The Science of Fear

I picked up Daniel Gardner’s The Science of Fear the other day and read it. It’s a pretty good popular-audience summary of a certain body of psychology research dealing with risk perception, organized by typical fear foci (terrorism, disease, accidents, crime, etc). As usual, I read it as a rhetorician and found much that was interesting. The misleading nature of statistics, sourced or unsourced, is not surprising, and likewise the numerous kinds of appeals to fear and other emotions; I was unfamiliar, however, with much of the research on the nature of gut instinct, save a few concepts like confirmation bias, gambler’s fallacy, etc.

Rhetorical studies tend to focus more on technique, context, and effect, and much less on the psychological/physiological mechanisms that enable them. Ergo, my interest in these things.

(addendum) I should note that the chapter on violence falls flat occasionally. Gardner insists that we live in the most peaceful period of human history. The veterans and survivors of WWI (over 35 million dead) and WWII (over 50 million dead), as well as the Civil War and the Crimean war among other 19th century conflicts, would disagree. Anyone who lived in the 50s through the 80s, I should also mention, lived under the perpetual, and quite real, threat of nuclear war. In the 19th century and before, no country had the power to potentially destroy all of human civilization in a manner of hours. That threat has lessened since the fall of the USSR, but it still remains. It’s easy to forget that the scale of violence has changed even as peace and stability is more widespread.

Also, he is way off base in his critique of television violence. He is hostile to Dexter, for example, in a way that suggests he’s never seen it and is unfamiliar with how it repeatedly treats the ethical consequences of killing someone. There’s a obvious reason for the widespread presence of violence on TV that he never mentions; it sells, just like sex. Humanity’s appetite for dramatic violence, and in particular for simulated vendetta, is near limitless. And I vastly prefer it to the real thing. Does it desensitize? Sure. But we live in the most peaceful society in history, apparently… you can’t have it both ways.

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