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.