david_g_myers's picture
Professor of Psychology, Hope College; Co-author, Psychology, 11th Edition
Why do we fear the wrong things?


A mountain of research shows that our fears modestly correlate with reality. With images of September 11th lingering in their mind's eye, many people dread flying to Florida for Spring break, but will instead drive there with confidence — though, mile per mile, driving during the last half of the 1990s was 37 times more dangerous than flying.

Will yesterday's safety statistics predict the future? Even if not, terrorists could have taken down 50 more planes with 60 passengers each and — if we'd kept flying — we'd still have been ended last year safer on commercial flights than on the road. Flying may be scary, but driving the same distance should be many times scarier.

Our perilous intuitions about risks lead us to spend in ways that value some lives hundreds of times more than other lives. We'll now spend tens of billions to calm our fears about flying, while subsidizing tobacco, which claims more than 400,000 lives a year.

It's perfectly normal to fear purposeful violence from those who hate us. But with our emotions now calming a bit, perhaps it's time to check our fears against facts. To be prudent is to be mindful of the realities of how humans suffer and die.


(To see my question developed — and answered — please click here).