The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn't--and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger

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From terror attacks to the war on terror, real estate bubbles to the price of oil, sexual predators to poisoned food from China, our list of fears is ever-growing. And yet, we are the safest and healthiest humans in history. Irrational fear seems to be taking over, often with tragic results. For example, in the months after 9/11, when people decided to drive instead of fly—believing they were avoiding risk—road deaths rose by more than 1,500.

In this fascinating, lucid, and thoroughly entertaining examination of how humans process risk, journalist Dan Gardner had the exclusive cooperation of Paul Slovic, the world renowned risk-science pioneer, as he reveals how our hunter gatherer brains struggle to make sense of a world utterly unlike the one that made them. Filled with illuminating real world examples, interviews with experts, and fast-paced, lean storytelling, The Science of Fear shows why it is truer than ever that the worst thing we have to fear is fear itself.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Gardner, a columnist and senior writer for the Ottawa Citizen, is both matter-of-fact and entertaining in this look at fear and how it shapes our lives. Although we are capable of reason, says Gardner, we often rely instead on intuitive snap judgments. We also assume instinctively, but incorrectly, that "[i]f examples of something can be recalled easily, that thing must be common." And what is more memorable than headlines and news programs blaring horrible crimes and diseases, plane crashes and terrorist attacks? In fact, such events are rare, but their media omnipresence activates a gut-level fear response that is out of proportion to the likelihood of our going through such an event. It doesn't help that scientific data and statistics are often misunderstood and misused and that our risk assessment is influenced less by the facts than by how others respond. Gardner's vivid, direct style, backed up by clear examples and solid data from science and psychology, brings a breath of fresh air and common sense to an emotional topic. (June)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
Entertaining, often jolting account of why trivial risks terrify us, even as we engage in wildly dangerous activities with hardly a qualm. Horrified by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many Americans stopped flying. Because of this, an additional 1,500 died in auto accidents the following year; none died in plane crashes. Most Americans know flying is safer than driving. In fact, writes Ottawa Citizen contributor Gardner in this lively account of why humans fear the wrong things, if terrorists hijacked and crashed one plane a week in the United States, flying would still be far safer. Yet in the more than six years since 9/11 our leaders and the media continue to trumpet the horrors of domestic terrorism-total American deaths it's caused since 2001: zero-while no presidential candidate would dare warn us off an activity that's killed more than 200,000 during the same time period. Using examples from everyday life and elucidating with ingenious psychological studies, the author explains why utterly irrational fears come naturally. He strips our approach to frightening events into "head" (reason) and "gut" (emotion), making it clear that gut rules and gut is immune to facts, statistics and common sense. Studies show that gut loves the illusion of control: Drivers of cars rarely feel helpless; not so airline passengers. Familiarity soothes gut. It's almost impossible to make Americans worry about mass killers like diabetes and obesity, but dramatic, extremely rare maladies like mad-cow disease, West Nile virus and Ebola and fill the media and make us nervous. Intensely patriotic, gut turns up its nose at foreign fears. Americans chuckle at the European panic over genetically engineered food,while Europeans scratch their heads at the American obsession with the dangers of nuclear power. Readers may squirm to learn the sheer silliness of so many of their fears. They will squirm again to realize that, despite this knowledge, those fears will persist.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780525950622
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/17/2008
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Daniel Gardner is a columnist and senior writer for The Ottawa Citizen . He has received numerous awards for his writing, including Amnesty International's Media Award and the Michener Award.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: 1,595     1
Prehistoric Refugee     5
Of Two Minds     18
The Death of Homo economicus     32
The Emotional Brain     59
A Story About Numbers     87
The Herd Senses Danger     102
Fear Inc.     125
All the Fear That's Fit to Print     155
Crime and Perception     182
The Chemistry of Fear     218
Terrified of Terrorism     246
There's Never Been a Better Time to Be Alive     289
Notes     305
Bibliography     325
Acknowledgments     329
Index     331
About the Author     341
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 13 of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 15, 2010

    The Science of fear.

