originally published on March 2nd, 2009. Unfortunately, fear hasn’t disappeared in the last 5 years…
We all understand fear. Even if we can’t clinically explain what fear is, we could tell someone what makes us afraid – and we could come up with that list quickly. It would be easy to explain how it affects us physically and emotionally. But what really causes fear, and why does it seem that when we are safer than ever we are more afraid than ever?
Based on the title, I was expecting the Science of Fear to examine the inner workings of the mind – the neurobiology and physiology in the brain. What I got was something quite different, but equally as valuable. Daniel Gardner synthesizes the current research on how humans make decisions and analyze risk to create a picture of how we judge the threats in our lives. What he found is that not only are we biologically inclined to gravitate towards fear, but that there are a lot of people and organizations that use that inclination to influence our decisions.
The human brain is wired by evolution in a way that makes us unconsciously susceptible to fear in our decision-making, which often leads us to make inaccurate risk assessments in our personal lives and as a society.
Implications, Ideas, and Questions:
- I think the most valuable idea that Daniel champions is the idea of our two distinct thinking “programs”, which he calls the Head and the Gut. This distinction echoes what Malcolm Gladwell examines in Blink. The idea that we are not rational decision-makers obviously has a lot of ramifications for business owners. It’s especially interesting to look at how to successfully market when you realize that people aren’t going to make purchasing decisions in a rational manner, but rather at a subconscious, emotional level.
- This made me realize the truth behind the sales adage, “People buy emotionally, but they rationalize logically later.” At its basic level, it means that we make our purchasing decisions with our Gut, and only later use our Head to justify our decisions. It shows why the distinction between features and benefits is so important.
- Heuristics are the name for the shortcuts that the brain uses in decision-making. It would be beyond the scope of this review to go through all of them, but Daniel does a great job in the book of describing how they work and how they compound with each other to skew our decisions when it comes to things that we fear. More on heuristics on Wikipedia.
- For the second half of the book, a more accurate title would be “The Math of Fear”. Daniel notes that when groups that have a vested interest in creating fear (the media, corporations who are marketing something, politicians) use numbers, they tend to misrepresent them, especially when using statistics. He cites countless examples of organizations misusing statistical information to explicitly increase people’s fear. The joke, “40% of all statistics are made up” isn’t a joke when people manipulate numbers in an attempt to manipulate others. It makes me realize that every time I see a statistic somewhere I have to approach it with a degree of skepticism and to always take the source into account.
- “So why is it that so many of the safest humans in history are scared of their own shadows. There are three basic components at work: the brain, the media, and the many individuals and organizations with an interest in stoking fears. Wire these three components together in a loop and we have the circuitry of fear.” (pg 294)
Should you read this book?
Yep. In a society that is saturated by people telling you to be afraid, it’s important to understand why we are so susceptible to their fear-mongering. Fear won’t go away, but it’s important to put it in its proper place. As Daniel concludes: only by learning how to “think hard” can we protect ourselves from “unreasoning fear. (pg 296)