The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn't--and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger

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From terror attacks to the war on terror, real estate bubbles to the price of oil, sexual predators to poisoned food from China, our list of fears is ever-growing. And yet, we are the safest and healthiest humans in history. Irrational fear seems to be taking over, often with tragic results. For example, in the months after 9/11, when people decided to drive instead of fly?believing they were avoiding risk?road deaths rose by more than 1,500.

In this fascinating, lucid, and thoroughly entertaining examination of how humans process risk, journalist Dan Gardner had the exclusive cooperation of Paul Slovic, the world renowned risk-science pioneer, as he reveals how our hunter gatherer brains struggle to make sense of a world utterly unlike the one that made them. Filled with illuminating real world examples, interviews with experts, and fast-paced, lean storytelling, The Science of Fear shows why it is truer than ever that the worst thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Customer Reviews:

  • Great read that allows the reader to question its own perceptions
    I enjoyed this book quite a bit. It was a easy read, the text flows well and the author knows how to use statistics to reinforce his writing.

    This book makes the reader wonder about the fear that itself has and how irrational we are at times; Gardner explains the root of those fears and how we are influenced by society and the world that surrounds us.

    The author uses some economic theory in his writing but does not make it a technical book, it is very much a layman's book....more info
  • Excellent book
    This is a very good read and interesting book. I learned about how our brains really work written in a way that the layman can understand....more info
  • Well balanced. Refreshing perspective.
    "Why do we fear a proliferating number of relatively minor risks? Why do we so often shrug off greater threats? Why have we become a "culture of fear"?

    This book is one of several that I've been reading about the subject of the underlying factors of hyped risk perception, scaremongering environmentalism and the like.

    While Bjorn Lomborg's The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World still remains, for me, at the top, I believe it is a little too hard to read for the casual reader. [Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming (Vintage) is so much better in this regard!]

    Gardner's "Science of Fear" is a very well written, fresh and entertaining book. It also analyzes the concept of "unreasoning fear" and a broad set of contributing factors, including the anthropological/psychological-evolutionary basis for our pre-historic and obsolete "fear management" system, our cognitive biases and innumeracy, the media approach to newstime (mis)information and the industry of fear that surrounds us.

    The book is also enrichening and stimulates our critical thinking abilities as it explores and debunks some of the usual suspects for major media hype and junkscience marketing: crime, chemicals and terrorism.

    In effect, as the author puts it, there's never been a better time to be alive...and still, as a society, we are held at gunpoint by unjustified unreasoning fear....more info
  • Do monsters really hide under the bed?

    This is a brilliant, timely and beautifully detailed study of the hundreds of things people fear, matched with solid facts of why many of such fears are groundless.

    Gardner, a newspaper columnist himself, cites case after case of how the media generates and exaggerates many fears of our modern lives. He backs this up with numerous studies of how people respond to perceived fears, even when there is little or no danger.

    It's a telling indictment of media sensationalism, always seeking the worst possible case to attract the most readers, listeners or viewers. If any publisher wants to know why circulation is falling, this shows why people turn to new sources for better information.

    The impact reality is that anyone who cries "Shark!" day after day after day will eventually lose credibility. Stop and think for a moment about why the President, Congress and the media are trusted by only about 15 percent of Americans. But, it's about much more than the media; it's how politicians, do-gooders, flocks and others use fear to generate attention and a panic whicdh they can "solve".

    Common fears affect everyone, and Gardner explains why many should be nonexistant. For example, Gallup polls consistently report 20 percent of Americans "frequently" or "occasionally" worry about being murdered. The actual murder rate in the U.S., with one of the highest murder rates in the world, is 0.0056 percent. It means an average American is three times more likely to die in a car wreck than by murder.

    Gardner uses solid logic such as this to illustrate why most of our fears have no basis in fact. Unfortunately, it is the great weakness of the book. He has an astute knowledge of numbers, but little understanding of fear. He'd be utterly useless at comforting a small child who fears monsters under the bed.

    Why? People fear things over which they have no control. They feel in control in a car. They don't feel in control if they are the victim of a shark, a murder, a disease, a monster under the bed and many of the thousands of other random events in their lives.

    All the numbers, facts, statistics, charts and studies in the world won't comfort that small child who's afraid of monsters. The blunt fact is the child can't see in the dark, and thus feels vulnerable to monsters who can see in the dark.

    If Gardner could understand the fears of a small child, he could understand why people develop irrational fears. It shows the cynicism of the media, politicians and others who manipulate, exaggerate and use such fears for their own selfish purposes. People are afraid of things and events beyond their control.

    By all means, it's a very good book. It would have been great had Gardner understood monsters. It's the difference between a top-notch compiler of facts, and a superb columnist who understands instead of merely tallies.

