There are few things in life as unpleasant as fear. Real, gut-wrenching fear. Horror. Anxiety. Despair. Dismay. Dread. Worry.
We have taxonomies of fear, categorizations of concern, systems of aversive suspicions, and a plethora of labels giving insight into the particular nuances of nightmares. But what is fear? Generally speaking, fear is related to the perception of danger, an emotional reaction to a sensed stimuli that bodes unwell for the living, feeling organism. Barring the exceptions of stress-inducting movies and books, of creepy-crawling rushes and ecstatic jitters, which mostly end up pleasant because somewhere we know we are safe, or find out that we have escaped the danger or that the threat was entirely imagined and phantasmagoric. I am no stranger to the genres of horror and thriller, but these are safe fears. These are little fears. Just a taste. These kinds of small horrors- gulped down by our central nervous system like an acquired taste for spicy or bitter foods- are not the focus of this article. I enjoy them, and I even attempt to produce them, such as in my podcast audioplay, The Witch-Doctor, which touches on themes of xenophobia, paranoia, suspense, and supernatural horror. Instead I will be focusing on fear and it’s relation to another well-known concept: Danger.
True fear, real terror, is unenjoyable and displeasureable to most of us; and it is this way for a good reason, a primary anti-drive, an aversion meant to propel us away from potentially fatal stimuli. What fear is ideally linked to is danger. In the real world however, oftentimes fear has no relation to danger. A realistic toy gun or knife can elicit adrenal fight-or-flight just as effectively as the real ones. Pranks, spooks, and jump-scares among friends get the same processes working that lend themselves to the defense or escape of actual enemies.
But what happens when there is a disconnect cognitive in a person, in which they do not understand that the emotion of fear is not one-to-one identical with ‘danger’? Well, lets look at an example from the workforce in the United States, and peruse the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s Census of Fatal Occupation Injuries.
In 2010, drivers/sales workers and truck drivers had fatal injuries at about the rate of 21-per-100,000.
Refuse and recyclables collectors at about 29-per-100,000. Roofers at about the rate of 32-per-100,000.
Farmers/ranchers at about the rate of 41-per-100,000.
Loggers, 91-per-100,000, and fishers at about 116-per-100,000.
Oh, and police patrol officers at about 19-per-100,000. *
(*In 2015- the most recent update on the BLS website- I was able to find plenty of information on the increase of fatal injuries to fishers, construction workers and residential military. But no information on police officer on-the-job fatalities.)
Wait, what? Yeah. That’s right. If you didn’t already know, police officers have less risky jobs compared to vast swathes of working Americans. So why is it seen as such a dangerous job, put up on pedestal? (You know, other than to milk egos and give societal psycho-fellatio to those higher up on the hierarchy than most of us.)
Well, for one, there is a perception of danger on the part of police officers. I’m not even going to go into the statistics on how violent crime has been trending downward steadily since quite a long time, hitting nearly historical lows over and over again. This is an article about fear, and the disconnect of fear from danger. More importantly than how police officers do or do not feel, is that many people are ready and willing to give allowances to them to act violently towards civilians based on that fear, even though the numbers show that this fear is ultimately disconnected to reality.
Or even more importantly, let us look into some of the other jobs with higher risk of workplace fatal injury. I can help us out personally here, because I spent nearly a decade as a construction worker.
In the construction field, especially in low-regulated areas where OSHA never checks in (and there are many, many areas like that) there is a general culture of machismo and of fearlessness; if you try to claim you are too scared to do something, or that it is too dangerous, someone else will do it.
And if someone else does it, that means you’ve shifted what work has been allocated to you by the guy in charge to someone else, effectively reducing your value to the company you work for. Not just that, but it becomes a “shared-load” kind of atmosphere in which everyone does dangerous stuff sometimes, the danger is spread out and not usually (at least not where I worked) put onto the shoulders of only one person. Even if it was, and a person martyred themselves day in and day out by assuming the risk of certain hazardous jobs, the guilt and pressure this puts on everyone else is hard to deal with, something I also know personally.
But the most striking thing is that by-and-large, very few construction workers on unregulated and uninspected jobs seem to have any fear towards the hazards present. I’ve discussed this with a handful of them over the years, and it pretty much usually boils down to the same thing; they’re not worried about it. They are worried about others things, ranging from bills, to disease, to their car breaking down, immigrants, Muslims, and so forth. Many are downright terrified of the Illuminati or were anxious about the impending Obama-Is-Gonna-Take-My-Guns brigades.
What they weren’t afraid of was workplace related injuries. You can chalk that up to repression, hiding their true feelings; I’m not too convinced, most of the people I would bring the topic up with seemed shocked that I’d even ask them about it, and even more perplexed that I could possibly be concerned with it. People told me I thought too much and needed to get out of my head.
Some of these same people told me to my face that it is understandable that a police officer shoot an unarmed man who twitches too scarily. They could empathize with being scared as a police officer, and make allowances for the cops adrenaline fueled violence, but not the adrenaline fueled civilians moving in a way deemed threatening, ranging from being herky-jerky to shifting position in just the wrong way, to turning in an ‘unacceptable’ manner.
