What Are We Afraid Of? Why we tend to worry about the wrong things--and why knowing more about life's real risks can help
(MONEY Magazine) – On a July afternoon 16 years ago, I put down a magazine that I'd been leafing through and gazed out of an airplane window. I was at 31,000 feet and halfway through a London-to-Newark flight; outside a few soft clouds and a dreamy blue sky reached out to the horizon. Somewhere far off I could see another plane like ours--not much more than a speck, really--cruising at what seemed to be about the same speed and altitude.
From this point on my memory gains a cinematic clarity. The other jet, at first many miles away, flew closer, and then closer still. I could soon see it was a Delta Airlines plane, and that it was flying at precisely our level but on a different, almost perpendicular, flight path. It was coming closer. And closer. And then it was coming almost impossibly close. I suddenly understood that it was going to collide with our 747--there was just no way around it--and for a moment I felt a rush of pure screaming terror before my mind switched into automatic survival mode. For some reason I didn't think much about the fireball resulting from two passenger planes intersecting at 600 mph. I worried instead that the Atlantic Ocean would be cold and choppy and that swimming would be difficult.
Then at the last possible instant--the last fraction of a fraction of a second--the other plane steered below ours, creating a massive and turbulent air bump. The next day's New York Times reported that the Delta flight, which was having navigational trouble, may have missed our Continental plane "by as little as 100 feet." I didn't think this was true at the time, and I still don't. I am certain the two jets passed within 50 feet. Or maybe as close as 15 feet.
I hope you're not reading this essay on an airplane. I don't bring up my own near miss to play on anyone's fears of an increasingly fearsome world. Rather, I hope I can help do the opposite. This unlikely incident--which triggered an FAA investigation--actually illustrates a great deal about the way we process anxiety and perceive risk. And as Americans enter a second year of profound economic and physical uncertainty, knowing even a little more about risk and anxiety may prove invaluable.
By the time you read this, the U.S. will be engaged in an invasion of Iraq that may have complex and unforeseen consequences. Threats of terrorism at home go hand in hand with new worries about job security, the stock market, health-care costs and retirement planning. Still, just as the stories in the pages that follow show that there are a multitude of ways to protect your family, there are also a multitude of ways to combat those feelings of vulnerability. First, it may help to think about what you're afraid of, and why.
And after that, it couldn't hurt to consider something else. Is the risk you worry about really the risk you should be afraid of?
FEAR, ANXIETY AND RISK
In a new MONEY poll, we asked a panel of subscribers to gauge their level of personal worry about the political and economic issues facing the United States today. Fifty-five percent of the respondents said they were extremely worried or very worried; another 39% said they were somewhat worried. Given current domestic and international tensions, these high percentages may not seem surprising, but to me they're quite striking. If nothing else, they offer hard proof that we feel we're living in a dangerous place, and at a very dangerous time.
Recently, I spoke with a number of leading psychologists who study how people react to risk and anxiety. Many readers of the magazine may be familiar with some of this research through Jason Zweig's writing, which has often explored why our brains lead us to make certain financial decisions, and certain financial mistakes, over and over again. Those same choices and misperceptions about money apply to the way our nervous systems filter and interpret the whole world of danger and threats.
It's helpful to understand that when we tell stories by the water cooler we describe feelings of unease with far less precision than do people who study this stuff for a living. For instance, fear is a feeling that has an object--in other words, a feeling of being afraid of a particular thing. On the other hand, anxiety is a more generalized emotion about what might happen, or what could happen, or a bad turn of events that might be cosmic and imminent.
One key to understanding both these responses, of course, is the concept of risk: the probability that something will happen that will have adverse consequences. According to University of Oregon professor Paul Slovic, arguably this country's leading researcher on risk perception, part of the complexity of risk is that we can experience it automatically, as a fight-or-flight response like I felt on the airplane, for instance. Yet we can also deal with it as a calculated analytical decision, much as we might when we buy a stock or a home. And we can experience it both ways simultaneously. Think about this when you sign a mortgage or loan agreement; you've crunched the numbers and decided you can afford it, yet something deep down tells you to worry. In my own life, it wasn't until I started flying again after the near-miss incident that I started to experience risk in both its analytical and gut-wrenching dimensions. The questions came up every time I flew for work or vacation: Should I get on this plane when I have a bad feeling about it? Why must I get butterflies every time we hit turbulence? Is there any possibility that this time a crash really will occur?
We have a great many common tendencies when confronted with risk. We're inclined to be more frightened by new threats, for instance, such as terrorism, than by old ones such as tobacco. That's why the past few years have presented some remarkable material for risk researchers, as new worries--the stock bubble, West Nile Virus, Al Qaeda, anthrax and the D.C. sniper--have grown and receded in relatively quick succession. "The world has always been dangerous," says Slovic; "we just rearrange the dangers." Long ago we had dread diseases like plague and polio, he points out. Now we have AIDS, Alzheimer's and deadly strains of pneumonia from China.
