“Whatever the threat of the season is can ‘crowd out’ concern about other threats even if those other threats are actually more dangerous,” Van Boven said. “Because we are so emotionally influenced when it comes to assessing and reacting to threats, we may ignore very dangerous threats that happen not to be very emotionally arousing.”
Human emotions stem from a very old system in the brain, Van Boven says. When it comes to reacting to threats, real or exaggerated, it goes against the grain of thousands of years of evolution to just turn off that emotional reaction. It’s not something most people can do, he said.
“And that’s a problem, because people’s emotions are fundamental to their judgments and decisions in everyday life,” Van Boven said. “When people are constantly being bombarded by new threats or things to be fearful of, they can forget about the genuinely big problems, like global warming, which really need to be dealt with on a large scale with public support.”
In today’s 24-hour society, talk radio, the Internet and extensive media coverage of the “threat of the day” only exacerbate the trait of focusing on our immediate emotions, he said.
“One of the things we know about how emotional reactions work is they are not very objective, so people can get outraged or become fearful of what might actually be a relatively minor threat,” Van Boven said. “One worry is some people are aware of these kinds of effects and can use them to manipulate our actions in ways that we may prefer to avoid.”
The study, which involved undergraduate students as subjects, was published in the August edition of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Michaela Huber, a doctoral student of psychology and neuroscience at CU-Boulder and Assistant Professor Katherine White of the University of Calgary co-authored the study.
Not too long ago it was that habit, that still persist to some extent to claim that being in Iraq and the ensuing American casualties were not a big deal because our national murder rate was higher then occupation casualties. That also happened to be an argument for not being in Iraq as it was, through the prism of U.S. crime statistics a relatively safe place. Statistically speaking the U.S. murder rate is relatively low on a per capita basis, but fears of crime still fuel some heated debate about funding for law enforcement and our penal system among others connected issues. Drunk drivers will kill more people then terrorists this year. Yet the hyperbolic language and behavior associated with the national debate about how to deal with non-state sponsored terror is still high in comparison to the one about dealing with drunk drivers, who actually kill more Americans. Lack of health insurance will kill 45,000 U.S. citizens this year, but not so much ironically as sadly, many people will still get angrier over the number of people killed one day in September in 2001. If we were in a sci-fi movie in which we could have an out of body experience, look down as objectively as possible, ask ourselves about the bottom line – what policies saves more lives – we would not do away with fighting terrorism, but put it better perspective. The way our brains handle risk assessment was probably great a few thousand years ago when we scanned the horizons evaluating that dangers that lurked in the distance, but in today’s world evaluating risks with a Neanderthal like approach is like still running Windows 3.1 with 32 MB of RAM.