Irrational Fear

We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.
– Seneca the Elder

It was interesting to read in the paper the other day that there was some reputable research and loads of anecdotal evidence to suggest outdoor adventure programs are very beneficial to our adolescents. They have however been largely removed as an option from our schools because of the fear of injury (or worse) which could possibly befall participants. And occasionally a young person does get hurt, and unfortunately (but very rarely) killed in such pursuits. As a result schools are shying away from such programs.

In a previous blog essay I decried how our playgrounds are being unduly sanitized as a result of such fear. We are concerned children will fall from the slippery slides, the swings or the monkey bars.

We are becoming increasingly risk averse and I believe that as a society we are the worse for it.

In reality serious injuries from such activities are quite rare. A 2009 report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found the most common cause of child death are traffic accidents, drowning and assault. The most common cause of injuries were, falls, road accidents, poisoning, burns and scalds, and assault. And while the number of falls is high the severity is usually not. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics 93% of falls were of a metre or less, such as falling off chairs or out of bed.

We make decisions on behalf of our children ostensibly to keep them from harm. The dilemma is twofold. Firstly we often make ill-informed decisions about the risk we are exposing them to, and normally as protective parents unwittingly exaggerating it. Secondly our natural desire to cloister our children from all possible harm ill-equips them for the real world where we are all exposed to the risks of living.

Tim Gill is a British childhood play expert and author of the book “No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk Averse Society”. He writes:

“Although there is a widely held view that children grow up faster today, in fact their lives are far more controlled than they were thirty years ago. In this shrinking domain of childhood, our tendency to always view children as fragile means we are not encouraging them to develop their natural resilience – learning to manage risk in an age-appropriate way. This is not an unconditional plea for the deregulation of childhood: children want adults to help them stay safe, and of course we must accept that responsibility. But rather than having a nanny state, where risk aversion dominates the landscape, we should be aspiring to a child-friendly society, where communities look out for each other and for children”
It is not my intention in this essay to promote the issue of over-protectiveness of our children, although I continue to see more and more such examples, because I have previously made the case as well as I could.. I was really wanting to show how fear distorts our perceptions of the world and often causes us to make irrational decisions. As the good Dr Phil reminds me, fear has both positive and negative connotations. Some fear helps preserve us, physically. It is appropriate that we should be afraid of speeding motor vehicles or exposed electrical terminals. They can easily kill us and their avoidance is sensible. But some of our fears our instinctual and imprinted into our “old brain” from the extensive experiences of our hunter gatherer forebears. Our instinctual fears of snakes and spiders saves few people in modern society even though they were once most appropriate. (And of course much of our fear is not related to our physical preservation but to the propping up of fragile egos!)

But often our fears about our physical safety are ill-informed (as I tried to show above.).

In a previous blog essay (“Terror and Traffic”) I showed how the irrational fear of flying after the September 2001 attack on the Twin Towers drove many Americans to forsake flying for driving and as a result probably caused more deaths in motor accidents than the original horrific terrorist event caused.

After the Twin Towers attack the American Government launched its “War on Terror”. This was an example of a knee-jerk reaction to irrational fear. We became inordinately afraid of attacks instigated by international terrorist organisations. The US Government considered this attack on its citizens was such an affront and that the likelihood of similar attacks was such that the country should proactively seek out and destroy those whom it believed were the perpetrators of this atrocity.

Its zeal to show that the death of American citizens would be countered with appropriate revenge on these Muslim fundamentalist miscreants resulted in first an all out assault on Iraq and latterly a major intervention into Afghanistan. After these costly efforts (costly in terms of trillions of dollars expenditure and the loss of thousands of lives) I wonder if anybody really feels safer. In the process we have alienated most of the Muslim world, killed thousands of innocent civilians and diverted considerable resources that could have been invested in far more productive ways to enhance the well-being of people. It is not hard to make the case that many more of our citizens’ lives would have been saved if the money spent on the War on Terror had been spent on improving our roads, bolstering our public health system or investing in cancer research.

Our irrational fears are remorselessly played upon by the media because as is well-known “fear sells”. The dramatic events of the Twin Tower suicide mission were etched in our minds by the media coverage. Our increased fear and sense of affront prepared fertile ground for our politicians and opinion leaders to exploit.

