Terrorism and Irrational Fear

Why is terrorism so frightening? After all, if you just look at the numbers, being blown-up on an airplane is far less likely than dying in a car crash on the way to the grocery store. A Cato report makes this abundantly clear:

In almost all years, the total number of people worldwide who die at the hands of international terrorists anywhere in the world is not much more than the number who drown in bathtubs in the United States.

And yet there is no Department of Bathtub Security. Obviously, America is dealing with an enemy that would stop at nothing to murder us. Mass killing is their objective. And yet it's also important to not let our irrational fear provoke us into making spectacular strategic blunders. Good decision making begins with a reasonable assesment of threats:

It would seem to be reasonable for those in charge of our safety to inform the public about how many airliners would have to crash before flying becomes as dangerous as driving the same distance in an automobile. It turns out that someone has made that calculation: University of Michigan transportation researchers Michael Sivak and Michael Flannagan, in an article last year in American Scientist, wrote that they determined there would have to be one set of September 11 crashes a month for the risks to balance out. More generally, they calculate that an American's chance of being killed in one nonstop airline flight is about one in 13 million (even taking the September 11 crashes into account). To reach that same level of risk when driving on America's safest roads -- rural interstate highways -- one would have to travel a mere 11.2 miles.

But I still haven't answered my original question. Why does the possibility of hooded fundamentalists give us national nightmares? Why are we so petrified of a few dozen Islamic lunatics?

A big part of the answer, I think, lies in a paper published in Science in December 2005 by Colin Camerer, a neuroeconomist at Cal-Tech. His experiment revolved around a decision making game known as the Ellsberg paradox. The game itself is simple. A player is asked to decide between two different gambles, each represented by a deck of twenty cards. One deck is composed of 10 red and 10 black cards, while another deck has 20 cards with an unknown mixture of red and black (this is known as the "ambiguous" deck). Players are asked to bet on one of the decks and choose a color. If the chosen color is drawn, the player wins $10.

Classical economics assumes that people will bet equally on the two different decks. Since we have no idea what mixture of cards the "ambiguous" deck contains, we should just assume that it's split fifty-fifty. Of course, this isn't what happens; people are naturally scared of what they don't know. When Camerer played this game with experimental subjects, they almost always chose the known gamble over the unknown gamble. Furthermore, Camerer could see why players were so averse to the unknown. By monitoring their brains using fMRI, he could detect the specific regions activated by the two different decks of cards.

Camerer discovered that, contrary to the predictions of classical economics, gambles in which the stakes were unknown lead to increased activity in the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex, both of which are involved in the production of fear. To see whether this fear was responsible for their avoidance of the unknown gambles, Camerer also tested patients with lesioned orbitofrontal cortices. (These patients are unable to generate and detect emotions.) Sure enough, because these patients couldn't feel fear, they showed no bias for either deck of cards. Because of their debilitating brain injury, they behaved perfectly rationally.

But the public isn't so rational. We are scared of the dark. As Camerer recently told me, "People are especially frightened by the prospect of terrorist attacks. Why? Statistics show that you are far more likely to die in a car accident or by a heart-attack. But we have no idea what the probability of a terrorist attack is, and that frightens us."

I just wish our leaders could see past this mass hysteria, instead of egging it on. I'm not sure anybody benefits when politicians brag about preventing "mass death on an unimaginable scale". What we need is another F.D.R, a leader brave enough to tell us that we have nothing to fear but fear itself.


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Early maps often had monsters drawn on the edges, presumably to signify the fear of the unknown.

I've often said that we would save more lives with tougher enforcement of existing traffic laws, than with an antiterrorism campaign. So I agree with your premises.

Having said that, I do think there is more to it than fear of unknown, unquantifiable risks. For some people, to be a victim is to be insulted. They cannot stand the idea of being made to look weak. I can't prove it, but I think that much of the emphasis on preventing terrorism has to do with pride, not a rational assessment of risk.

The research is interesting of course, but your attempt to connect it to sociological phenomena is misguided. Well, not mis-guided, as the intents are good enough, but not scientific.

People are afraid of terrorism because there is an actual agency behind the acts. There really is a boogey man who if given the chance to push a button and kill 10 million Americans, would do it. He has said as much.