    This is a great book for anybody interested in psychology, politics, management, or just being a human being. The author goes into depth discussing how easily society is manipulated by fear. The book discusses this topic from a biological, evolutionary, psychological, and chemical standpoint. He shows the causes and effects of the fears we deal with every day. He shows how low risk threats control us while we ignore the threats that are really damaging our lives. The author is very insightful and does a good job of approaching this for a neutral standpoint. This is a very good book and could be in anybody's library.

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  • Posted May 14, 2010

    We should not really fear what we think we should!

    I gained a lot from this book. We are afraid of so many things when really the risk of these happening is so minute relative to any other day to day event, that we lose focus. Right now we are so focused on terrorism yet these are such rare acts it diverts the attention away from pending crises such as obesity and poverty, where huge numbers of people suffer. I certainly viewed the world differently after reading this book and dont generally watch the evening news any more. Count how many stories actually have anything positive to say...doom, gloom, death, murder, disease, and terrorism all sell. Is it any wonder that we are more stressed in our lives?!

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  • Posted December 20, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Science of Fear is a dispassionate examination of how our hunter gatherer evolved brains based react to fear, and how we use fear to manipulate ourselves and others about crime, cancer, pollution, radiation, terrorism, etc.

    By any and all measures, we actually live in the safest and healthiest time of human history, yet many of us are more fearful than ever before. Furthermore, we tend to fear highly improbable things?such as terrorist attacks or shark attacks? while calmly taking personal risks that are thousands of times more dangerous?such as driving instead of flying after 9/11 which probably added 1595 highway deaths to the impact of that attack.
    What gives? Daniel Gardner incorporates the latest scientific research to answer this question. He starts with the biological and evolutionary nature of our brains. They are optimized for hunter gatherer societies of small tribes in which immediate and viscerally experiences of threats and opportunities are coupled with herd like reactions. They are poorly equipped to deal with the indirect threats and opportunities ones and statistical evidence of modern society. On top of that, those who provide us the information that replaces visceral experience pre-filter that information through their own poorly equipped brains. Some of them try to be accurate, but many realize that fear makes stories more interesting, attracts a larger audience and motivates action. They are encouraged by this to exaggerate fear related stories while ignoring the more difficult to communicate "good news" or honest facts.
    Fear sells, perhaps even more effectively than sex! Even the well intentioned people use unjustified fear to promote worthy causes as Gardner illustrates with familiar case studies!
    Gardner discusses the issues of crime, chemical pollution, cancer, and terrorism and compares the best statistical evidence of how significant they are to our personal and national lives against the best statistical measurements of what people believe about them. The dramatic differences between reality and belief on these issues has wasted vast resources and emotional energy on relatively minor causes while leaving many major, every day threats virtually untouched.
    In spite of its title this is a fascinating and hopeful book; not a fearful one. Gardner includes tools that enable us, as individuals, to better assess our personal situations, minimize our unrealistic fears, filter fear biased information and effectively address the more significant threats and opportunities we face.
    To quote from conclusions on page 294 of the book: "So why is it that so many of the safest humans in history are scared of their own shadows? There are three basic components at work: the brain, the media, and many individuals and organizations with an interest in stoking fears. Wire these three components together in a loop and we have the circuitry of fear."
    This book has improved my understanding of our total over-reaction to 9/11 and what keeps our irrational fears of terrorism shaping feel-good but non-productive responses such as our continued military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Prior to reading the book, I was tempted to chalk these actions up to stupidity and juvenile behavior on the part of George Bush, Dick Cheney and company. Those were triggering factors, but not the sustaining ones.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 6, 2009

    great book, very enlightening

    This book does a great job explaining how the media has programmed us all to be completely irrational in ways in which we thought we were rational. <BR/><BR/>This is a must read book for anyone with a vote. This will change the way you consume the news and will require you demand more from your news sources. <BR/><BR/>This book will also help you analyze everyday decisions you make in your life that you could be making for the exact wrong reasons.

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