Most of us are far more likely to be killed crossing the road somewhere than by a terrorist attack initiated by Al Qaida, the Taliban or any overseas terrorist group. (In juxtaposition US citizens are killing each other with guns at the rate of 81/day on average! Interestingly, despite the American gun lobby arguing that gun ownership should be allowed for the purpose of self-defence, gun owners are statistically more likely to be shot than those who don’t own guns.)

Let us return for a moment to the subject of terrorism. There is no doubt that the prospect of terrorism being a problem in advanced countries has been greatly exaggerated. In fact the head of ASIO, David Irvine, has warned that “terror threats (in the future) most likely would come from home grown extremists with few if any links to international terror organisations.” The dreadful massacre of young people by Anders Behring Breivik, a lone deranged gunman, in Norway with no apparent connections with terrorist organisations seems to indicate the validity of his statement.

If we ponder awhile about our irrational fears, we come to understand that underpinning them is an impossible ideal. We have in our minds a world where nothing is left to chance, no accidents happen, and all risks can be avoided. Yet we know in our heart of hearts that such an ideal is unattainable. Reducing risk always comes at a cost. In order to make reasonable decisions we need to have an informed view of the risk, and an informed view of the cost. This seldom happens. In the emotional aftermath of such events as the attack on the Twin Towers most often the risks are exaggerated and as a result the costs will normally seem reasonable. If my child falls from the monkey bar and breaks her arm then the risk seems very high (irrespective of the fact that there has been no other accident of consequence in the playground for the last ten years.) We are ill-equipped to make reasonable decisions in the face of such emotional responses. As a result of 3,000 people (remember less than forty days worth of their own gun related murders) losing their lives in the attack on the Twin Towers tens of thousands of people have been killed in the War on Terror. As a result of my child fracturing her arm and the council closing down the park in fear of litigation, thousands of children have been deprived of a pleasant outdoor experience.

There is of course a deeper philosophical lesson here. Our efforts to be able to insulate ourselves impregnably from suffering flies in the face of our knowledge of the human condition.
M. Scott Peck in his little classic, “The Road Less Travelled” wrote:
“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”
In similar vein Buddhism is based on the “Four Noble Truths”, the first of which asserts that:
“Life means suffering.”
The “Four Noble Truths” then go on to show how suffering might be ameliorated. But despite all our efforts through legislation, the application of workplace health and safety initiatives, wars against terrorism and so on we cannot avoid confronting suffering in our lives. The question to ask is, at the margin (sorry this is probably my economics training surfacing here) is the cost of abatement greater than the utility it provides.
This is a good lesson. Many of our fears are irrational but it is also irrational to expect to live a life without fear because suffering is an innate part of the human condition. We cannot avoid it, but it is how we deal with it that makes the difference.

8 Replies to “Irrational Fear”

  1. Compelling reading as always, thank you Ted. Your closing comments remind me of that valuable teaching that goes something like “life is 10 per cent what happens to you and 90 per cent the way you respond”.

    1. Wonderful commentary Mark. I sometimes think that you should be writing the blogs and I should be commenting!

  2. Health and Safety in society is no longer a rational topic to be discussed in any logical fashion. It is now akin to a religion. You can not question the faith. It is simply unacceptable and you can be disadvantaged simply by mentioning a counterview. Society is striving for a risk free, 100% safe world. It is possible and we will achieve it and anyone who questions that needs to be counselled. A shame no one even considers the cost on quality of life. I take that back. Thanks for raising the topic Ted.

    Can’t not mention one other observation. The zero risk and health and safety belief system attracts people with a belief based personality. Those folk who have unshakeable beliefs even under the pressure of irrefutable evidence. Trying to argue logically is an energy wasting exercise in this environment. The argument generally goes something like… so 1 in 10,000 children will have a serious injury on this slippery slide, which child will you choose for this? Anyone who questions is labelled a monster.

  3. If one considers for a moment that fear and suffering must exist in one form or another – for without it how would one calibrate a sense of joy, the pursuit by society to attribute and punish one party’s guilt for the suffering of another seems to be a proposition of diminishing returns for every one except law makers and law interpreters.

    It seems then that apportioning the problem out to others doesn’t solve a thing about how we deal with issues or respond to the world.

  4. Thank you also Greg and Andrew. Good to hear from you again, Andrew – you’ve been quiet for some time!

    Greg, we have discussed the problems that organisations bring on themselves with respect to safety and compliance issues. The cost/benefit equation is very seldom objectively assessed.

    And Andrew you comment about the dysfunction of our society in always wanting to impugn guilt is absolutely spot on!

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