There is no car-accident madman who would press a button to cause 10 million deaths. And there is no such button (the image of a single universal seat-belt releasing button comes to mind, but it's laughable).

Being afraid of an event with a high casualty figure (a few buttons being pushed) over thousands, no millions of *independent* and uncoordinatable events (car crashes) makes perfect sense. The chance of all those car crashes occuring together to cause 10 million deaths is so much tinier than the probability of a single group coordinating their actions toward a single goal.

Independent events occuring together are just less likely than a series of dependent events - they only have to dependent on one casaul event. The chance of billions of cells coordinating to move to another room, is trivially small. But my dog moves around the house all the time. Should you be more afraid of that dog pooping on your yard and causing a stench more than the effects of a billion bacteria doing the same?

We are a social species after all, so sexual selection and resource competition is what we ought to be afraid of, more so than things either under our control (health-related heart attacks) or completely not under our control (predispositioned heart attacks). The intentions of competitors matter. It makes sense for humans to factor them into their fear. Fear is a good, natural, healthy thing when in balance - surely FDR would not want the whole country to go into a 'no fear' manic phase?

Why argue so much with evolution - seems our brains are highly evolved to be afraid of the things which are endangering us. Sure they swing toward hysteria at times. And to complacency at others. But being afraid of people with desires and chemicals to blow up airplanes - any airplane - doesn't seem extreme to me.

Of course, many factors account for our fear of terrorism. But no matter how look at it, the fear of being blown up in an airplane is irrational. It may be a valid fear - rationality is no guarantee of good decision making - but it remains irrational, since it's so statistically unlikely. But if rationality isn't driving our fear then what is? I think Camerer's experiment sheds some light on this question. When we have no way of estimating the probability of being blown up - the deck is ambiguous, so to speak - our amygdala becomes hyperactive. Being scared of what we don't know might be beneficial - I can invent all sorts of adaptive explanations - but I'm not convinced that it makes for good foreign policy.

Terrorist attacks and car accidents don't share the same scrutiny. If the USA suffers another attack, people will blame the gov't for not preventing it. People never blame the gov't for not taking action to prevent car accidents. People do blame the gov't for the Katrina aftermath.

Singular, big events are considered more important, even though what you may call 'the long tail' wreaks more havoc. Which is why there are not many movies where the protagonist saves a million people over the course of thirty years.

Btw, I am not a mathematician, but I think the explanation for the card game is slightly wrong. You don't assume that the cards in the unknown deck are 10r/10b. If you were told the cards were 15r/5b, you would choose red more often. Not knowing, you can't choose red any more often than black, therefore you choose red 50% of the time. Thus, knowing that the cards are 10r/10b is the same as not knowing anything about them at all (wild guess here: the information theoretic amount of information could be the same).

So, not knowing anything about the cards, I must make sure that I choose red exactly 50% of the time. Why bother with that while I can just pick from the perfectly 10r/10b deck?

What we need is another F.D.R, a leader brave enough to tell us that we have nothing to fear but fear itself.

I was thinking exactly that earlier today. I went on a rant about this latest terror scare (I suspect it'll turn out to be as big a wash as that "Chicago" plot by a bunch of jokers in Florida who didn't have the resources to blow up their local 7/11, nevermind the Sears Tower.), and I mentioned how I really, really wish somebody would stand up and point out the fear that motivates our reactions to these events. I want somebody in the public eye to stand up and ask a very simple question of the US administration: "Why do you want us to be afraid?"

Because there's no reason to be afraid of this. I look back to the London bombings of last year. Now that was scary. I mean, not everybody worked in the WTC and not everybody flies, but we all take the bus or the subway at some point. In terms of "that could have been me", the London bombings were way scarier than Sept. 11, despite the lack of body count. But were Londoners scared? Hell, no! They even started a website about it. In London, in Madrid, in Indonesia, even in Israel none of these people are afraid of terrorism. Only in America! I don't think it's because Americans are a weaker people. Or at least I'd like that not to be the case. But it's very clear to me that the people in power, not just Bush and co. but the whole establishment, want us to be afraid. And I think that's the biggest indictment of contemporary US politics -- or any government -- it's possible to draw.

