The New York Times on the WebRational and Irrational Fears Combine in Terrorism's Wake
October 2, 2001
By ERICA GOODE
The familiar became strange, the ordinary perilous.
On Sept. 11, Americans entered a new and frightening geography, where the continents of safety and danger seemed forever shifted.
Is it safe to fly? Will terrorists wage germ warfare? Where is the line between reasonable precaution and panic?
Jittery, uncertain and assuming the worst, many people have answered these questions by forswearing air travel, purchasing gas masks and radiation detectors, placing frantic calls to pediatricians demanding vaccinations against exotic diseases or rushing out to fill prescriptions for Cipro, an antibiotic most experts consider an unnecessary defense against anthrax.
Psychologists who study how people perceive potential hazards say such responses are not surprising, given the intense emotions inspired by the terrorist attacks.
"People are particularly vulnerable to this sort of thing when they're in a state of high anxiety, fear for their own well-being and have a great deal of uncertainty about the future," said Dr. Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard.
"We don't like that feeling," Dr. Gilbert said. "We want to do something about it. And, at the moment, there isn't anything particular we can do, so we buy a gas mask and put an American decal on our car and take trains instead of airplanes."
But, he added, "I'll be very surprised if five years from now even one life was saved by these efforts."
Still, many psychologists said avoiding flying might be perfectly reasonable if someone is going to spend the entire flight in white-knuckled terror. And though experts say gas masks will offer dubious protection in a chemical attack, if buying them helps calm people down, it can do no harm.
"The feelings may be irrational, but once you have the feelings, the behavior is perfectly rational," said Dr. George Lowenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. "It doesn't make sense to take a risk just because it's rational if it's going to make you miserable. The rational thing is to do what makes you comfortable."
The public's fears may be heightened, he and other experts said, by the sense that the government failed to predict or prevent the Sept. 11 attacks, making people less trusting of the reassurances offered by the authorities, who have said that biological attacks are unlikely and, with vastly heightened security, air travel is safe.
Checkpoints on highways, closed parking structures at airports, flyovers by military aircraft and other security measures, they added, while reassuring many people, may for others increase anxiety by providing a constant reminder of danger.
In fact, the threats now uppermost in many people's minds, Dr. Lowenstein and other psychologists said, are examples of the kinds of risks that people find most frightening.
"All the buttons are being pushed here," said Dr. Paul Slovic, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and the author of "The Perception of Risk." Threats posed by terrorism, he said, "are horrific to contemplate, seem relatively uncontrollable and are catastrophic."
He and other researchers have found that risks that evoke vivid images, that are seen as involuntary, that are unfamiliar or that kill many people at once are often perceived as more threatening than risks that are voluntary, familiar and less extreme in their effects. For example, in studies, people rank threats like plane crashes and nuclear accidents higher than dangers like smoking or car accidents, which actually cause many more deaths each year.
This fact is a source of endless frustration to some scientists, who cannot understand why people panic over almost undetectable quantities of pesticides on vegetables but happily devour charcoal-broiled hamburgers and steaks, which contain known carcinogens formed in grilling. And, when asked to rank the relative dangers of a variety of potential hazards, scientific experts routinely give lower ratings to things like nuclear power and pesticides than do laypeople, researchers have found.
"Everything in some sense is dangerous, in some concentration and some place, and usually not in others," said Dr. James Collman, a chemistry professor at Stanford and the author of "Naturally Dangerous: Surprising Facts About Food, Health and the Environment."
He said his daughter called him after the terrorist attacks to ask if she should buy a gas mask.
"I told her not to panic," he said. "I thought it was sort of statistically a silly thing to do, and were there ever any toxic gases out there, whatever mask she had might or might not be effective anyway."
Yet psychologists say the average person's responses make sense if one realizes that human beings are not the cool, rational evaluators that economists and other social scientists once assumed them to be.
Rather, the human brain reacts to danger through the activation of two systems, one an instant, emotional response, the other a higher level, more deliberate reaction.
The emotional response to risk, Dr. Lowenstein said, is deeply rooted in evolution and shared with most other animals. But rationality - including the ability to base decisions about risk on statistical likelihood - is unique to humans.
Yet the two responses, he said, often come into conflict, "just as the experts clash with the laypeople."
"People often even within themselves don't believe that a risk is objectively that great, and yet they have feelings that contradict their cognitive evaluations," Dr. Lowenstein said.
For example, he said, "The objective risk of driving for four or five hours at high speeds still has got to be way higher than the risk of flying."
Yet Dr. Lowenstein added that a group of his colleagues, all academic experts on risk assessment, chose to drive rather than fly to a conference after the terrorist attacks.
"If you ask them which is objectively more dangerous, they would probably say that driving is," Dr. Lowenstein said. And though his colleagues cited potential airport delays, he said he suspected fear might also have played into their decision.
President Bush and other policy makers in Washington, Dr. Lowenstein said, must contend with a similar struggle between reason and emotion in shaping their response to the attacks.
"A lot of what's going on is this battle where the emotions are pushing us to respond in a way that would give us quick release but would have all sorts of long-term consequences," Dr. Lowenstein said.
In fact, studies show that once awakened, fear and other emotions heighten people's reactions to other potential hazards. In one study, for example, students shown sad films perceived a variety of risks as more threatening than students who saw emotionally neutral films.
Fear can also spread from person to person, resulting in wild rumors and panic.
One example often cited by sociologists who study collective behavior is the so-called Seattle windshield pitting epidemic, which occurred in 1954, a time when cold war fears ran high and the United States was testing the hydrogen bomb.
That year, tiny holes in car windshields were noticed in Bellingham, Wash., north of Seattle. A week later, similar pitting was seen by residents of towns south of Bellingham. Soon, people in Seattle and all over the state were reporting mysterious damage to their windshields. Many speculated that fallout from the H- bomb tests was the cause. Others blamed cosmic rays from the sun. At the height of the panic, the mayor of Seattle even called President Dwight D. Eisenhower for help.
But eventually, a more mundane explanation revealed itself: In the usual course of events, people did not examine their windshields that closely. The holes, pits and dings turned out to be a result of normal wear and tear, which few had noticed until it was drawn to their attention.
The antidote to such fears, psychologists say, is straightforward information from trustworthy sources.
"Trustworthiness has two elements," said Dr. Baruch Fischhoff, a psychologist in Carnegie Mellon's department of social and decision sciences. "One is honesty and the other is competence."
Attempts by the authorities to use persuasion often fall flat, Dr. Fischhoff said, because "if people feel they have to peel away the agenda of the communicator in order to understand the content of the message, that's debilitating."
"Give me the facts in a comprehensible way, and leave it to me to decide what's right for me," he said.
Yet what psychologists can say with some certainty is that, if no further attacks occur in the near future, people's fears are likely to fade quickly - even faster than the fearful themselves would predict.
Studies suggest, Dr. Gilbert said, that "people underestimate their resilience and adaptiveness."
"We have remarkable both psychological and physiological mechanisms to adapt to change," he said. "I guarantee you that in six months whatever New Yorkers are feeling will seem pretty normal to them, even if it is not exactly what they were feeling before."http://www.nytimes.com/2001/10/02/he...4f28363360ed5e
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company