They were not afraid of their own, far more likely risks.
I started to pay attention to what people were afraid of and would check up on how likely (to the best of our knowledge) these things were to occur, and I would compare them to the very common dangers that many people seemed to be completely unfazed by.
Take driving for example. In 2015, there were 35,092 Americans killed in automobile accidents. Contrast this with American deaths due to terrorism on U.S. soil; in the years between 2005-2015, a total of 71 deaths.
You could make the argument that many people have to drive for a variety of reasons; to get to work, to buy food, to pick up their kids, and so forth. You could try to claim that this necessity is what compels people to get into a vehicle and head out, and you wouldn’t be wrong. However, I don’t think it’s some sort of repression of fear but rather a misjudgment, a miscalculation of exactly what is most deserved of your fear (in the sense that fear is a visceral, aversive drive to compel you out of danger).
While fear may be an emotion, our judgments are what you would call ‘cognitive’, or ‘intellectual’. We ‘feel’ afraid, but we ‘think’ such-and-such is dangerous. Because the ‘danger judgment’ is cognitive we are intrinsically at risk of garbage-in-garbage-out situations (bad information, manipulation, misrepresentation, hyperfocus), the victims of our own unconscious cognitive biases and internal or external fallacies.
This will be more important later, but for clarification here are two working definitions:
“A cognitive bias refers to the systematic pattern of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment, whereby inferences about other people and situations may be drawn in an illogical fashion.”
“In using reasoning as support for a claim in an argument, a fallacy is reasoning that is evaluated as logically incorrect, which undermines an argument’s logical validity and leads to a recognition of an argument being unsound.”
We could talk about how suicide is- according to the CDC’s 2014 statistics– is the eighth leading cause of death in the United states. This isn’t a diatribe against firearms, but the fact of the matter is that according to the CDC, a person is more likely to commit suicide with a firearm than to get shot by someone else intentionally. Suicides by firearm in 2014 amounted to 21,334 American citizens; homicides utilizing firearms totaled at 10,945. A person is nearly two times as likely to commit suicide with a firearm than be shot.
Heart disease kills more Americans every year than anything else; in 2015 it totaled 591,699 citizens; and odds are this year won’t be any different in terms of ranking. All this while people are holding rallies about the dangers of allowing refugees into the country, complaining about the “ludicrous” idea that health care is a human right, and simultaneously trying to take the moral high ground by posturing as “the ones who really care about protecting American citizens”.
Some things are scarier to more people than other things (generally speaking), and that’s a fact. But we run the risk of an utter disconnect between fear and danger that can only inevitably manifest itself as behavior and beliefs so utterly delusional that if ONLY this fear allocation was taken into consideration, used to weigh the merit of our beliefs against us, we would be found not just wanting but horrifyingly paranoid, as if we were trapped within a nightmare world of our own design.
Now, if that wasn’t bad enough, there are people who are actively trying to use your own innate cognitive biases against you. I touched on the subject briefly above, but it’s worth noting that putting people into a state of fear so as to manipulate them into acting a certain way is a time-honored tradition of humanity. We all have cognitive biases; part of what makes them so pervasive is that they are unconscious.
We don’t really make a decision to have a cognitive bias, it’s not something that is perceptible (not in the same way as say, throwing a chair across the room), and it’s not something that is conscious. There are people who have great incentive, resources and knowledge of the latent cognitive biases in people, and they have no qualms about using fear to compel you to act in a way that benefits them, and not you. The worst part? You’ll probably think it was your own idea, your own behavior, your own judgment.
Which is of course the point. You can’t just tell people (especially Americans) what to do or what to be afraid of; they’ll tell you to go fuck yourself. But you can emotionally and psychologically manipulate them into doing what you want, as shown by numerous parties and groups all around the country. They do it because it works, and our ignorance of real world dangers and of our own innate, unconscious mental fuck-ups ensures it will keep working.
Hell, the manipulated won’t even end up blaming the manipulators, if everything stemming from their 100% intentional, fear-induced cajoling goes bad. Why? Because they don’t believe it has come from an outside source, but rather is a rational, internal decision that they’ve come up with all on their own without any help from anybody else. They feel that they have looked at all the facts and come to the only logical conclusion.
When a person only sees the smallest of slices of events in the world, and this through any specific outlet (be it blog, podcast, television channel, etc) the entirety of their information on these events is filtered through the careful wording and arrangement, the focuses and valuation of relevance of whomever owns or creates the media through which they are getting such information.
I’d like to write more on the relation between cognitive biases and manipulation, but that is not the focus of this article. Those will have to wait.
Suffice to say, danger is counter-intuitive. Fear perhaps one of the most intuitive things we can experience. Sometimes, intuition is wrong.
And according to most of the numbers, it’s what we aren’t afraid of that gets us in the end.