And yet, it isn't mere novelty that we dread. George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, explains that we tend to be more frightened by threats that could have spectacular and dramatic consequences (terrorism again) than something familiar that is, statistically speaking, probably more risky (say, a diet heavy in fried foods). We're likely to be more disturbed by imposed risks (an oblivious driver in the next lane talking on a cellular phone) than a risk we choose (talking on a cell phone ourselves while driving). Then there's the issue of control. Because driving gives us the feeling, or at least the illusion, of control, we prefer it to flying, though it is actually far more dangerous.
Above all, says Paul Slovic, it's helpful to remember that human beings often react to possibility rather than probability. This may be the essential lesson of risk in modern life, or at least of life in America in 2003. A child abduction and a bioterror threat are not frightening because they are likely to happen--they are in fact very, very unlikely. At the same time, the chances are good that if any of these things do occur, the results will be horrifying. I know this firsthand. After all, if two jets could almost collide midway over the Atlantic--a statistical probability so small as to be infinitesimal--couldn't anything be possible?
POSSIBILITY VS. PROBABILITY
If you're wondering about how this sort of perception (or misperception) of risk defines our everyday anxieties, try a simple experiment. Take a sheet of paper and list your top five fears. There's a good chance that some of them will be terrible but not highly risky in terms of probability. And I would wager that some of the riskiest things around--food poisoning, solar radiation and auto accidents--aren't even on it.
This gets to an essential truth about risk: We're often far too concerned about lesser risks that are new and dramatic, and not concerned enough about greater risks that are everpresent and ordinary. Again, that's not necessarily our fault; it's our biological and psychological tendency, as Slovic and a number of other researchers have discovered. And yet that tendency may be exacerbated by a new climate of uncertainty in which our worries about personal security are compounded by our worries about financial security. Not only does the world seem threatening--so do the markets. "The question of whether we're overreacting doesn't have an obvious answer," says Slovic. "We're in a unique situation. There are a lot of things going on. We're in the midst of an experiment in seeing people's ability to cope."
What can we do? Psychologist David Barlow, author of Anxiety and Its Disorders and the director of the Center for Anxiety at Boston University, suggests some proven anxiety remedies. One is to seek interpersonal support--through family, church groups or the like--to share some of your concerns. Another is to avoid the sometimes paralyzing effects of fear and to act. "Anything we can do that will give us the sense that we can control or cope with the threat is going to make us feel better," he says. That's why orange terror alerts in the absence of a federal emergency plan have induced panic. Duct tape, while most likely ineffective as a defense, offers some measure of control. We're willing to start a stampede in Home Depot because many of us, by our very nature, like to respond to danger with action.
Of course, action has its own risks. What you do may be ineffective or may even compound the problem. That's why researchers suggest making a realistic assessment of your risk, which is actually easier than it sounds. There are a number of good resources on risk perception and analysis; one of the most comprehensive is Risk, a recent book by David Ropeik and George Gray of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. "We cannot undo the biology of fear perception," Ropeik told me, "but we can counteract it with facts so that part of our reaction is information-based and rational." His book offers a guide for deciding what is safe and what is dangerous, and some of the facts--about the likelihood of medical error or household accidents--may change the way you live, or at least the way you think. As George Loewenstein explains, anxiety may lead us to buy an expensive home alarm system to protect our kids when we haven't taken the time or care to install their car seats correctly. An enlightened perspective on risk might not only help you psychologically, it might help your family statistically too.
Even in the face of good information, our primitive wiring may force us to look past probability toward dire possibility. But for me, knowing the risks of flying has offered some calming perspective. And a familiarity with risk analysis has shown me why driving to the store on a rainy night to buy organic milk and eggs makes no statistical sense. (Sure, the milk might have fewer toxins--but that ride might kill me!) My point here is not that you should always avoid the big risk and take on the small one. It's that you can be risk-sensitive without being risk-averse. This can mean the difference between living in the world and retreating from it. And that's why we suggest, in the following pages, sensible things you can do now to enhance your family's household and financial security.
Not long ago Baruch Fischhoff, a leading risk researcher at Carnegie Mellon, was invited to Israel for a party in honor of Daniel Kahneman, the Israeli-born psychologist who was awarded the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics for his research on decision-making and uncertainty. "I asked my wife if I could go and we talked it through," says Fischhoff. Then he considered the risks. He calculated that the odds of being injured during a weeklong stay would be tiny--perhaps about 1 in 100,000. And that made the choice easy.
Looking back on what turned out to be a terrific week abroad, he sees now that his biggest fear wasn't what he expected. Bus bombs? Political unrest? No. "Once I got there," says Fischhoff, "I was more anxious about giving a talk in Hebrew than about being injured."
This realization explains a few final things worth knowing about risk. First, there will almost always be a new fear to replace an old one. Second, Fischhoff's fears led him to take extra precautions when he traveled and extra care when he prepared his speech. Which is perhaps another way of saying that our worrying does indeed have a purpose. That's how we survive.