    ...more info
  • Science yes, politics no
    The author rambles some, yet does present most of the material in a readable fashion. He does provide some referencing, but his index needs work. This author really needed a more aggressive editor. The lack of editorial discipline detracts from the subject, and this and Chapter 9, keeps this book from being significant. Unfortunately, in Chapter 9, the author takes sophomoric and unsubstantiated shots at the Bush administration. Read the book, but either skip Chapter 9 or realize as a lefty newspaperman without a competent editor (no shortage of these) he just could not stay with the science....more info
  • Fascinating
    Nutshell review - This is a fascinating read and provides an excellent insight into the world of fear; why we fear what we do, the mental processes driving our fears, the creation and marketing of fear, and how we may develop techniques to stop being afraid of the wrong things and start thinking clearly about serious issues. It's the science of behavioural economics as applied to fear.

    The book is very well written, easy to absorb, and entertaining but at the same time backed up by academic studies and research. The style is witty and light and manages to keep the reader's attention throughout. If you have an interest into why we fear the things we do, or perhaps think that you are not influenced by the fear mongers and are totally rational, then this will be an eye-opening journey for you.

    The last chapter or two contains some bashing of the Bush administration in respect of the "war on terror" but it is not unrelated to the central points the book is making.

    Other books that will compliment this one are Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely and The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things by Barry Glassner
    ...more info
  • Manipulating People Though Fear
    This book mainly deals with psychology as it pertains to human reaction to tragic events. In roughly the first third of the book, the author discusses important aspects of how the human mind works under various conditions - especially scary situations. He comes up with a set of simple rules that are used throughout the book to help explain how people behave when frightened by something that they don't understand very well. But the main theme of this book, and what is most disturbing, is how these fears can be used and played upon by certain groups, e.g., politicians, the media, etc., to manipulate the public in order to fulfill some hidden agenda, e.g., winning votes, selling newspapers, acquiring funding for something, etc. A great many examples of fear-inducing events are presented, including terrorism, epidemics, cancer incidence/deaths, various disasters, etc. Fortunately, all of these are put into perspective by the author in order to illustrate how the often-resulting public fear is usually completely unnecessary. The writing style is clear, fast-paced, authoritative and quite engaging. This book can be enjoyed by anyone, especially psychology and sociology buffs but also by those concerned about how the public's fears can be so skillfully and often cruelly exploited. ...more info
    This book talks about EVERYTHING but the science of fear. It documents, quotes and references EVERYTING except subjects related to the science of fear. Chapter 1 is interesting and good but goes downhill from there. My guess is that it was a great journal article that went too far and fell short of a good book. I kept reading hoping it would turn around but it never did. ...more info
  • Great for everyone, activists and change makers
    This book is very interesting and I would recommend it not only to all fearful people who have stopped enjoying life because of all their worries, but also to the activist and change maker that uses information gathered by the experts.

    Even the experts tend to misuse the statistics and numbers they read to reinforce their messages for change, and I think that the use of fear, even with the best of intentions, can create long term ill effects and mitigate one's expertise.

    This book will make you realize how society has become the victim of distorted news and is an eye opener for everyone. It will help you use more critical thinking when you listen to the gloomy and depressing news permeating our papers and TV channels, and make you challenge the information that we receive.

    Moreover, if you are an activist, or someone working for change, like I do, it'll make you wary of the stats provided even by people with the best of intentions.

    I often read that fear is a short-term trigger for action, but then will leave you in despair and depleted of hope in the long term. This book will confirm that.
    ...more info
  • And the odds are . . .?
    Dan Gardner's concerned about how we handle fear. In North America, of course, a single event, the 11 September attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon generated a new level of fear in the population. So unexpected and abrupt was use of commercial aircraft in a terrorist assault that an avoidance of flying was the immediate and widespread reaction. Gardner, however, wants to consider the event and the reaction in a more rational perspective. He notes at the outset of the book that the chance of dying in auto incidents is far higher than that of flying. As the statistics proved - since nearly 1600 additional auto deaths - about half of those lost at the World Trade Centre - were added to the annual total in the following year. Gardner taps into psychology and the field of risk assessment in this fascinating study of how we deal with fear. We aren't doing a very good job of it.

    For millions of years animals relied on quick responses for survival. Reaction to potential danger or a possible meal left no time, nor need, for reflecting. Act fast or expire. That kind of brain is now called the limbic system, or "lizard brain". Evolution granted humans a chance to build on that foundation to produce a "thinking" part of the brain. The limbic system is still in place, however, and issuing commands we are rarely aware of. Psychologists, says Gardner, call these System One and System Two. The author, in the best journalist's style, calls these The Gut and The Head. The Gut reacts to crisis situations quickly and effectively. The Head follows along later at a more deliberate pace - if it gets any voice at all.

    Gardner is eager to have us understand how these Systems work. He contends that we are carrying a reaction system founded on our ancestors' time on the African savannah. Our brains haven't adapted to the fast-paced, high technology world around us. We are reacting almost entirely with The Gut, and we are making serious mistakes as a result. Are we truly under threat from the things we claim to fear? He cites numerous cases, from the fear of "man-made" chemicals through the spectre of cancer to the possibility of our children being assaulted by strangers. Each of the topics is introduced with our given views - usually captured by polls, then carefully assessed by examining the real odds. In every case, the important things to consider almost certainly haven't been. The breast cancer campaigns have uniformly overlooked the role of age in determining the likelihood of its occurrence.