We really need somebody with clout, somebody people listen to, to stand up and say, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." And we especially needed that on Sept. 11. But we didn't get that then, and nobody's offering it now. It's so sad.

zoopy makes a good point, I think. This isn't as much about ambiguity as it is a lack of control. My understanding is that people underestimate the risk of car crashes because everyone thinks their own excellent driving skills will save them. It can't be so where people have no control. I would think there are some studies about this, maybe even with neuroimaging.

It's not just terrorism where politicians pretend to protect people, but also the economy plus who knows how many bad things would happen if "they" got their way, the ones "we" want to protect you from. God and politicians get credit when they don't deserve it and blame likewise. It would take quite an intellect to see past that completely.

Emotions shouldn't be dismissed just because they are irrational. They reflect values that are real. I would rather have the pain that's in my shoulder right now for the rest of my life than risk going up on my roof and breaking my leg. My emotions tell me I can tolerate the former well enough, and while I'd manage with the latter, the uncertain risk makes it worth something to me to hire someone else to go up on my roof. People who ignore such emotions wind up doing things just as stupid as those who pay no attention to their intellect. We can integrate everything we are. It's hard to prove that's better than dismissing part of ourselves, but my experience keeps going toward integration being better.

Joshua: I think your comparison of national responses supports Jonah's contention: the people of Britain, Spain, Indonesia and Israel have all had to deal with terrorism for a long time, but Americans haven't. That makes the "first time" more psychologically devastating, because it's a switch from a known state to an unknown one.

Joshue: I think it is naive to say that the people of london, madrid or israel are not scared. I know personally people that are scared. Ironically, New Yorkers (i live in new york and was here during 9/11) seem less scared than the rest of America. But there is a difference between being scared, and being overwhelmed by your fear.

Still, I agree that the US and the UK have completely misallocated resources. There is a problem with terrorism and the apparently growing hatred of the Western way of life in Muslim countries. The only long term solution is education. Instead, the 'coalition' has created a 13th Crusade with 21st century technology.

Regarding the Camerer study, it does not show that people are irrational , just that they are averse to ambiguity. We should be able to test exactly how averse they are. For example, would you prefer to be shocked every second for 20 seconds, or 10 times randomly in 20 seconds? By doing experiments like this we can get a quantitative measure of our aversion to temporal ambiguity (knowing when something will happen).

jerlich: London returned to normality quickly; witness the thousands who wait in line to board the delayed planes at London airports. These are not reactions of a scared population showing signs of mass confusion. I believe the public response to these - and the others you mention - highlight the different perspectives which are operating within western societies; that of the political elite and that of the public. Here I agree with Jonah. The political elites divorce from society, coupled with its own belief that something must be seen to be done, does not make for good domestic or foreign policy.

We have nothing to fear but the Bush Administration itself.

As a supporter of Israel, I witnessed this type of fear during the recent intifada. Americans in great numbers stopped visiting Israel, although no tourist was ever injured or killed. When I visited there last year I was advised not to ride any buses, although thousands of Israelis ride buses every day, and there were only a few bus bombings in the 5 year period of terror attacks. I came to believe that the irrational fear derived from the fact that terror attacks are deliberate killings, while a car accident is an accident, no matter how many or few people are killed in each. Remember the Washington, D.C. sniper attacks of a couple of years ago and the enormous fear they engendered. It's not just the helplessness of being a victim of such a crime; there's something particularly unnerving about knowing that there is someone out there who wants to kill me and may strike at any time.

Firstly to zoopy: "Why argue so much with evolution..."
The assumption is that it is ingrained into our phiological constrution. Which fear is. But what is not biological is the trigger for the fear. The trigger is learnt. We are taught what to be afraid of as much as a deer to run and a lion to hunt.

It is not that it is a physiological condition, but rather at a level above, where the "governing conceptions" define the cultural conditions.

Kooray: "Btw, I am not a mathematician..."
Clearly you know something about maths ;)

Judy: "...there's something particularly unnerving about knowing that there is someone out there who wants to kill me..."

It sounds like there is a plot against specifically you. The ease with which we shift spatial/statistical perspectives to being personal "motivation" frame is definately a facter here.

Bob...maybe you should learn how to spell before you start criticizing others' arguments with your well-educated and highly informed opinions.