    The calculations leave little doubt that we are far too often looking at threats with little consideration of their true nature. Why are we reacting so readily with The Gut instead of with The Head? In no small part, Gardner argues, media, politicians and industry play a significant part. Media, anxious to sell its products, emphasizes the violent, the extreme and the bizarre. The result, of course, is that's what captures our attention. The bombardment of such stories, often unthinkingly repeated by politicians, is a reinforcement of The Gut's reaction to this kind of information. Never seeing a rational analysis of such news, we lose any sense of proportion about what is truly important. We rarely find the opportunity to consider an issue rationally before the next one is upon us.

    Gardner is not simply playing a new form of "scare" journalism. Various scholars have researched each of the topics. Their tests are well described and the analyses are carefully explained. These examples provide the book with a sound foundation, making this book something to consider carefully. As a conclusion, the author reminds us that we haven't taken into account the benefits our time enjoys when compared to even the recent past. Childhood diseases, such as diphtheria, have been removed as a threat to our families and society. We should remember that and remind ourselves to use The Head when events are trying to drive The Gut to dominate our thinking. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]...more info
  • A Must Read!
    This is a well-written thesis on how we make decisions in our everyday lives. The more emotionally weighted a problem is, the more likely our decision is made unconsciously, and often proves unchangeable in the face of dissenting reason. Filled with examples and anecdotes, this is the kind of thing that should be taught beginning in high school. ...more info
  • no monkeys in my family tree
    I was very intrigued by this book and enjoyed it thoroughly until I got to Chapter 2... As a Christian I am insulted by this chapter and recommend against anyone else buying it, unless you truly believe we share a line with apes and that God did not in fact create all beings. I couldn't get through ch.2 due to the amount of misleading statements and opinions stated as facts by the author. I took it back for a full refund within 2 hours of purchasing it. ...more info
  • Makes risk assessment easier to understand
    Gardner's book is both enjoyable and informative, providing a wealth of information about how humans evaluate risk. In particular, the author shows how our instincts (or "Gut") reactions to risk are often incorrect, yet we are reluctant to overrule these reactions with the more calm and reasoning "Head" side of our thinking.

    Gardner uses a vast review of research in the field of risk assessment to bolster his points, yet manages to make these scientific studies accessible to laypeople, summarizing many of the principles with names such as the Example Rule, the Anchoring Rule, and the Rule of Typical Things. He then gives a number of examples of how people are often led astray by different entities (e.g., the news media, advertising agencies, political campaigns) who use these principles to evoke unreasoning fear as a means of manipulation, the implicit message being, "Here's something that you should be afraid of, but if you'll just buy this product or elect this candidate, you'll be safe."

    I especially enjoyed the abundant statistics and discussions about the relative risk or safety of different activities (e.g., car travel vs. airline travel, heart disease vs. cancer, etc.), and how, from a historical and statistical perspective, "there's never been a better time to be alive." I would have liked for Gardner to have covered certain topics in more detail (e.g., vaccinations, climate change), but the ones he did cover in detail (e.g., terrorism, environmental chemicals, the role of the news media) were all well done.

    All in all, a fascinating and valuable book for anyone who wants to know how to better use the reasoning side of their brain to evaluate the risks we all face....more info
  • After a slow start, I could not put the book down
    This book really grew on me. It started slow -- the writing early on seemed disorganized and less than captivating. Then I got into the book, to the point where I could not put it down. Too interested in what was coming next, in looking at different examples of how fear in the Gut overwhelms thinking in the Head. Toward the end of the book, things got a bit slow again, as Gardner got repetitive. All in all, though, a very interesting read.

    The premise of The Science of Fear is simple -- fear comes from the Gut, not the Head. Sometimes the Head can overrule the Gut, sometimes not. Snakes, for example. Most people fear snakes. It has nothing to do with reason or experience. It's ingrained. Even if we try to get used to being around snakes -- which would normally work to eliminate a fear like this -- nothing we do or think can overcome the fear of snakes.

    Gardner gives lots of examples of how fear works. But he is a newspaper journalist, and the writing shows that. Despite the title, this is not a science book. And the organization is not tight. The book seems less a book and more a collection of articles. That's what kept me from giving it five stars.

    Another weakness, for me -- I had hoped that Gardner would cover a couple of topics that ended up with just a brief mention. Global warming, which seems a fear driven by Gut more than Head. And the Y2K computer bug. Talk about not being able to properly evaluate risk. Billions wasted to combat a false fear. Both topics interest me.

    Like most books, The Science of Fear could have been better. But it's still a very good book, well worth reading. I enjoyed it and learned from it. In both cases, a lot. ...more info


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